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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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A Critique of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology

July 09, 2011

James H. Cone is a brilliant scholar and theologian. Without doubt his articulation of "black theology" has offered an invaluable, unique perspective of empowerment to black Christians. Nevertheless, all of Christendom has benefited from his work . Cone's critical analyses of white Christianity in America and its explicit, systemic oppression of blacks and other ethnic/racial minorities has played an essential role in contributing to the expansion of other self-affirming Christian theologies such as Latina women ("mujerista"), black women ("womanist"), and feminist liberation.[1] His work speaks truth to power on issues that should be of concern to all Christians. Along with colleagues Dwight N. Hopkins and others, Cone has put legitimate scholarly flesh on arguments against exclusivist notions that Christianity is best articulated by those in power.

Cone's work, as well as that of other contextual liberation theologians, often disturbs the collective conscious of white Christianity. In fact, that is much of its aim, or at least is an unashamed byproduct. The accuracy and appropriateness of Cone's theological claims will be debated for many years to come, and along the way there is an inevitable need to agree to disagree on certain points. But our cue must be taken from Ephesians 4:5, "one faith, one Lord, one baptism."

As a young, black minister and aspiring theologian of sorts, I intimately identify with the struggle of being black in America, not to mention being both black and Christian. Therefore, recognizing oppression, sympathizing with and caring for "the least of these" defines my dialogical journey. Jesus' admonition to be salt and light to an unseasoned, dark world undergirds much of Cone's work. At its core liberation theology is about dismantling top-down institutional structure and erecting a bottom-up paradigm of faith and learning. Black liberation theology in particular seeks to offer "a profound critique of white theology that does not yet recognize its whiteness."[2]

While I appreciate Cone's theology I also think that like any theological construct it has its shortcomings. We need honest analyses of both the pros and cons of Cone's theology. Therefore, it is my intention in this space to articulate Cone's black theology as related to whiteness, as well as reflect on some strengths and weaknesses of his viewpoints.

Black Theology According to James H. Cone

In the book of Amos we read of Yahweh's indictment of Israel for its arrogant presupposition that their relationship with God was exclusive and unconditional, that they could do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted because they were the chosen people of God. There are echoes of that reality in the ledgers of American history. America may see itself as "the land of the free and the home of the brave" but it is also a land where ingrained, longstanding oppression has reigned supreme (and still does) similar to Amos' day. It is a land where top-down tyranny has been orchestrated mainly by white, powerful and oftentimes Christian men with severely distorted views of God and the Bible.[3]

James H. Cone has gone on the offensive and developed a theology that pushes back against those theological foundations. Theology has historically centered on white males interpreting Scripture from the ivory towers of academia, a position that racial, social, and economic privilege provided and that was maintained through tyranny. Cone's black theology then seeks to subjugate that disturbing reality, in essence to provide a correction to the wrongs that have been enacted on blacks by so-called Christian and white theologians. Cone's critique certainly has merit, as we see in these comments:

When I think about my vocation, I go back to my childhood years in Bearden, Arkansas-a rural community of approximately 1,200 people. I do not remember Bearden for nostalgic reasons. In fact, I seldom return there in person, because of persistent racial tensions in my relations to the whites and lingering ambivalence in my feelings toward the blacks. I am not and do not wish to be Bearden's favorite son.[4]

Cone's theology stems from his formative experiences growing-up as a black man in Arkansas during the height of Jim Crow segregation, being subjected to the oppressive regime of white superiority, which permeated all facets of life. In this line of thinking blacks were inherently, irredeemably less than whites. This significantly influenced Cone's perspective as did his experience as a Ph.D. student during the 1960s at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northwestern University. According to Cone, "Christianity was seen as the white man's religion...I wanted to say: 'No! The Christian Gospel is not the white man's religion. It is a religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free.' But I realized that for black people to be free, they must first love their blackness."[5]

"The task of Black Theology then", as Cone articulates in his essay A Black Theology of Liberation, "is to analyze the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of oppressed black people-so they will see the gospel as inseparable from their humiliated condition, bestowing on them the necessary power to break the chains of oppression."[6]

For Cone, Christianity must primarily be about the business of liberation, offering practical good news for the oppressed rather than undergirding the oppressor's euphoric state of Jubilee.[7] Like the Spanish proverb says, "I don't want the cheese, I just want to get out of the trap." Cone stresses that without liberation at its core Christianity can never be anything more than yet another symbol of white supremacy and exploitation.[8] This, of course, would render Jesus' message of unconditional love and salvific emancipation to all who humble themselves under him as a mere farce, making the Bible a sacred text that enslaves instead of liberates.

