james cone
Theology Christian Living

On the Assault of James Cone & Black Liberation Theology

Malcolm Foley

As a Black man widely tutored in White evangelicalism, I was conditioned to see James Cone as a heretic. When I first read him years ago, I also considered Cone’s theology to be dangerous. His claims of God’s blackness and a Christology rooted firmly in Christ’s solidarity with the oppressed cut against what I considered to be an orthodox understanding of the atonement and other core doctrines.

But as I read Cone’s critics, I was underwhelmed. Surely there must be some reason why Cone articulated his theology in the way that he did. Surely there was something about Black Power that was attractive enough to Cone that it substantively shaped his picture of God and of salvation.

I found that answer in the preface to Cone’s “Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare.”

In that preface, Cone defined himself as an “African-American theologian whose perspective on the Christian religion was shaped by Martin King and whose black consciousness was defined by Malcolm X.” As someone who was named after the latter man by parents who shared the faith of the former man, I nearly gasped upon reading these words. The first domino fell toward my understanding of and deep sympathy with the theology of James Cone.

He was a theologian who toed the line between the hope of King’s dream and the despair at the root of Malcolm’s nationalism. He affirmed both the hope that the nation could be better even against the violent, bloody, consistent, and constant evidence that it often refused to be so. And in so doing, Cone was bound to be dismissed by some, even many. But such dismissal is a profound injustice.

Malcolm, Martin, & Rage

During their respective careers, Malcolm X was much more popular in Black communities than Martin Luther King, Jr. When one digs deeply into their words and reception, the reasons are clear: where Martin emphasized the call to love the oppressor, Malcolm unapologetically emphasized the dignity of oppressed Black men and women. When he uttered his calls for self-defense, he did not do so out of a thirst for vengeance. He did so out of love for his people and out of affirmation of their dignity. And Black people loved (and continue to love) him for it.

It is precisely that emphasis of Cone’s work that grates at those who are quick to call him a heretic before they affirm the necessity of his work. Cone’s work and the work of other male and female Black liberation theologians remain necessary because of their unflinching and unrelenting affirmation of Black dignity, a message that has been dulled by centuries of enslavement, lynching, and Jim Crow — all quite eloquently defended by many white Christians.

That history of anti-Black racism and violence produces emotions that ought not be restrained but must be channeled, and perhaps the most prominent of those emotions is rage. Thus, James Baldwin would say: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

But there are two things to note about this rage which Malcolm articulated in his speeches and which James Cone articulated in his theology.

First, it is not hate.

Second, it is righteous.

A Necessary Theology

When Cone affirms on numerous occasions that God is black, he was uttering a biblical statement, not a biological one. He says that the God of the Scriptures is a God who identifies with those under the boot of oppression and the two primary redemptive acts in the Bible emphasize that: the Exodus and the resurrection.

When the biblical prophets railed against both the people and their leadership, they had two sins at the forefront of their minds: idolatry and the oppression of the poor, transgressions against what Jesus would summarize later as the two great commandments. To be angry at idolatry and at the oppression of the poor and the marginalized is not to hate. It is to most properly love. It was precisely this point that even Malcolm affirmed, denying that he hated all white people. But he wanted people to understand that he had ample reason to.

Therein we see the lamentable necessity of Cone’s theology: it sprang out of a mind and an experience that was inevitably shaped by trauma, as the experience of many Black people in America is. To consider the whippings of slaves, the rapes of slave women, the family separation inherent in the slave system, the corkscrew tortures of Luther and Mary Holbert, the burning of Sam Hose, the mutilation of Henry Smith, the indignities of Jim Crow, and the injustice of mass incarceration is to plunge oneself in a pit from which escape is not guaranteed.

And yet, if one’s theology is not shaped by it and has no answers for it, one’s theology is not properly Christian. This is a reality, a history, and a theology that the Christian, especially the American Christian, must wrestle with. They must ask the question: how does a good God sit by and allow innocent Black men, women, and children to be tortured and killed? Black Christians have spent much time and many resources answering such questions. It is time that we were not alone in doing so.

