by Rev. James Ellis III
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. 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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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."
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. 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. 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.
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