As far as Cone is concerned Jesus was black. "He is black because he was a Jew. The affirmation of the Black Christ can be understood when the significance of his past Jewishness is related dialectically to the significance of his present blackness."[9] Cone of course is arguing for an ontological affirmation of Jesus' blackness rather than an anthropological one. His thesis, as articulated in God of the Oppressed and other work, is that because Jesus identified with the oppressed and black people are, one might say, the poster-children for oppression in America-or as Cone articulates, Jesus' "elected poor in America"- then Jesus must be black. This is to say that Jesus' allegiance must almost exclusively be with black people by sheer virtue of their low social position.

The words of German liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle no doubt ring true for Cone: "In the face of suffering you are either with the victim or the executioner-there is no other option."[10] Cone views black theology as having arisen out of the basic human need for significance and worth. His theology is about black people affirming their blackness and their allegiance to Christ, as well as Christ's inherent allegiance with them in their oppression and persecution.[11] His perspective is that,

White theologians' attitude toward black people in particular and the oppressed generally is hardly different from that of oppressors in any society. It is particularly similar to the religious leaders' attitude towards Jesus in first-century Palestine when he freely associated with the poor and outcasts and declared that the Kingdom of God is for those called "sinners" and not for priests and theologians or any of the self-designated righteous people.[12]

Cone is unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian, as goes the provocative motto of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. For Cone, the cross can only be properly understood through the lynching tree, as it relates to Jesus being a distinctly black messiah. Jesus was from an agrarian ghetto called Nazareth, and was unjustly prosecuted and executed by the oppressive Roman regime on behalf of the biased commentary of its religious (Jewish) elite. Jesus' efforts to uplift the poor and call oppressors to repentance and judgment were met with fear, fear at what his messianic revolution might mean for their privileged power structure. Blacks in America, Cone argues, are representative of a contemporary parallelism. Had Jesus been alive during Cone's lifetime Cone is thoroughly convinced that he would have been black, and with his rebellious, anti-establishment rhetoric in mind it is highly likely that he would have lynched during the turbulent Civil Rights era.

Cons to Cone's Black Theology

As indebted to him as I am for his distinct point of view, I do not believe that Cone's theology is the most appropriate means of articulating Jesus' incarnation to one's cultural context, particularly that black Christianity. No group has a monopoly on oppression. My contention with Cone's construct is that in the right hands it can quite easily transform into an us versus them theological boxing match, with blacks being us and whites being them. I concede, generally speaking, that a certain parallelism rings true between the lynchings of blacks and Jesus' crucifixion, yet I am unwilling to go as far with it as he does. In my estimation, it is not helpful to lift up blacks as the most oppressed of all of America's oppressed people.

According to Cone, "No people are more religious than blacks. We are a spiritual people. We faithfully attend churches and other religious services, giving reverence and love to the One who called us into being...How long is it going to take for black people to get justice in America?"[13] It is precisely these and other statements that, for me, fail to promote constructive dialogue in the rich tapestry of faith, leading us into reconciliatory transformation with one another. Non-black Christians are also religiously faithful and yet oppressed in America as well. We all must give voice to the voiceless and fight for justice, but for the Christian that must be on behalf of all people, not only those who represent their particular race or ethnicity. Black people's oppressors are not white people, but rather any people who aim to enslave and exploit. Though he denounces exclusivist rhetoric that promotes a one-sided, racist agenda, in some ways Cone has perhaps been guilty of doing just that.

In God of the Oppressed Cone writes, "Christ's blackness is both literal and symbolic...The least in America are literally and symbolically present in black people."[14] Not so according to psalmist who reminds us, all were born in sin, shaped in iniquity.  No matter our social position, Christ died for us insomuch as all.  We are all one in Christ.  Desmond Tutu seems to echo similar concern for Cone's black theology in this vain: "I worry, however, about some of Cone's exclusiveness-that, for instance, only the oppressed can form a genuine Christian koinonia."[15]

According to Cone, "The grounding of Christian ethics in the oppressed community means that the oppressor cannot decide what Christian behavior is."[16] I appreciate his critique, but it presupposes righteousness on the oppressed, which begs questions about who decides the qualifications for those descriptors-"oppressed" and "oppressor." What then does this mean for the non-oppressive white Christian; that he/she is incapable of responsibly representing Christ because of the inherited social privilege that their skin color provides or that doing so outside of an ultra liberal theology is somehow less valuable before the Lord? What does it mean for the black Christian whose racialized social position renders him or her oppressed, but whose lifestyle and behavior nonetheless classifies them as an oppressor just the same? Are we to neglect that within all oppressed communities there exist those who also oppress? Furthermore, what do non-black minority Christians make of all of this? With Cone's grounding ethic of minority community, how are they to relate to the diverse cornucopia of fellow Christians that they encounter? Cone's black theology rests on a very slippery slope.