The Power of the Cross

As someone who has immersed himself particularly in America’s traumatic history of lynching, I saw the fundamental context of Cone’s theology. When I realized that this was the framework with which Cone approached his theology, I began to understand him. No longer did I dismiss him as a heretic. Instead, I saw and see him as a theologian attempting to do the work that every theologian does: attempt to articulate an infinite God to a finite people.

For Cone though, the task was compounded: how does one articulate a loving God to a people who appear to face unrelenting suffering? His answer was rather simple: God’s love is not compromised by your oppression. In fact, he showed his love by undergoing your suffering and by suffering alongside you. This was, for Cone, the power of the Cross.

This is not to say that I agree with everything Cone says or everything any theologian says for that matter. But he is a must-read, not merely as an interlocutor, but because in many places, he is more right than many like to admit. His affirmations come from a mind that would affirm the dignity, humanity, and image-bearing of Black people without apology.

So read “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

Read Black Theology and Black Power.

Read Martin & Malcolm.

Read the books and understand the struggle.

17 thoughts on “On the Assault of James Cone & Black Liberation Theology

  1. Isaiah Tota

    What a great and eye-opening read, Malcolm! Blessings!

  2. Nicole Williams

    I’m a sociology major at Princeton currently writing a paper on liberation theology for my course on catholic thought. Currently reading Cone’s autobiography. Thank you for this! My favorite line: And yet, if one’s theology is not shaped by it and has no answers for it, one’s theology is not properly Christian.

  3. Lorenzo Villa

    Thank you for informing me about some of Cone’s thinking. I am not familiar with Black Liberation Theology. From some of the comments I’ve read it would seem most of us are not well versed in Liberation Theology. I am not an expert, I believe that in order to appreciate the writing of such theologians you need to understand the historical context they are addressing. Liberation Theology was popularized in Latin America especially (Central America) from the 60’s to the 80’s. A book that has helped me better appreciate the role of oppression and rise of liberation theology and revolution was Aviva Chomsky’s Central America’s Forgotten History. It documents the violence that is at the root of todays migration dilemma. I am not endorsing liberation theology but I think a closer look at some of the basic tenets of the doctrines would be enlightening. For example in response to DC Grad and W. Thomson I leave you with the following… “All genuine theology has its point of departure in the life of faith. Faith, after all, is what leads us to become disciples of Christ, and theology is about discipleship. Discipleship is not simply listening to a teaching. Before all else, discipleship is the following of Christ. Discipleship means making his practice our practice” Gustavo Gutierrez from The Power of the Poor in History page 90

  4. Jonathan Dunnemann

    I like the way you worked that.

  5. John Hardie

    Thank you, Malcolm Foley, for this much needed introduction to James Cone’s theology. In such a short space, we should not expect Foley to address every issue raised above by Thomas W. and DCGrad. But what Foley does do in this short piece is well worth the price of admission. Foley helps us understand vitally important aspects of Cone’s approach and motivation in doing theology, such that, if we listen carefully, we’ll be able to appreciate the tremendous positive contribution James Cone made to theology in the 21st century. Foley’s inclusion of Baldwin’s quip regarding rage was so spot on for the purposes here. Indeed, there is an ethics of emotion at work in Baldwin that Cone also perceived, understood and felt himself, part of the reason why I think he devoted attention to Baldwin in his last memoir. Now the responsibility falls to us – to take up Cone again, and read him this time for what Foley has described above.

  6. stephen matlock

    Great essay about someone who is often first seen only as an antagonist against all that we think is Right and Good. 😉

    Sometimes I think Cone is simply a foil for our own misunderstandings of Jesus and the Gospel. We fight dragons, with Cone as the exemplar, but really we are fighting our own crisis of living the Gospel just enough to make us feel “saved,” but perhaps without enough commitment to fully dive into divine life in the Kin-dom.

    Here’s to your work on your Ph.D. Looking forward to your contributions to building up God’s people.

  7. Ingram London

    Excellent piece! Thank you for writing this. Blessings!

