James H. Cone was the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Seminary and is known as the father of Black Liberation Theology. His 1975 book God of the Oppressed followed his 1969 Black Power and Black Liberation and his 1970 A Black Theology of Liberation in expressing his understanding of the relationship between Christianity and the black freedom struggle.
While it should be acknowledged that theologians’ views are dynamic and that most authors exhibit a ‘trajectory’ over the course of their writing careers, it seems to me that Cone’s work is characterized more by unity of thought than by discontinuity. The tone of God of the Oppressed is certainly milder than that of A Black Theology of Liberation, but there is very little difference in content. At no point does he contradict or repudiate anything he said in his previous work (see these relevant quotes from the 1997 Preface). At best, he softens his rhetoric while repeating and reaffirming his basic theological positions.
In my previous treatment of Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation, I chose to offer no commentary at all and confined myself to merely reproducing quotes from the book. Here, I’ll once again focus on direct quotes along with a few summary statements, except for a final section on the connection between Cone and critical theory.
Cone’s central theme: The gospel as liberation
The foundational premise of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology is that all of theology, all of the Bible, all of our beliefs about God, and all our beliefs about Jesus have to be understood through the lens of the black liberation movement. Cone repeats this idea dozens of times in various ways throughout the book. He writes:
“The right questions [for theologians] are always related to the basic question: What has the gospel to do with the oppressed of the land and their struggle for liberation? Any theologians who fails to place that question at the center of his or her work has ignored the essence of the gospel” (p. 9)
“There is no truth for and about black people that does not emerge out of the context of their experience. Truth in this sense is black truth, a truth disclosed in the history and culture of black people. This means that there can be no Black Theology which does not take the black experience as a source for its starting point.” (p. 16)
“It is impossible to interpret the Scripture correctly and thus understand Jesus aright unless the interpretation is done in the light of the consciousness of the oppressed in their struggle for liberation.” (p. 32)
“Any view of the gospel that fails to understand the Church as that community whose work and consciousness are defined by the community of the oppressed is not Christian and is thus heretical.” (p. 35)
“What is valid and invalid hermeneutics, and how is one distinguished from the other? Black Theology’s answer to the principle of hermeneutics can be stated briefly: The principle for an exegesis of the Scriptures is the revelation of God in Christ as the Liberator of the oppressed from social oppression and to political struggle, wherein the poor recognize that their fight against poverty and injustice is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (p. 74-75)
Lest there be any confusion, Cone makes it very clear that by ‘liberation,’ he is referring not to spiritual liberation, but to political liberation:
“For if the essence of the gospel is the liberation of the oppressed from sociopolitical humiliation for a new freedom in Christ Jesus.., and if Christian theology is an explication of the meaning of that gospel for our time, must not theology itself have liberation as its starting point or run the risk of being at best idle talk and at worst blasphemy?” (p. 47)
“there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world.” (p. 57)
“There is no knowledge of Yahweh except through God’s political activity on behalf of the weak and helpless of the land.” (p. 59)
Note also that Cone is not simply redefining ‘white’ and ‘black’ to mean ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed.’ While Cone does indeed recognize that God sides with the ‘oppressed,’ he strongly rejects any abstract, universalizing theology independent of particulars. In the context of the United States, the ‘oppressed’ are people of color in general and the black community in particular. It is the black community in America that God elects unconditionally as his people, and it is black people with whom God identifies.
In his section “Jesus is Black” he writes: “I realize that ‘blackness’ as a christological title may not be appropriate in the distant future or even in every human context in our present… But the validity of any christological title in any period of history is not decided by its universality but by this: whether in the particularity of its time it points to God’s universal will to liberate particular oppressed people from inhumanity. This is exactly what blackness does in the contemporary social existence of America. If we Americans, blacks and whites, are to understand who Jesus is for us today, we must view his presence as continuous with his past and future coming which is best seen through his present blackness. Christ’s blackness is both literal and symbolic. His blackness is the sense that he truly becomes One with the oppressed blacks taking their suffering as his suffering and revealing that he is found in the history of our struggle, the story of our pain, and the rhythm of our bodies… To say that Christ is black means that black people are God’s poor people whom Christ has come to liberate” (p. 125)
Cone’s Epistemology: How do we know truth?
If Cone is correct that the essence of the gospel is the political liberation of the poor, why have nearly all theologians throughout history misunderstood this message? Cone devotes an entire chapter to answering this question, drawing extensively and explicitly of the writing of Karl Marx.
Cone writes: “Ideas do not have an independent existence but are from beginning to end a social product. ‘The ruling ideas,’ writes Marx, ‘are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.'” (p. 38) What relevance does Marx’s statement have for theology? Cone continues: “The importance of Marx for our purposes is his insistence that thought has no independence from social existence… Although the revelation of God may be universal and eternal, theological talk about that revelation is filtered through human experience, which is limited by social realities. Therefore, not only the questions which theologians ask but the answers given in their discourse about the gospel are limited by their social perceptions and thus largely a reflection of the material conditions of a given society.” (p. 39)
What Cone (via Marx) is claiming is that our theology is conditioned by our social location; we don’t really do ‘objective’ theology. Instead, “[our] ideas about God are the reflections of social conditioning” (p. 41). But if Cone is correct, then aren’t black and white theologians both equally trapped in subjectivity? Yes, but while both white and black theologians “do theology out of the social matrix of their existence,” Black Theology has a distinct advantage because “the social a priori of Black Theology is closer to the axiological perspective of biblical revelation” (p. 41). In other words, Cone believes that because the social location of Blacks aligns with the central biblical theme of liberation, they have access to theological truths unavailable to whites. Black Theologians’ privileged access to truth explains why white (and, indeed, all Western) theologians have failed to grasp the true message of the gospel.