In recent years some scholars have challenged Cone's claims.[17] His ostensible aggression toward white America simply doesn't work for many Christians, black or white. In his work The Black Church in America: African American Christian Spirituality Michael Battle compares Cone's outlook on "black theology" with that of Desmond Tutu. Battle asserts that, for him, Cone "has a weak ecclesiology because in many ways his necessary Black Church continues to promulgate profane structures of racism."[18] Battle goes on to say:

Tutu cannot abide by Cone's exclusivist rhetoric in which God's image is black or white...The difference between Tutu and Cone's theological approaches is that for Cone, blackness simultaneously symbolizes oppression and liberation in the Black Church, whereas for Tutu black identity represents the imago Dei in which God redeems white identity.[19]

If in fact theology is faith seeking understanding then we must continue to critique not only our theological premises, but also how we communicate them. Being proactive, with a strong sense of Christian love affirmed through the imago Dei, we are fully capable of developing theologies that affirm the experiences of racial and socioeconomic minorities that do not alienate Christians from other backgrounds.

Pros to Cone's Theology

Like many in his generation, the Civil Rights era served as Cones' catalyst in critiquing the hypocrisy of his faith in the arena of race relations. He sees God as requiring orthodoxy and orthopraxy from believers in order to holistically represent divine truth, indeed to be the church, the hands and feet of Jesus. This is a perspective that we desperately need to spread more in the church today, especially within American Christianity.

Among black Christians today it could be argued that "The American Dream" as defined by the dominant culture has now become the goal of life for many while the motto on the path of achievement is "by any means necessary." Sadly, all too often the church is simply a microcosm of the larger American culture. Nevertheless, the decidedly ethno-cultural "Christian" and "African American" or "black" values of faith, freedom and family that helped spur our divinely sanctioned emancipation in many ways have been abandoned. A good aspect of Cone's theology is its view that Christian life is to be one of counter-cultural empowerment and liberation, not celebration of dominant dysfunction. This is especially important in the church today due of the escalating popularity of the prosperity gospel which contends that God's children are to be financially prosperous.[20] This heresy contends that living a materialistically abundant life is the way of Jesus. It is what Cornel West described as "Constantinian Christianity."[21] This challenge to the successes of the Civil Rights movement[22] is clearly something that Cone is aware of and that he intends his theology to speak truth to:

There are pimps in religion as there are on the streets in the black community. Far too many black preachers are more concerned about their personal interests than they are about the liberation of black people from white political oppression. Far too many church people are more concerned about erecting a new church building than they are about building a new black community so that all black children will, have a more humane place in which to live.[23]

According to Cone, "Black churches seem content with preaching sermons and singing songs about freedom, but few of them have made an institutional commitment to organize church life and work for the creation of freedom."[24] I agree, yet Cone's black theology, and all of its self-affirmation, has still struggled mightily for integration into many black churches. [25] C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya found this to be true in a study that they conducted, which is elaborated on in The Black Church in the African American Experience. It showed that seminary-educated black clergy have been significantly impacted by black liberation theology, yet they only represent a minority of black pastors given their level of academic training.[26] Thus, most black pastors have not been exposed to or trained in the work of Cone and his liberationist colleagues.

An associate professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, George Yancey, like Tutu, provides a redemptive framework for black-white Christian relations that is helpful. He expounds on this in Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility:

In my attempt to find a Christian solution for racism, I am developing what I call a mutual responsibility model for racial reconciliation. It is a concept that takes seriously the Christian teaching of human depravity. Unlike the colorblindness and Anglo-conformity models, the mutual responsibility model does not ignore the historic and contemporary damage done to people of color by the majority. Unlike the multicultural and white responsibility models, it does not absolve minorities of responsibility.[27]

One's identity in Christ should be above classifications like race. Again, this doesn't allow us to simply ignore unjust power structures and exploitative practices by those who profess to be Christians. It does, however, point to the theological truth that believers ought to have Christ in common, at the very least, even while wrestling to respect and unite over their differences.

Conclusion

Cone's theology can be helpful when viewed properly, as a means not the means of interpretive self-actualization in the black Christian context, and even more generally. In his address to the Pan-African Conference in London, England in 1903 W.E.B. DuBois lamented that, "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."[28] Cone's black theology represents the inherent truth in DuBois' prophetic statement. What really upsets Cone is "the appalling silence of white theologians on racism in the United States and the modern world." [29]

Cone seeks to hold white Christians and theologians accountable for their many atrocities committed against blacks under the guise of biblical orthodoxy. I agree with him that, "To create an antiracist theology, White theologians must engage the histories, cultures and theologies of people of color. It is not enough to condemn racism. The voices of people of color must be found in your theology."[30] This is a valid concern and deserves to be heard.