  8. Thomas W.

    Mr. Foley,

    I enjoyed reading your well written article. It makes a thoughtful case to encourage a more reasoned perspective on James Cone, and does so without disparaging others. However, the ties to liberation theology and your argument of its necessity due to circumstances is part of the “heretical” issue, I would say.

    To expound:

    1. No theological variation by which dignity/value/equality can be obtained by man is biblical. The reason for that is because our value and dignity are independent of human action, set at the forefront of Creation by God by which no one above or below can alter, all the more so stamped and reaffirmed by Christ’s work on the cross and God’s adoption of us as co-heirs.

    This means ethnicity, trauma, oppression, or any other life event or criteria has any bearing that can alter that. The oppressed are not more nor less than those who are not oppressed. One’s brokenness is not greater than another’s. Thus, it’s all idolatry when we feel the need to depart from God’s own declaration from the get go and presume a measuring stick. Liberation theology is as false as white supremacy as their fundamental pillars are the same coin/different side that pursues its own value in addition to the gospel.

    In addition, it’s still subjecting black dignity as a competition and at the behest of white acceptance in the end.

    2. Now if Cone is merely dipping into the association of liberation theology to be persuasive, it will certainly be harder for those not familiar or of similar world view to not interject their own when you mention things like him referring to God as black. If he’s starting there to lead people to the gospel, it may have some reasonable effect, but its still like helping build a house on sand just to get them to move to a house built on rock, or using false evidence to convict. It’s not necessary, though we feel like it is.
    And though it may have been entirely justifiable for the early church or even Israel to be angry and enraged at their oppression, you do not see it used to establish dignity or the gospel. It wasn’t necessary.

    3. The major problems for me with liberation theology are that it supplants biblical objectives with earthly ones, primarily the ending of oppression as if this hasn’t already been achieved; and, it encourages the feeling that one’s trauma or oppression makes them somehow better than another’s.
    a. Christ’s work has conquered death. No one has experienced any sort of oppression no matter how grave
    it may be for us that has not already been resolved where it matters most. Our life experience has no
    alteration on the gospel. And therefore, what you do not see in the gospel is the pursuit of some earthly
    utopia by which oppression in this temporal space and time can or will be ended. We do not serve the
    poor and oppressed as Christians to achieve that, but we do so because of the value given to us by God
    in the 1st place and by his command to love others as he has loved us.
    b. Trauma, oppression placed on a pedestal is the same as color placed on a pedestal. It’s just legalism and idolatry.

    4. “They must ask the question: how does a good God sit by and allow innocent Black men, women, and children to be tortured and killed?”

    Except this is a wrong question. Foremost because it implies man has the authority to judge God. In the book of Job, Job is declared blameless, righteous (valued/dignified) from the get go. No matter what Satan does, he couldn’t undo that. Satan, nor Job can undo God’s declaration. Job actually walks that line toward breaking that late in the book though, when he think his innocence and suffering are justification to challenge God. Job rightly responds by recognizing that his innocence nor his suffering grant him a position of authority over his Creator.
    Though we may ask that with good intentions and sincere inquiry, the result is a subtle displacement of God’s position relative to us.

    Thus, don’t ask that question of the church. It’s the wrong path because it positions us toward idolatry and self righteousness. When someone asks it of you, direct them to the reality that Christ has conquered pain, death, and sin. That a new heaven and a new earth is coming.

    As a disclaimer. I’m all for earthly goals of pursuing justice and establishing better, more Christ like cultures, communities, and countries. But we do this because of the love Christ has established in us and its horizontal outpouring toward our neighbors, not because we need to achieve something he hasn’t already won.

  9. Malcolm Brian Foley

    I wish you the best as well as the Holy Spirit continues to conform us to the image of our Savior! In the future, I do hope to help us do just such work!

  10. DCGrad

    Mr. Foley, thank you for your clarifying comment. It helps me, for one, better understand your position, and I am grateful for that. One of the things I have noticed about some of the social media debates about Dr. Cone is that many of his defenders have not been elaborating on what they are defending. It has been unclear whether they have the same understanding of the Gospel and Christianity as Dr. Cone’s critics. Which is why I believe it is so important to clearly define terms and concepts in this discussion.

