Black Theology and Black Power Themes
The main themes in Black Theology and Black Power are Christian love as action, oppression and the “chosen people,” and worldly theology.
- Christian love as action: Christian love is the willingness to risk everything for the dignity of others. True Christians, then, must fight for Black freedom.
- Oppression and the “chosen people”: God favors those who are the “least” among people—that is, those who are oppressed—and is thus on the side of Black Power and liberation.
- Worldly theology: Cone shows how White theologians have used a focus on the afterlife in order to suppress the fight for justice in this life.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858
Christian Love as Action
In the New Testament, Christ expressed his love for people as the ultimate act of sacrifice: by dying on the cross and thus ensuring their eternal life. Throughout Black Theology and Black Power, James H. Cone reiterates the importance of this reading of Christ’s love. Love is not a sentiment or merely a way of feeling; it is what one chooses to do every day. Real Christian love implies an element of risk: it demands all of one’s person. In the context of the Black Power struggle, Christian love means joining the fight for the total emancipation of Black Americans. There is no ambiguity about this. In the twentieth century, Christ’s fight is the fight for Black freedom.
Love is the core message of Christianity, so it is a pervasive theme throughout Cone’s book. While Cone does describe God’s love for all people and its liberating power, this kind of love is not his main focus. Instead, Cone wants Christians to know that living in Christ means taking direct action—perhaps even joining a violent rebellion, if necessary—in the fight for justice. Love and conflict are not necessarily at odds with each other in this reading; in fact, in the face of oppression, the only response of Christian love is to fight. Fighting for justice is an act of love, and the fight for justice is where Christians should locate Christ today.
Cone provides the example of the riots in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. A wave of uprisings, involving property destruction and looting, spread across the United States. Law enforcement responded violently to protesters. These riots, according to Cone, were a manifestation of Christian love responding to injustice. By refusing to accept conditions of oppression, the Black Power movement manifests Christian love in its actions.
Oppression and the “Chosen People”
In the Old Testament, the Jewish people are God’s chosen people. Cone writes that their status as an oppressed people is not incidental to their elevated status, but rather central to it. God unambiguously takes the side of the oppressed, according to Cone. The Old Testament contains the story of a freedom struggle, that of Israelite slaves and their eventual deliverance by Yahweh. The freedom struggle in America today is that of Black Americans, and this means that God is on their side—and on the side of Black Power. Cone emphasizes that God is to be found wherever people are struggling for justice, for their inherent human dignity to be recognized. God loves all his people, but in Cone’s view, God fights first and foremost for the “least” among them.
This theme appears throughout Black Theology and Black Power when Cone describes the way Christians must locate Christ working in the world today. For Cone, and for Black theologians more broadly, Christ in America is a Black man, and God is on his side. For all Christians, this means that Christ is in, and of, even the least “respectable” Black freedom fighters—not just in the emblematic Martin Luther King Jr., but also in petty criminals, drug users, and the Black Panthers themselves. Christians must confront their biases and understand that God has chosen those who are most oppressed by the world’s machinations. To be Christian is to stand alongside—and fight for—the “least” among the people, not only those they deem worthy. Christ is in the ghetto, says Cone, or he is nowhere.
Cone makes the case for Christianity as a worldly theology, which means that it is primarily concerned with this world and the present moment, rather than with...
(This entire section contains 858 words.)
heaven or eternity. A worldly theology says that Christians should be concerned with the here and now, knowing that their salvation has already been granted by a forgiving God. Christians shouldn’t fight for justice in their communities because they expect a great reward, but because it is the task of anyone who is faithful in Christ.
Cone describes the way that White missionaries manipulated eschatology (the theological term for death and the end times) to their advantage: life on earth was insignificant, they told Black communities, because obedient servants could expect a reward after death. White slave owners could use this rhetoric to prevent slaves from resisting; Cone notes that many of the earliest Black church hymns were about the freedom that could only be obtained in death. By shifting importance away from the conditions of this world, eschatology became another tool of oppression.
Instead, knowing that they are saved by grace, Christians should be freedom fighters in this world. Cone writes that “black theology has hope for this life.” Rather than accepting the conditions of subjugation and violence, Black Christians must fight for better lives now. Christians are acting in Christ when they seek to serve their neighbors and embrace Blackness. Cone says that placing all hope in the next life is a dismissal of Black life today, as well as a tool of the oppressors to maintain power. Black theology says that freedom can be won in the present if Christians fight for it.