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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303

For James Cone, black theology and liberation are inseparable. Elaborating a Christian theology that depends on the concept of a black Christ means, in part, rejecting the idea that Christianity is separable from involvement in society. He argues convincingly that the church emerged from and has always been concerned with...

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For James Cone, black theology and liberation are inseparable. Elaborating a Christian theology that depends on the concept of a black Christ means, in part, rejecting the idea that Christianity is separable from involvement in society. He argues convincingly that the church emerged from and has always been concerned with the poor and oppressed, and that in late twentieth century America, these features were most concerned with black people’s lives. God is present within the world, not removed from or beyond it. To the author, this theology brings Christians back to the fundamental values of Christ’s teachings.

The book is organized in seven chapters, each one laying out a specific aspect of this theology. Cone begins with an overview of the content of theology. He then turns to the sources and norm: sources are formative factors determining its character, or data, while norm determines how the data will be used. The third chapter takes up the idea of the black Christ, especially in juxtaposition to the white church. Cone argues that for emancipation to be realized, Christ and his church must become black.

Chapter 4 discusses what God means in black theology, noting that black theology understands God as associated with freedom, especially with liberating black people from suffering. Next, Cone turns to what human beings mean in black theology; as God works through human history, he argues, theology is anthropology. Chapter 6 centers on Jesus Christ, with which Christian theology begins and ends. The final chapter is concerned with the church, the world, and eschatology—or the study of death and finality. By church, Cone means a community of people who live out the Gospel, and the world is earthly existence. The book fittingly concludes with his discussion of the results and consequences of black theology for individuals who live it out.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1492

First published: New York: Lippincott, 1970

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Critical analysis; theology

Core issue(s): African Americans; the divine; ethics; faith; Jesus Christ; racism; social action

Overview

In 1970, James H. Cone—who later became Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City—published A Black Theology of Liberation, which features a scathing critique of Western theological traditions and reinterprets the Christian faith and the entire biblical revelation in the light of African Americans’ struggles against oppression and their quest for justice. When it was first published in 1970, A Black Theology of Liberation sparked much controversy and debate within North American theological circles. Since then, it has been lauded as a classic text on which other black and liberation theologians have drawn to construct their own brand of liberation discourse.

Cone’s theological formulations in this work derive from the social conditions of African Americans of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which gave rise to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Cone advanced the revolutionary thesis that Christian theology is not simply a rational inquiry into the nature of the divine but also a study of God’s liberating presence in the world, or of God’s activity on behalf of the oppressed. In seven compact chapters, Cone outlines major elements of this new black theology, imbuing basic Christian doctrines with new meaning. These include the nature and content of Christian theology and its primary sources; God’s ongoing revelation to the world and its connection to biblical writings; the nature of human beings; the concept of divinity (or God); the doctrine of Christology; the role of theology in the world; and the doctrine of eschatology. Throughout the text, Cone argues in a passionate, sometimes angry, tone that the historic and current forms of racism in Western civilization (especially within Christian cultures) mandates a radically new understanding of Christian theology as a theology of liberation from oppression. Some of the general ideas Cone treats in this work were introduced in an earlier one, Black Theology and Black Power (1969). In both, Cone articulates the themes that God is on the side of the oppressed and that Jesus is the quintessential symbol of liberation. A Black Theology of Liberation moves beyond the earlier text in its systematic reworking of the major Christian doctrines based on Cone’s assessment of the experiences of African Americans in North America.

For Cone, a black theology of liberation must have a starting point different from that of traditional Western theology in perspective, content, and style. He unmasks the purported universalism of Eurocentric theology in the United States, pointing to its failure to address the existential, historical realities facing African Americans. He states that white Christian theology is influenced by its social thought and that any social environment functions as a mental grid, deciding what will be considered relevant in a given inquiry. Furthermore, Cone argues, the dominant Western European Christian theology in the United States actually serves the interests of those in power. Thus, in a society where individuals are oppressed because of their blackness, Christian theology must become black theology; that is, it must be a theology through which African Americans can validate their quests for liberation and justice. Cone is also careful to note that the patterns of meaning found in his articulation of black theology are not confined to the experiences of blacks in North America but extend to oppressed communities everywhere, adding that blackness symbolizes oppression and liberation in any society.

