The hermeneutic, or interpretive lens, for James Cone’s theology starts with the experience of African Americans, and the theological questions he brings from his own life. He incorporates the powerful role of the black church in his life, as well as racism experienced by African Americans.
Cone’s theology also received significant inspiration from a frustration with the black struggle for civil rights; he felt that black Christians in North America should not follow the “white Church”, on the grounds that it was a willing part of the system that had oppressed black people. Accordingly, his theology was heavily influenced by Malcolm X and the Black Power movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also an important influence; Cone describes King as a liberation theologian before the phrase existed.
Cone’s thought, along with Paul Tillich, stresses the idea that theology is not universal, but tied to specific historical contexts; he thus critiques the Western tradition of abstract theologizing, by examining its social context. Cone formulates a theology of liberation from within the context of the black experience of oppression, interpreting the central kernel of the Gospels as Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed, the resurrection as the ultimate act of liberation.
Despite his associations with the Black Power movement, however, Cone was not entirely focused on ethnicity: “Being black in America has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”
Our Episcopal church’s small group studied his pioneering work, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: The Seabury Press, 1969), this past autumn. I’m not alone in wishing we had contacted Dr. Cone to tell him how his book challenged and inspired us. I think I was afraid of seeming like a would-be white ally in search of cookies. It’s a lesson not to let embarrassment stop us from reaching out to our heroes and prophets. After all, as Ijeoma Oluo says in her essential new book, So You Want to Talk About Race (Hachette Book Group, 2018), people of color don’t have the option to not deal with racial tension. White folks have to accept that we’ll screw up many of our interracial conversations, and just sit with the discomfort.
Below are some highlights from my analysis of the book for our small group curriculum. (If you would like to use the whole curriculum in your church, email me.) Text in quotes is by Cone, other text is my summary of his arguments. It’s quite sobering to see that many of the white counter-arguments he debunks are still deployed against contemporary civil rights movements such as Black Lives Matter.
“Black Power” is a phrase that provokes strong reactions. Cone defines it as “black people taking the dominant role in determining the black-white relationship in American society.” In other words, black people acting as subjects instead of objects, creating a value system that centers their wellbeing and particular experiences in society—just as white people have always done.
Some Christians, black and white, see it as too radical a departure from Christ’s message of love and unity. However, for Cone it is “Christ’s central message to twentieth-century America.” Where else would Christ be, if not in the midst of our country’s most urgent social justice struggle?
Cone criticizes would-be allies who say they support racial equality but not “violence”, or who call for “objectivity”. There is no neutral position on our complicity with oppressive social structures. Theology can’t set feelings aside, because feelings—specifically the pain and anger of black people—are essential data about the moral issues involved. “Dispassionate, noncommitted debate” is the privilege of someone who has no stake in the matter.
Though it makes space for feelings of anger and even hatred toward the oppressor, Black Power is fundamentally not about hate. Black people are not trying to take something away from white people, but to force recognition of what all people—black, white, and other races—already have: human dignity and equality. “Therefore it is not the intention of the black man to repudiate his master’s human dignity, but only his status as master.”
Throughout the book, Cone develops parallels between the anti-racist liberation struggle and the sacrificial life of Christ and his followers. The true ally enters into the condition of the oppressed, to such an extent that their stigma also falls on him—just as Jesus did for sinful humanity. The true ally is willing to risk her life for black people’s freedom—because black people are already risking their lives. Protests, violent or nonviolent, may be a modern version of martyrdom for a spiritual ideal that is more important than life itself, namely that all people are created in God’s image.
The primary expression of love for our neighbor is to proclaim the gospel of freedom and to work against the powers that hold people captive.
Christian love is a motive, not a checklist of actions. The human condition is messy and uncertain. Neighbor-love sometimes looks like confrontation, because it’s loving to try to bring our neighbor back into right relationship with God and others. It is loving to insist on the God-given dignity of all people, which is poured out equally as a gift of grace.
With respect to the ideal of nonviolence in Christianity, how we define “violence” already says a lot about racial politics. We take it for granted that certain kinds of self-defensive or even aggressive violence are justified in a Christian society. When the disenfranchised rise up, we call that violence and ask how it’s consistent with Jesus, but we accept the authority of the police to use force against such uprisings, or the nation’s right to use violence in defense of its international interests.
“The attempt of some to measure love exclusively by specific actions, such as nonviolence, is theologically incorrect.” We act from Christian love when God is the essence of our lives, but because of our limited human understanding, the right choice in any given situation may be unclear. Loving action involves risk and ambiguity.
Being “born-again” occurs when a person becomes “repelled by suffering and death caused by the bigotry of others,” even to the point of being ready to die in solidarity with the oppressed, as Jesus did. And that person may not be explicitly “Christian”—it’s manifested in their actions, as in Matthew 25. Salvation is not a formula to win God’s approval. It’s an inner sense of being aligned with The Real.
“There are no rational tests to measure this quality of being grasped in the depths of one’s being. The experience is its own evidence, the ultimate datum. To seek for a higher evidence, a more objective proof—such as the Bible, the Fathers, or the Church—implies that such evidence is more real than the encounter itself.”
All theology is grounded in the life situation of the group that writes it. Their lives matter, and their experiences determine which questions are important and how to answer them.
Up till now, only white people have had this authority within Christianity—the power to make theology that centers their point of view and their wellbeing. “Black Theology” is not any less universal than the white Christianity we already have. Black people will not be completely free until they too claim the authority to do theology from their own standpoint, with their full humanity as the goal and underlying assumption.
White Christianity has spent a lot of time debating the ultimate source of religious authority. For instance: the Pope versus Martin Luther’s sola scriptura (Bible alone), or fundamentalists’ infallible Bible versus liberals’ appeals to reason. But these abstract debates often fail to have any impact on people’s daily lives.
For Black Theology, the core question of authority is: Does this doctrine free us or not?
Because the essence of Christ is his identification with the oppressed, this is still a Christocentric standard of authority.
“Black Theology knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself… Concretely, this means that Black Theology is not prepared to accept any doctrine of God, man, Christ, or Scripture which contradicts the black demand for freedom now.”