A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone

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A Black Theology of Liberation Summary

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

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1,367 words.)