With that said, however, blacks are no more pious, righteous, or spiritual than anyone else, nor are we a monolithic group devoid of deep diversity of opinion and experience. We sin. We oppress. We exploit. When given the opportunity just like anyone else we will selfishly embrace oppression. Therefore, while I sincerely appreciate its intention, a theology like Cone's is problematic for me because in some ways it promotes cultural elitism with him seeing his way as the only way to salvation for white America, which flies in the face of Scripture.

Sin is an equal opportunity employer, forever corrupting the hearts, minds, and souls of us all in the same ways. I do not feel that my faith gives me the latitude to force white America to see things my way, as if I always have the most informed perspective because I am a minority. Surely being white in America means being systematically exposed to institutional graces and opportunities that one has not necessarily earned, but it also means at times being unfairly viewed by others as the root cause of everything bad; a position that is as immature as it is inaccurate. For Christians especially, white cannot be synonymous with evil nor black with good, or vice-versa. That sort of rhetoric has no place in the kingdom of God. Satan can show up in a black body as readily as a white one. Devoid of consecration before God we are all tasty fodder for Satan's bidding.

Black people, let alone black Christians are not a monolithic group who embrace the same so-called "black" ideologies. Much like the rest of America, we are a cosmopolitan mix of people with different traditions, interests, and tolerances. According to Yancey, "With the mutual responsibility model, we look to Christian faith to overcome the effects of human depravity in race relations. We work to develop racial relationship based on our reconciliation with God."[31] Christianity offers hope to all people and in our theological pursuits we must seek to never sway from that foundation of vulnerability and sacrificial love, indeed because Christ is risen.


[1] See Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Maryknoll, NY: 1996), Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), and Katie Geneva Cannon, Angela D. Sims, Emilie M. Townes, eds., Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
[2] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 100.
[3] See Cain Hope Felder, Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), Stephen R. Haynes, Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University, 2002), Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Plume, 2001), John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (New Work: Cambridge University, 1998), and Richard Worth, The Slave Trade in America: Cruel Commerce (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2004).
[4] James H. Cone, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), xi-xv.
[5] Michael Powell, "A Fiery Theology Under Fire," The New York Times (May 4, 2008): 1.
[6] J. Phillip Wogaman (ed.), Readings in Christian Ethics: A Historical Sourcebook (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 359.
[7] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 126.
[8] Wogaman, Readings in Christian Ethics: A Historical Sourcebook, 358.
[9] Cone, God of the Oppressed, 123.
[10] Dorothee Sölle, Suffering (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1984), 32.
[11] James H. Cone, "Black Consciousness and the Black Church: A Historical-Theological Interpretation," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 387 (January 1970): 33.
[12] Cone, God of the Oppressed, 123.
[13] James H. Cone, "God and Black Suffering: Calling the Oppressors to Account," Anglican Theological Review, vol. 90, no. 4 (2008): 710.
[14] Cone, God of the Oppressed, 125.
[15] Desmond Tutu, review of James H. Cone's God of the Oppressed, in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 31 (June 1980): 74.
[16] Cone, God of the Oppressed, 191.
[17] See Thabiti M. Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2007) and Anthony B. Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).
[18] Michael Battle, The Black Church in America: African American Christian Spirituality (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 112-113.
[19] Battle, The Black Church in America, 107, 109.
[20] See James Hudnut-Beumler, In Pursuit of The Almighty's Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2007), David W. Jones, Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010), and Stephanie Y. Mitchem, Name It and Claim It?: Prosperity Preaching in the Black Church (Cleveland, OH Pilgrim, 2007).
[21] Paula L. McGee, "Pastor of CEO?: The New Black Church Leaders," The National Baptist Voice (Summer 2006), 64.
[22] See C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 164-195., and Stacey Floyd-Thomas (ed.), Black Church Studies: An Introduction (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007).
[23] Cone, Risks of Faith, 125.
[24] James H. Cone, Speaking The Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 149.
[25] Katherine R. Bitner, "Black Christian Theology: A Challenge to the Black Clergy," The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center , vol. 11, no. 1-2 (Fall/Spring 1983-1984): 107. Also, see James H. Harris, "Practicing Liberation in the Black Church," The Christian Century (June 13-20, 1990): 599-600.
[26] C. Eric Lincoln, Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University, 1990), 178-182.
[27] George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 78.
[28] W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005), 3, 197.
[29] Cone, Risks of Faith, 130.
[30] James H. Cone, "Theology's Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy," Black Theology: An International Journal, vol. 2, issue 2. (July 2004): 151.
[31] Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock, 78.


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