    I profoundly disagree with some of what I have read of Dr. Cone’s teachings, but I do not know, in detail, his beliefs about the core tenets of Christianity. I would suggest that further elaboration on those aspects of his theology would be helpful for laypeople such as myself. Also, my current disagreement with Dr. Cone has nothing whatsoever to do with his race. I apply the same standards to him as I would any other theologian, but I have not been convinced that he was correct on certain major and minor theological points. For example, I fear that, like many of those known as liberation theologians, he underemphasized Christ’s redemptive work in regard to our sin. I also fear that he overemphasized racial differences at the expense of our common humanity (white supremacists and their ilk do the same thing at even greater extremes, and I believe their position to be detestable). I would be interested in learning more about Dr. Cone however, and am open to the possibility that I misjudge him, especially since I know so little about him. Again, I appreciate your comments in the article and in this thread. May we both grow in grace and in the knowledge of God this new year! You have my best wishes.

  11. Malcolm Foley

    One comment and one only:

    I would articulate the Gospel in precisely the way that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms do.

    But I do not contend that one must do so to be a Christian.

    That would toss out much of the invisible church.

    It is my desire to see often-denigrated, yet brilliant Black theologians like Cone receive what is due them. It’s OK to say that someone is right in many ways and wrong in many ways. Yes, the Gospel emphasizes Christ’s victory over sin and death. Cone chose not to emphasize that in his writing because of the tendency for people to use it to justify quietism, which is a misuse of the doctrine and which led to death for many.

    Understand that before the heresy charges start flying.

  12. DCGrad

    To follow-up on my previous comment, I think the best way to address the debate over Dr. Cone is to also address what the Gospel (and what Christianity) is. Malcolm Foley here says he used to take for granted that Dr. Cone contradicted what he “considered to be an orthodox understanding of the atonement and other core doctrines.” Mr. Foley then discusses how his views of Dr. Cone changed but does not address this hint that his own views of the atonement and of core doctrines may have changed.

    Indeed, the most succinct moment in which Mr. Foley addresses Dr. Cone’s understanding of the Gospel is when Mr. Foley writes: “God’s love is not compromised by your oppression. In fact, he [Christ] showed his love by undergoing your suffering and by suffering alongside you. This was, for Cone, the power of the Cross.” Christ most certainly did suffer alongside us, and Dr. Cone and Mr. Foley are correct in that such a fact comforts us and helps us to put our suffering in a fallen world in context. But that fact, by itself, is not the full Gospel. Christ came to earth not simply to suffer alongside the oppressed but also to redeem His people from their sins and reconcile us to God. Did Dr. Cone ever articulate that point as well? He may have done so, but it’s important to make that clear, because one of the critiques of liberation theologies of any stripe is (and always has been) that they fail to make that point.

  13. DCGrad

    The problem with this article is that it does not actually answer recent evangelical critiques of Dr. James Cone’s theology. Though well-written, it examines the reasons behind Dr. Cone’s ideas, not the extent to which those ideas mesh with the Gospel. Reasons exist for most major theologies. One could see the historic rise of Islam as an understandable response to the disorder of an increasingly post-Roman Empire world. One could see the Mauryan emperor Ashoka’s purported conversion to Buddhism as an understandable response to the violence of the wars he himself had previously helped to propagate. But being an understandable response to cultural realities does not make a theology either true or Christian. So it is not enough simply to explain the reasons behind Dr. Cone’s theology. One must show where Dr. Cone explained the true Gospel. Perhaps he did so; the last few paragraphs of this article began to address that point but fail to elaborate upon it, thus leaving the evangelical critiques of Dr. Cone largely intact.

  14. Pat Speer

    Thank you so much for this.

  15. Timothy

    Amen, Malcolm. Very well written, honest, and accurate.

  16. Alice

    Thank you. I appreciate the insightful thoughts on Black Theology. I will read the above books that I have not already read.

  17. Deborah

    Thank you for such a thoughtful explanation of Cone’s theology. I am saving your recommendations for future reference.

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