The whirlwind and the lynching tree : apocalyptic and liberation theology in the black Waco tradition.
This dissertation explores the work of theology in terms of discerning the liberative reality of God in history. At the heart of the dissertation is a black oral tradition emerging and circulating in Waco, Texas which claims that an event of sudden climate change—a tornado disaster—striking the city of Waco in 1953 was a sign of divine justice in the aftermath of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington. Historically anchored by this tradition, my concern is two-fold: first, to provide a critical interpretation of this tradition; second, to value its methodological significance as a way of doing theology. I argue that the black Waco tradition displays the power of concrete theological judgment to contest unjust arrangements by speaking of God as acting to overturn them. Drawing upon critical regional and oral histories, disaster studies, and theologies of liberation, I interpret the tradition in terms of its apocalyptic character. In contrast to a retributive hearing, I contend that this interpretation enables an expansive view of the black Waco tradition as speaking of the tornado as an event unveiling divine liberation and catalyzing forms of life beyond plantation power. This dissertation further contends that contemporary patterns of judgment in political theology occlude a real appreciation of such ordinary traditions through the imposition of an abstraction requirement. The effect is an exclusion of the possibilities for construing theological judgment and opposition to unjust social arrangements in concrete terms. Expanding the theological imagination of opposition, I show how the black Waco tradition challenges these patterns through the praxis of naming God in history, what amounts to a configuration of the task of theology as the risk of making first order judgments about where and how God acts for liberation. I argue for an alternative hermeneutics of contestation as articulated in the black Waco tradition and as it makes possible a theological appreciation of other ordinary traditions, popular theologies of liberation, and everyday performances of life.