On the Assault of James Cone & Black Liberation Theology
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.
Read Martin & Malcolm.
Read the books and understand the struggle.