Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

James Cone’s call for a new vision of Christianity was provocative when published in the 1970s and has had a lasting influence. To make Christianity truly representative of all peoples, he insists, religious leaders must acknowledge the relationship between God, Christ, and human beings in all their diversity. This includes the possible concept of God and Christ as black. In part, this means exploring how liberation theology, which calls attention to social problems and the role of religion in solving them, can address the needs of African American people. Underlying any social movement, Cone shows, is a renewed understanding of the role of Jesus as the ultimate symbol of the oppressed and their liberation.

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Refuting the idea that religion is colorblind, Cone shows traditional Christian theology as embedded in whiteness, both in its presentation of images of God and Jesus and in the types of concerns on which theologians have generally concentrated. By ignoring race, Christian churches in the United States have served to support the power structure, including its disproportionate advantages conferred on white people. Although he concentrates on the US experience, Cone extends his arguments to racial injustice in other parts of the world.

The strength of Cone’s analysis lies in the concrete application of his more abstract theological points. He explores antecedents for black theology going back into colonial times, including early black writers’ interpretations of Scripture. In reviewing the concept of “oppression,” he points to African American enslavement as the primary and longest-running example in US history. Looking at the growth of black churches in the United States, he also analyzes worship traditions and shows that their practices placed greater emphasis on the social good than did those of white churches. In particular (and especially relevant for the period in which he wrote), the association of church leadership with the Civil Rights movement is a distinguishing feature of Cone's work. Moreover, he shows, white church leadership has often ignored racial injustice or has criticized and thereby undermined Civil Rights Movement leaders and activities.

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