Reflecting on James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation

I was introduced to A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone in one of my seminary classes at Biblical Theological. Since then, there have been a number of titles I keep referring to including Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited and Justice For All and Let Justice Roll Down by John M. Perkins. But Cone was a bit more complicated (at least for me), and I remember thinking he needed more attention at a later point. That point came this past Christmas break where in the wake of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and the killing of two NYC police officers. I’ve written on some of this already here and here but as I read blogs my black men and women, I kept feeling that I was missing something when it came to their references to black theology. And so reading Cone’s A Black Theology felt more than due.

Here’s what I really appreciated. For a good while, I’ve felt conflicted about writing book reviews (described elsewhere), Cone brings up the same tension for me as the last thing I want to do is objectify. So instead of a review, here’s a bit of a reflection and an encouragement for those that can read Cone to consider adding him to their reading list.

A quick origin story: Cone creates/writes black/liberation theology as he tries to reconcile the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement. If I understand his story correctly, he is inspired with King’s Christian faith and appreciated that his “blackness was not at the center of his identity.” And since Malcolm X embraced his blackness as the center but rejected Christianity because it did not address his blackness and thus, Cone sensed a need to be filled for himself and for his community to bring the teachings of Dr. King Dr., Malcolm X and Christian theology together particularly informed by the work of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich.

So if theology is a way of understanding how God relates to the world, Cone felt the burden to articulate how God relates to black people (and self-selecting minorities) and thus, how all who identify as the oppressed seeking liberation can then relate to God. From a theological perspective written fresh out of the turbulent 1960’s and just into the ’70’s, it helped me feel some of the pain birthed in the liberation theology.

Readers of theology will affirm the observation that there is surprising amount of theology written with passion. I felt a different passion when reading Cone. Unfortunately my words feel inadequate in describing it as we do not normally classify passions. At the risk of creating a false dichotomy, most theology I read and am shaped by is usually birthed out of a spiritual passion that informs our perspective of life. Here in Cone’s words and tone, you feel an emotional passion that bleeds into life and theology. Again its significantly due to his merging of his identity and his faith. There is no doubt that all good theology is personal, and here in Cone’s articulation of black theology, the reader witnesses a deep and moving expression of a black man trying to make sense of a God of love while living in an broken society with a lamentable history of slavery, oppression and injustice.

I also appreciated both the learning and my wrestling with Cone’s theology and arguments. At times, I felt isolated from him as a black man oppressed by the broken parts of white society. At times, I feared he over-generalized all white people (the preface  of the 20th Anniversary acknowledges this to some extent and offers somewhat of an explanation). Then at many other times, I could not help but nod my head in “Amens” as I read along. Here are two quotes:

(In the context of hermeneutical principles who are “operative” in the black theology): “The Christian understanding of God arises from the biblical revelation, a revelation of God that takes place in the liberation of oppressed Israel and is completed in the incarnation, in Jesus Christ. This means that whatever is said about the nature of God and God’s being-in-the-world must be based on the biblical account of God’s revelatory activity. We are not free to say anything we please about God. Although Scripture is not the only source that helps us to recognize divine activity in the world, it cannot be ignored if we intend to speak of the Holy One of Israel (p.60).”

“If God, not whiteness, is the ground of my being, then God is the only source for reference regarding how I should behave in the world. Complete obedience is owed only to God, and every alien loyalty must be rejected (p. 75).”

As a student of theology, I was fascinated by his contextualization but all intellectual musings were quickly cut short as Cone, again, writes with an emotional yet intelligent passion that forces the reader to either be stunned, offended, sympathetic or championed for. It feels trite to report what I learned, but what I can say is that gaining more understanding of how some in the black community relate to God and experience God relating to them was extremely beneficial to me. Further, it gave me language in describing the reality of spiritual slavery and the other forms of oppression we experience and witness throughout our world.

All this said, it’s difficult to recommend this book for everyone. Not because of its treatment of race and theology but because of how Cone uses theology. What I’m trying to say is for evangelicals in particular, this may be a tough read if this is your first serious academic theology book.  And so, there are thankfully, many other powerful and beautiful books (like those mentioned above by Thurman and Perkins). I think my best recommendation for those that enjoy the struggle found in thought is to pick up the book and see how far you can go but I found it to be worthwhile and hope to read and process more of Cone, perhaps The Cross and the Lynching Tree or Black Theology and Black Power.

May we move forward with the difficult work, thought, dialogue, reconciliation and progress that needs to keep happening and may God give us all of what we need to do so.

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