Cone identifies key sources for doing black theology, such as the historical and religious experiences of black people in the United States, the revelation of God at work in the black experience, the witness of Scripture, the truth in Jesus Christ, and church tradition. When addressing the black experience, Cone universalizes oppression as the main feature of African American lives, displaying a rhetorical, political discourse that addresses the prevalence and pernicious effects of institutionalized racism in the daily lives of African Americans. In his discussion of black liturgy or worship, another key source, Cone speaks of the sermon as the proclamation of Gospel disclosed in black idiom, and of prayer as rejection of whites’ religious outlook initiated by slaves. Furthermore, Cone introduces the notion of hymns or songs as singing the “truth” as lived by the people. Cone’s black theology of liberation includes other aspects of black experience as important theological sources: namely, folklore, humor, the blues, the narratives of slaves’ and ex-slaves’ triumphs and defeats, and the black literary tradition.

With this new theological approach, Cone asserts that one’s social and historical context decides not only questions that communities of faith address to God but also the mode or forms of the answers given to those questions. This epistemological insight has become an important feature of all liberation theologies, whose adherents hold that (theological) ideas do not have a separate existence from life but arise out of a framework of reality constructed by people. Equally important in Cone’s liberation discourse is the primacy given to a certain type of biblical hermeneutics, which emphasizes a God who is not neutral regarding oppressive forces and institutions. The concept of “liberation” is chosen by Cone to augment his religious reflection on the divine-human relationship, which he draws from biblical revelation. Thus, for Cone, the social, a priori basis of black theology is closer to the axiological perspectives of biblical revelation than to traditional white theology because black theology centers attention on a liberating deity who addresses human suffering. For Cone, theology loses its integrity within the North American context when it is abstracted from—or opposed to—God’s will to do justice for the racially oppressed.

Christian Themes

A dimension of Cone’s Christian discourse that warrants attention is his assertion that God must be “black.” Rejecting the very notion of a colorless deity in a society where human beings suffer precisely because of their color, Cone insists that God must be black in order to correlate the truth of divine reality with oppression. Any inkling of God’s connection with the white oppressor contains an implicit approval of their actions. In announcing God’s blackness, Cone is virtually saying that the concept of the divine must not, in any form or symbolic ordering, be intimately associated with the racist-inflected white theology that grounds much of mainstream Christianity in North America.

Closely linked to the provocative theme of a “black God” is Cone’s Christocentric focus. He asserts that the proper subject of black theology is Jesus the Liberator. Cone’s Christological theory views Jesus as the Event of liberation—a monumental happening in the lives of oppressed black peoples seeking freedom from the distortion and sins of racist forces. Cone associates the freedom that Jesus offers with the existential notion of authenticity. In other words, oppressed black bodies are set free to be what they genuinely are, without the harmful distortions promoted by white racism and power. Cone adds that any interpretation of the Gospel that fails to see Jesus as the Liberator of the oppressed is heretical. Accordingly, any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message, and any theological system that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.

Another theme in Cone’s liberation theology that remains provocative is his doctrine of eschatology. Cone rejects what he terms the “white lie” that Christianity is concerned primarily with life in the next world and that God is indifferent to the suffering of the oppressed in this world. His black theology affirms hope for this life—the here and now. Here one sees the usefulness for Cone of European existential philosophy, with its emphasis on the concreteness of human experience and on self-determination. In the final analysis, however, Cone’s theological discourse necessarily parts ways with the humanistic, atheistic veins found in Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialist philosophers, with its unabashedly confessional articulation of an objectively true God who acts in history on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.

Sources for Further Study

  • Burrow, Rufus, Jr. James H. Cone and Black Liberation Theology. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Discusses the significance of Cone’s theological canon, explaining the systematic development of his themes: social and economic analysis, black sexism, and relations between black, feminist, and Third World theologies.
  • Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Orbis Books, 1990. This commemorative edition is enhanced by Cone’s reflections on the evolution of his own religious quest for liberation and by critical essays by other leading liberation theologians.
  • Thomas, Linda E., ed. Living Stones in the Household of God: The Legacy and Future of Black Theology. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2004. Numerous scholars and theologians assess the influence and significance of black theology in the past and for the future. Includes two chapters by Cone.
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