James H. Cone, the ‘father of Black Liberation Theology’, was a professor at Union Theological Seminary. His book For My People: Black Theology and The Black Church includes his reflections on the history of Black Theology and his recommendations for the future. For My People (1984) is the fourth of Cone’s works that I’ve read, after A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), God of the Oppressed (1975), and The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011). Over the course of five decades, Cone’s tone and rhetoric certainly softened, but his core theological beliefs remained unchanged. If anything, they became even less orthodox.
BLT and Pragmatism
In contrast to his other books, For My People includes less of Cone’s own theology and more analysis of the history of radical Black Theology during and after the Black Power movement of the 1960s-70s. Cone sketches the development of several “black radical” Christian organizations like the National Committee of Black Churchmen and the theology of black radicals like James Foreman and Albert Cleage.
What struck me most in Cone’s assessment of the history of Black Theology was its overt theological pragmatism. Cone makes no effort to hide and even openly proclaims the fact that proponents of Black Theology were intentionally creating an entirely new theology that would meet their political goals:
“Members of the NCBC were not only determined to make the black church more relevant to the black liberation struggle, but were equally determined to create a black theology that would be supportive of it.” (p. 17)
“My main concern.. was to demonstrate that the politics of black power was the gospel of Jesus to twentieth-century America.” (p. 32)
“What good is a theological point if it is not useful in the black struggle for freedom?” (p. 34)
“The central question that gave birth to black theology was: ‘What has the gospel of Jesus to do with the oppressed black people’s struggle for justice in American society?’” (p. 80)
“This prophetic denunciation of white racism also made members of the black clergy realize that an alternative theology was needed if they were going to develop an interpretation of the gospel that would empower blacks in their liberation struggle.” (p. 81)
Cone defends these statements on the grounds that all theology is subjective. He writes: “We do not begin our theology with a reflection on divine revelation as if the God of our faith is separate from the suffering of our people. We do not believe that revelation is a deposit of fixed doctrines or an objective word of God that is then applied to the human situation. On the contrary, we contend that there is no truth outside or beyond the concrete historical events in which persons are engaged as agents” (p. 148). Thus, on Cone’s view, both traditional theology and Black Liberation Theology are inextricably bound to their particular social locations. The difference is merely that BLT admits its subjectivity and political motivation while traditional theology operates under the pretense of objectivity and political neutrality.
As I’ve already mentioned, Cone’s rhetoric is notably softer than it was in his former books. For example, he affirms that “to love our people does not mean hating whites” (p. 202) and that “freedom will come only through the building of a society that respect the humanity of all, including whites. The Christian faith requires it, and human decency demands it” (p. 203). On the other hand, fiery rhetoric is not entirely absent: “Black churches leave most of the training of their ministers to white seminaries… how sad, because [this] is an indication of apostasy. Black churches have taken the responsibility that God gave to them and have given it away to enemies of the gospel.” (p. 119). “We can easily identify many of the outside forces that oppress us — racism, corporate capitalism, police brutality, unjust laws, prisons, drugs, and so forth. The list could go on and on, and that is why it is convenient to sum them all up in one word — whites!” (p. 159)
Yet the major change in Cone’s theology is not in his tone, but in his movement towards more typical theological liberalism, which seems to have arisen primarily from his contact with Latin American Liberation Theology (see Chapter 7). For example, the focus in For My People shifts from Black liberation to the “global nature of human oppression” (p. 96). The phrase “black poor” replaces “blacks” with reference to those who need to be liberated. And he devotes two entire chapters to the problem of sexism (Chapter 5) and the need to include “Marxist social analysis” in our understanding of injustice (Chapter 9).
Cone’s theological liberalism emerges most starkly in his denial of the exclusivity of Christianity: “We must not view one religious faith as absolute. Ultimate reality, to which all things are subject, is too mysterious to be exclusively limited to one people’s view of God. God is found… not only among Christians in Africa but also among the devotees of African traditional religions on that continent… God has been known and experienced in many different ways, and no single expression of God’s identity in worship or theology should be regarded as the final truth.” (p. 205-206). But this particular statement is merely one expression of a larger trajectory that Cone himself calls attention to in the 1997 Preface to God of the Oppressed.
Cone and Critical Theory
Throughout my reading of Cone, I’ve been fascinated by the overlap between his theology and the ideology of critical theory, which divides the world into oppressed groups and their oppressors along axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, etc… In his earlier books, Cone was almost singularly focused on the issue of race. Yet it’s interesting to see how his commitment to the epistemology of Karl Marx, who is considered to be the first critical theorist, led him to eventually embrace their other concerns as well.
For example, he confesses “I regret very much that we black theologians missed a great opportunity by failing to relate the problem of racism to sexism… Sexism, racism, and classicism though not identical are interconnected, and thus none can be adequately dealt with without also dealing with the others.” (p. 97) And “Marxism as a method of social analysis can serve as an instrument for uncovering what rulers try to hide… Christians need to apply Marx’s method of analysis not only to the doctrines and practices of their churches but also and especially to the public pronouncements and practices of their government” (p. 186-187). Even the issue of “gay rights” gets a passing mention as an example of “human concerns” for which the Black Church has unfortunately adopted the conservative posture of white churches (p. 96).
Of particular interest to me was Cone’s mention of the idea of “double jeopardy”: “black women, unlike black men and white women, could not choose between the issues of sexism and racism: they were victims of both. Black feminists today call it double jeopardy.” The concept of ‘double jeopardy’ was an antecedent to Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” which emerged from Critical Race Theory (see Collins and Bilge, Intersectionality, Chapter 3, especially page 76). The connections between Cone’s thought and the ideology of critical theory seem too numerous to be coincidental.
Of course, the exact taxonomy of Cone’s beliefs is difficult to determine and, ultimately, totally irrelevant to assessing whether his claims were true or false. Nonetheless, it’s helpful for situating Cone in his historical context and for recognizing how the same set of ideas can percolate through culture, turning up in unexpected places.
While Black Liberation Theology was and is a marginal movement within the church, the echoes of Cone’s theology are readily discernible in books like Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel and Barndt’s Becoming an Anti-Racist Church. Therefore, Christians should familiarize themselves with his work, recognizing the deeply unbiblical assumptions on which it is based.
- A Short Review of Cone’s God of the Oppressed
- Reconstructing the Gospel or Obscuring It? A Review of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel
- Anti-Racism as Rebirth: A Review of Barndt’s Becoming an Anti-Racist Church