The Rev. Bill R. Jones passed away last Friday, July 13, 2012. He was about to turn 79 years old. There is an obituary here. I didn’t know him well, though I had the opportunity to meet him a few times in the late 1990s when I was working for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Faith in Action Department. Our office was charged with delivering antiracism training and organizing services to congregations. Though Bill was a Unitarian Universalist minister, he was also a nationally recognized thinker and educator on issues of race and racism in the US. He consulted to our staff on a number of occasions and helped guide us and the UUA in our thinking about antiracism. He also served on the national board of the Unitarian Universalist Association during those years.
One of my first encounters with his work was reading in seminary his controversial 1973 book, Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology. Among other things, this deeply philosophical treatise offered a sharp critique of the black church and what Jones called “pie-in-the-sky” theology. Given human history and, in particular, the ongoing African American experience of oppression in the United States, he questioned whether the idea of an omnibenevolent God made sense for black people. In his view, if such a God exists, He is clearly not on the side of black people. Jones suggested that Christianity ought to be called Whitianity. He challenged the prevailing assumptions of black liberation theology and offered ‘secular humanism’ and ‘humanocentric theism’ as the best theological grounding for black liberation struggle. Ralph Dumain has a helpful review of Is God a White Racist? here.
Bill Jones really wanted his students (and whoever his audience was at any given time) to understand the essence of oppression. In my experience, he was convinced oppression is part of the natural order of things. It exists in the very fabric of reality (my words, not his). I remember a Unitarian Universalist conference on racism held at Meadville Lombard Theological School in the late 1990s. Jones was one of the presenters. He was explaining his approach to understanding oppression. Some in the audience were having a hard time with it, and giving him quite a bit of theological heat. Unitarian Universalists in general have a very positive view of nature and human nature and this view was bumping up hard against Bill’s discussion of inherent, survival-of-the-fittest cruelty. The debate was tense, but Bill felt so strongly about the need to understand what is really going on. He felt there was no possibility of impacting racism in our lifetimes if we didn’t fully understand oppression. In the midst of this heated debate he blurted out a question: “Why do you think I’m saying this?” Suddenly there was silence. And then he answered, “Because I care.” Silence again. A silent witness to a gentle, loving soul. It was an awesome, human moment.
[For a very readible statement of Jones' understanding of oppression and his thinking about racism in our era, see his essay, "A New Paradigm for Uncovering Neo-Racism" in Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue.]
There’s so much more: his academic career, his many awards, his formidable intellect, his service to Unitarian Universalism, his service to the cause of racial justice. He will be missed.
Thank you Bill, for your work, your ministry and your vision. You are certainly among the ancestors now. Though you may not put much stock in it, don’t be surprised if we gather at the river from time to time and call your name.