“If the truth of the biblical story is God’s liberation of the oppressed then the social a priori of oppressors excludes the possibility of their hearing and seeing the truth of divine presence, because the conceptual universe of their thought contradicts the story of divine liberation. Only the poor and weak have the axiological grid necessary for the hearing and the doing of the divine will disclosed in their midst.” (p. 86)
“because the values of white culture are antithetical to biblical revelation, it is impossible to be white (culturally speaking) and also think biblically. Biblical thinking is liberated thought, i.e. thinking that is not entrapped by social categories of the dominant culture. If white theologians are to understand this thought process, they must undergo a conversion wherein they are given, by the Holy Spirit, a new way of thinking and acting in the world, defined and limited by God’s will to liberate the oppressed. To think biblically is to think in the light of the liberating interest of the oppressed. Any other starting point is a contradiction of the social a priori of Scripture.” – (p. 88-89)
“Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and other prominent representatives of the Church’s tradition… were wrong theologically because they failed to listen to the Bible — with sufficient openness and through the eyes of the victims of political oppression. How ironic it is that he who proclaimed sola scriptura as one of the guiding lights of his reformation did not really hear the true meaning of that proclamation. For to hear the message of Scripture is to hear and see the truth of God’s liberating presence in history for those who are oppressed by unjust social structures. Luther could not hear God’s liberating Word for the oppressed because he was not a victim.” (p. 183-184).
“This blindness of Christian ethicists is not merely a cultural accident. As with Luther and others in the Western theological tradition, it is due to a theological blindness.” (p. 184-185).
Cone goes on to argue that even appeals to “rational discourse and disinterestedness” (p. 187) and “white rationality” are merely mechanisms to promote their own white interests and ignore black oppression (p. 187-189). Rather than agreeing to these rules of discussion and discourse, black theologians must “begin to take theological risks that will call into question everything white theologians and ethicists have said about the ‘right’ and the ‘good.'” (p. 189).
Cone’s View of Reconciliation
Of all the controversial passages in Cone’s book, the most controversial one comes from his final chapter on racial reconciliation. For reasons of space, I will not quote it in full, but I will quote it at great length.
Because Cone identifies blacks in the U.S. as the elect people of God and whites as their oppressors, he rejects the idea that racial reconciliation can happen on white terms. Instead, whites must repent of their whiteness and enter into the black community of God’s people. Here is the key section:
I am not ruling out the rare possibility of conversion among white oppressors, an event that I have already spoken of in terms of white people becoming black. But conversion in the biblical sense is a radical experience, and it ought not to be identified with white sympathy for blacks or with a pious feeling in white folks’ hearts… there can be no forgiveness of sins without repentance, and no repentance without the gift of faith to struggle with and for the freedom of the oppressed.
When whites undergo the true experience of conversion wherein they die to whiteness and are reborn in order to struggle against white oppression and for the liberation of the oppressed, there is a place for them in the black struggle of freedom… But it must be made absolutely clear that it is the black community that decides both the authenticity of white conversion and also the part these converts will play in the black struggle for freedom. The converts can have nothing to say about the validity of their conversion experience or what is best for the community or their place in it, except as permitted by the oppressed community… white converts, if they are any to be found, must be made to realize that they are like babies who have barely learned how to walk and talk. They must be told when to speak and what to say, otherwise they will be excluded from our struggle…
Black people must be aware of the extreme dangers of speaking too lightly of reconciliation with whites. Just because we work with them and sometimes worship alongside them should be no reason to claim that they are truly Christians and thus part of our struggle. (p. 221-22)
Cone’s Connection to Critical Theory
When I first read Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation, I was startled by its similarities to critical theory, an ideology which divides the world into oppressed groups and their oppressors and seeks to liberate the oppressed. Cone’s theology seemed to be heavily influenced by critical theory, yet working out the precise taxonomy of his ideas was difficult.
God of the Oppressed made the connection to critical theory much more clear. While Cone cited anti-colonialist writer Frantz Fanon several times and was acquainted with renowned critical pedagogist Paolo Freire (who wrote the Forward to A Black Theology of Liberation), the confluence between Cone’s thought and critical theory comes from his explicit embrace of the ideas of Karl Marx detailed in Chapter 3 and Chapter 5. As the first ‘true’ critical theorist, Marx’s vision of a struggle between oppressed and oppressor groups as well as his understanding of truth were adopted by later critical theorists of the Frankfurt School and beyond (see Levinson’s Beyond Critique, Chatper 1)
As I’ve said elsewhere, it is this epistemology that is most dangerous to evangelical belief because it undermines the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The Bible cannot practically function as a sufficient guide to faith and practice if the truths of the Bible are only accessible to certain demographic groups. Once we reject appeals to ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ as thinly-veiled bids for power and privilege, we have effectively discarded Scripture in favor for some other standard of judgment, whether ‘lived experience’ or emotion or political expediency.
Of all the errors of Cone’s theology, his approach to truth is perhaps the most dangerous. I urge evangelicals to be aware of it and to reject it. For those skeptical of the idea that Cone’s doctrines are alive and well within the modern church, see my review of Hartgrove-Wilson’s Reconstructing the Gospel or Joseph Barndt’s Becoming an Anti-Racist Church.
- Quotes from Cone’s 1997 Preface to God of the Oppressed
- Quotes from Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation
- A Short Review of Anyabwile’s The Decline of African American Theology
- Intro to Critical Theory
- Reconstructing the Gospel or Obscuring It? A Review of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel