Customer Reviews: A Black Theology of Liberation
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on August 22, 2014
This is Cone's second book on black theology. Here he fleshes out his idea of liberation and revolution in a theological treatise. True Christians are those who join Jesus "in his fight for the liberation for humankind" (3). True liberation is one of any means necessary because it is a theology of survival. It's a theology of survival because oppressed blacks have their very existence threatened merely by being alive. Cone's theology is about self-assertion in the face of nonbeing; it's about doing theology different than whites and asserting the terms of your existence in the face of the oppressor. Here, this is Cone's world. He defines the game and also the rules. There are no outside views allowed in without his permission. In fact, one cannot even properly `do' theology if it doesn't arise from an oppressed bias (how this meshes with Cone's communally invented theology is unclear, however; cf. 1); Further, "whites are in no position whatever to question the legitimacy of black theology" (8); "the oppressor is in no position to understand the methods which the oppressed use in liberation (`oppressor meaning those who disagree with Cone; cf. 10); those outside of the black community "cannot tell the community what is or is not true and expect the community to take it seriously" (41); "The function of theology is that of analyzing the meaning of that liberation for the oppressed so they can know that their struggle for political, social, and economic justice is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any message that is not related to the poor in a society is not Christ's message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology" (v). There is also the notion that one can't even understand it unless one is black: "an authentic understanding is dependent on the blackness of their existence in the world" (v).

Cone asserts that Christian theology, God and Jesus all must be (or become) black. There was a debate in black theology of how to use the term `black.' For example, one of the more extreme views came from Albert Cleage, who asserted that Jesus was literally black, Hebrews were literally black, and the gospel was literally only to form a black nationalism of saved black people. Cone's work, if skimmed, will lead one to conclude the same. However, he does make clear in his work that he means for the term `black' to be taken symbolically for `oppressed.' Thus, black is to be equated with the oppressed and white is to be equated with the oppressor. The tone of the book also will alienate many readers, as it is often insulting, racially charged, acerbic, etc. But Cone is quick to state that his reason for using this type of language was the only way for him to be heard. The book should be read as it is, understanding the lived reality that this comes from.

Cone believed he couldn't use white standards of theology for solving the problem of racism. As he says, "white theologians defined the discipline of theology in the light of the problem of the unbeliever . . . and thus unrelated to the problem of slavery and racism" (xiii). Nor did Cone care about white standards of theology. It was not the place to discuss the nature of theology. There was an existential crisis at hand: "The task of explicating the gospel as God's liberating presence with oppressed blacks was too urgent to be sidetracked into an academic debate with white scholars about the nature of theology" (xiii).

There is much of Cone's theology that is extremely similar to what I will simply label liberal theology. For example, the idea of the danger of assurance in knowledge or religion. He writes, "Whites who insist on verbal infallibility are often the most violent racists. If they can be sure, beyond any doubt, of their views of scripture, then they can be equally resolute in imposing their views on society as a whole" (32). However, a reading of about three pages of Cone's work will realize this statement applies equally to him. This is a common feature of liberal theologies - assert the oppression inherent in theological confidence or assurance, and then use that weakened theology to assert your own theology in virtually certain terms. Another commonality with liberal theology is his view of the Bible and the nature of revelation, which encompasses a big theme in the book. Cone believes in the `inspiring' view of the Bible. In other words, the Bible is `inspired` because people find it inspiring. He writes, "The meaning of scripture is not to be found the words of scripture as such but only in the power to point beyond itself to the reality of God's revelation--and in America, that means black liberation. Herein lies the key to the meaning of biblical inspiration" (32). The Bible is inspired because "by reading it a community can encounter the resurrected Jesus and thus be moved to risk everything for earthly freedom" (33). Also, like liberal theology, black theology rejects the otherworldly focus of heaven: "The eschatological promise of a distant, future heaven is insufficient to account for the earthly pain of black suffering" (17). Priority is put on political realities as opposed to `heavenly' realities. Finally, similar to the first, Cone points out the seeming relativity of all religions and moral values (except for oppression apparently; cf. 40-41). This reliance on what I call liberal theology is one of the biggest weaknesses of the work itself. Cone notes this even in the work, but argues that he had no other choice but to borrow from white theology. Where else would he form his constructs? This is a fair response, I think.

So, while it is clear that virtually all white theology is oppressive, Cone utilizes an unusual amount of oppressive theology to construct his own system. Aside from his seeming fondness for many of the tenets of neoorthodoxy and Paul Tillich, Cone's general approach is simply what I called liberal (obviously this is my broad generalization; He notes the depth of his reliance on these liberal theologians later, cf. the 1986 preface and other works by him). In other words, it's a relativistic, bottom-up approach that creates its own themes and texts to prioritize and emphasize, often (in my opinion anyway) to the neglect of the whole witness of scripture. This is no doubt due to Cone's educational training, but I'm not sure he saw (at least in this book) that his appeal to these methods and approaches to the Bible really in a certain sense pulled the rug out from under his own feet. Consider the first statements to his 1986 preface: "Theology is not universal language about God. Rather, it is human speech informed by historical and theological traditions, and written for particular times and places. Theology is contextual language--that is, defined by the human situation that gives birth to it. No one can write theology for all times, places, and persons" (xi). The idea here is contextualization, how a church or certain community applies what it takes to be the gospel to itself. But it's more than just contextualization. Cone's position here is literally one of self-invention (I don`t mean completely ex nihilo). Theology can be invented as new types of communities arise according to the social situation at hand. So, we can have `black' theology, `white' theology, third world theology, gay theology, etc. The problem is that throughout the entirety of the book Cone rails against racial oppression, and rightly so--but his underlying theological approach of invented communal theologies doesn't provide much in the way of ammunition to chide another community's theology. Compare these statements with Cone's reflections of his book sixteen years later: "I am convinced that no one should claim to be doing Christian theology today without making the liberation of the Third World from the exploitation of the first World and the Second World a central aspect of its purpose" (xvii). Or compare, "There can be no Christian theology which does not have Jesus Christ as its point of departure" (5). This unavoidability of using metanarratival language is palpable through the work and reflects the inherent foundational weaknesses of the traditional liberal approaches to theology.

Perhaps the biggest underlying theme of Cone's book is the idea that revelation is God's continuing activity in the world and not his revealed word to the biblical authors, prophets, etc. The idea here is that God can procure amazing miracles to free the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, but apparently can't objectively communicate to his people in an objective fashion and in a way that transcends their historical time frame. God can only speak through particular activity. Thus, the real question for the black community during this time period was one of theodicy: where is God when black bodies are being destroyed physically and existentially? Or to put it in terms of revelation, where is God active (`revealing' himself) in the world during their oppression? Cone's answer is that God is the God of the politically and culturally oppressed and that in America, this oppression primarily occurs in the form of white racism. Because God is good he chooses sides in these `battles,' and `sides' with the oppressed. So, his `revelation,' his activity, is in liberating the oppressed from their oppressors. Black theology exists, then, "to put into ordered speech the meaning of God's activity in the world, so that the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ" (1). So, theology is for figuring out how God is working and fighting against oppression. This theodical question relates directly to the question of God's revelation (his activity). Cone says, "We must make decisions about where God is at work so we can join in the fight against evil" (7). This is perhaps a linchpin in the whole book. Because Cone believes the Bible isn't itself revelation, but merely `contains' it, as neoorthodoxy holds, it is up to anyone at anytime to figure out where God is working in the present. For Cone it is the black community: "We are thus placed in an existential situation of freedom in which the burden is on us to make decisions without a guaranteed ethical guide. This is the risk of faith" (7).

So, God sides with the oppressed. Cone appeals to the Bible to make his case. His primary evidence is the Exodus event (perhaps the biggest event that has been important in black religion in America), the prophetic witness, and the life of Jesus. The Kingdom of God (KOG), for example, means "human beings are liberated and thus free to rebel against all powers that threaten human life" (3). In fact, there is a quasi-mystical link that oppression creates. Cone seems to believe that God's elect are the oppressed, and that the act of being oppressed means one belongs in the KOG. Jesus' resurrection makes liberation possible. God's preference for the oppressed can be seen in the example of Jesus: He was born in a trough and he identified with sinners by being baptized with John. The KOG is for the materially poor. Finally, by his death and resurrection, God takes upon all human oppression and overcomes it.

But there has to be a method of figuring out how God acts in the world today, since we don't have anyone doing any divinely inspired writings today (the relevant question here is, "Why not?" If it is just merely `inspiring,' why aren't more people writing scripture or adding on to the canon of the Bible?). Cone's foundational epistemology presupposes that `truth' is defined by an oppressed community. "According to black theology, revelation must mean more than just divine self-disclosure. Revelation is God's self-disclosure to humankind in the context of liberation" (45). So, wherever there is oppression, there is God working. Of course an initial question that pops into my mind is to ask whether God can work without oppression. Is there no way in which God can work without some oppression going on? Cone does say, "There is no revelation of God without a condition of oppression which develops into a situation of liberation. Revelation is only for the oppressed of the land" (45). Only the oppressed can *see* God's revelation (47). Thus, "Faith . . . is the perspective which enables human beings to recognize God's actions in human history;" it's the way of fighting against oppression (47-48). Revelation comes in individual acts of resistance, revolution, or what have you: "To the extent that we are creatures who rebel against ungodly treatment, God's self-revelation is granted. All human acts against alienative powers of enslavement are acts of God" (50). So, God's liberating acts are equated with human liberating acts.

`White' theology cannot speak to black experience, Cone believes. He asserts, "The weakness of white American theology is that it seldom gets beyond the first century in its analysis of revelation. If I read the New Testament correctly, the resurrection of Jesus means that he is present today in the midst of all societies effecting his liberation of the oppressed. He is not confined to the first century, and thus our talk of him in the past is important only insofar as it leads us to an encounter with him now. As a black theologian, I want to know what God's revelation means right now as the black community participates in the struggle for liberation" (30). Again, there is this contextualization issue - that white American theology doesn't speak to the black American experience. There is likely a lot of truth to this, but even black theologians acknowledge the truth of the idea that you have to know where you came from to know who you are. By acknowledging the proper setting of the first century, we get a better idea of Jesus and his world, and can know ourselves a little bit better. Of course I realize that this is a theological luxury that not all Christians have, but I don't accept that that fact is an argument to neglect the first century. What we know about the first few centuries of church history is that all of these doctrines that Cone says aren't relevant to oppressed communities were often life and death issues for Christians. In other words the Nicene Creed had existential meaning and import to those groups, for example. The term `homoousios' had existential import. Christians don't deny that Christ is present amidst suffering. In fact, it's one of the premises of any general Christian theodicy. While Cone says American theology can't get past the first century view of revelation he doesn't really say why -- it's because the early church believed that divine revelation of the kind we find in the New Testament stopped with the death of the apostles. Cone would have the Christian be a Sherlock Holmes, going through life looking for clues of God's revelatory activity in any aspect, trying to figure out what God is doing. And Cone doesn`t see the danger inherent in this idea when you combined it with an inductive approach to revelation. If divine revelation is defined by the community in a bottom-up event, then any community can define any activity in the present as God's work. Does that mean that we don't think God is present in people's suffering? Of course not. Cone is just determining how God must speak as any other community that holds to his presuppositions would as well.

However, to his credit, Cone emphasizes God's righteousness and justice (69). He argues God's love and righteousness cannot be separated from his wrath. "Is it possible to understand what God's love means for the oppressed without making wrath an essential ingredient of that love" (69-74)? Obviously God cannot just love people out of oppression. This is a more realistic look than liberal theology, who removes any foundation or opportunity for God's justice.

Cone is right about much in this work. He's right when he says, "white American theology has served oppressors well," (cf. 9). Of course, this is just one part of the story. The same biblical texts were used to argue against slavery. He's also correct when he writes, "The sin of American theology is that it has spoken without passion. It has failed miserably in relating its work to the oppressed in society by refusing to confront the structures of this nation with the evils of racism" (18). Well, why this isn't true of the Civil War, he's right that most Christian theologians have not tried to invent new structures of society to solve the race issue in America. What this would mean - I mean getting down to the nitty-gritty of actually thinking of how to restructure society in some fashion I have no clue. But he's right in his broad point here. Cone's method of knowing how God acts, by conflating God's liberating acts with human liberating acts is very intriguing. It stressed the important point that God acts in history, but does it do too much? Does it leave room for any behavior? At times, one gets the impression that black theology is whatever an oppressed person wants it to be. Yes, Cone does say we cannot make the biblical revelation say whatever we want, but it's not clear that this warning can be filtered down to the masses. For example, he says ". . . black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community" (27). Or he writes, "It matters little to the oppressed who authored scripture; what is important is whether it can serve as a weapon against oppressors" (31); "Black theology is concerned only with the tradition of Christianity that is usable in the black liberation struggle" (35). I guess my point is while Cone gives lip service to the biblical witness, one may find it ultimately lacking when you put the entire book together as a whole.

Cone also resonates with me when he writes, "The weakness of most `Christian' approaches to anthropology stems from a preoccupation with (and distortion of) the God-problem, leaving concrete, oppressed human beings unrecognized and degraded. This is evident, for instance, in fundamentalist and orthodox theologies when they view the infallibility of the Bible as the sole ground of religions authority and fail to ask about the relevance of the inerrancy of scripture to the wretched of the earth . . . more emphasis will be placed upon `true' propositions about God than upon God as active in the liberation of the oppressed of the land" (82-83). Though I fall in the camp he criticizes, he is correct. Every year a plethora of books come out answering the same questions over and over. And while I'm not arguing that these are unnecessary, it does seem rather lopsided, that we should write books on nothing but systematic theology while neglecting how to contextualize the gospel in our own land.

A couple of practical problems bothered me. First, his treatment of black churches and this notion that all blacks must think and agree on every single important issue is socially problematic. Cone regrets other blacks who form their own theologies. He calls these "Uncle Tom approach[es] of black churches" because he argues these are founded on white theology (57). But, is black theology the only option for the blacks? Second, Cone never makes clear how someone is supposed to divest themselves of whiteness in practical terms. Cone says, "those who wish to join us in this divine work must be willing to lose their white identity--indeed, destroy it" (63). However, this doesn't tell me what to do with my day to day life. Of course the book wasn't written for this purpose. And this isn't a knock at the book, just a critique at the broader movement generally. I've never read what it would mean practically speaking to divest myself of whiteness. How would it change my day to day life? But it is clear it's not something that any human can just *do,* for salvation is God's work. It's a gift (66).

The weakest part of Cone's treatment is theodical and is related to the inability to reconcile the entire breadth of scripture. Why would God use oppressive regimes and nations to oppress his own people? Of course, this is one of the main problems of any liberal hermeneutic. There is no standard of what is normative for the `community' and no particular invented theology can be made to answer to a higher standard because they have made themselves the standard. What would Cone do with Habakkuk`s central message that God is using the more sinful nation of Babylon to judge his own people? Doesn't it appear that God does side with oppressors at times? Cone deals with this issue, of whether human suffering falls under the rubric of divine providence, and he concludes, "black theology cannot accept any view of God that even indirectly places divine approval on human suffering . . . God cannot be the God of blacks and will their suffering. To be elected by God does not mean freely accepting the evils of oppressors" (80-81). This notion of passive suffering Cone condemns and says is unbiblical. The suffering that is biblical is that which "arises from a decision to be in spite of nonbeing . . . It is suffering in the struggle for liberation" (81). But this has radical implications on God's existence, because either God is all-powerful to stop oppression or he is not. If he is not all-powerful, then he is really incapable of stopping suffering (how he can procure salvation on a cross and yet not in other historical situations becomes confusing). And if God is not all-powerful to stop suffering, then he shouldn't go messing around with having nations oppress other nations! Perhaps God will get himself into a situation that he can't get out of. And yet Cone says that God's self-existence has no effect on black existence! The implicit idea here is that theology doesn't answer existential questions of the oppressed. He asks, "What has the idea of God's self-existence to do with the existence of the oppressed" (75)? Perhaps everything! Would the Lollards or Wycliffe have said that theology doesn`t deal with existential reality? The Sinaitic Covenant (which is Cone's dominating motif) reveals God is on the side of the oppressed, and yet he forgets that soon after the Exodus God killed the newly freed oppressed. He writes, "The entire history of Israel is a history of what God has done, is doing, and will do in moments of oppression" (47). This is only partially true, however. It's as much about God bringing oppression on other nations of the world. It's about God's freedom to work out his own purposes, not about God's inability or constraint to act according to our theological categories. Ultimately, I think it is unclear what purpose suffering serves for Cone. Apparently it serves no purpose. And we are supposed to worship a God who lets me suffer for no reason? Cone asserts that only oppressors can argue that divine providence involves suffering (80). Might it be then, than only cruel theologians allow people to suffer for no good reason whatsoever?

Perhaps the biggest problem is to ask where and when is God doing this liberating work? If revelation is defined as God's activity in the world today and not just the first century, *where* is this taking place? We see plenty of talk about it in liberal seminaries and in Cone's theological works, but one is hard pressed to find an example of where the oppressed are being objectively liberated! The poor in South America handily abandoned liberation theology for a poor man's Pentecostalism while the Chinese merely build underground churches and continue to worship without staging protests and asserting their political liberation. Liberation theology is a thin minority in virtually every place it's attempted except liberal American universities. So, while American `oppressive' theology will apparently continue to talk about the poor and not do anything about it (by `not do anything about it' I mean some type of radical overthrow of the economic structures of a nation or something of that nature, for it's always true that those with that `oppressive' theology are always the biggest donators of charity and service in society. It's just that these don't `count,' when it comes to liberal theology), various forms of liberation theology will continue to talk about the poor in university circles, `church' councils and by having a virtual 100% fail rate of actually liberating anyone. I guess no one's theology works perfectly. But there's even a deeper problem here. If the oppressed are necessarily the only members of the KOG and are blessed, then why would anyone want to be liberated? Are oppressed and oppressor our only paradigm of existence, as Cone seems to implicitly suggest? Well, if so, once liberation occurs, the newly liberated Christian must no longer be a Christian since he is now an oppressor! So much for liberation - God would be working against himself! In fact, this system must mean that God must be required to keep his beloved under the boot of any oppressor just to let them know they are God's children. "Thanks, Dad!" Cone sees perhaps not this outcome, but the beginnings of it when he asks, "what could `winning' possibly mean" (41)? The goal of Cone's theology is not to `win' or get out of oppression, but merely to assert their humanity within oppression and to not let their existence be defined by the oppressors. But this has to be held in tension with the oft-used revolutionary language that Cone uses. For revolution is clearly for `winning' if I understand the term correctly. And this book is as much of a work of revolution as it is liberation. So, at the end of the day there's a tension here, between `winning' and not `winning'; a tension of revolution and remaining oppressed; of becoming oppressors or remaining oppressed. Cone further notes this notion. On the one hand, "If the content of the gospel if liberation, human existence must be explained as `being in freedom,` which means rebellion against every form of slavery, the suppression of everything creative" (87). On the other hand, "Freedom is the opposite of oppression, but only the oppressed are truly free" (87). It is the "participation of the whole person in the liberation struggle" (93). So, it seems that the theology that most hates oppression requires oppression as the foundation for their very theology! If freedom can only be found in oppression, and human freedom is a good thing, then God must be the ultimate oppressor, for the good of humanity. While Cone denies these notions to God's providence, are not these the very notions of God's providence held by `white' theologians? Cone writes that freedom necessarily "involves suffering because liberation means a confrontation between evil and the will of the God who directs history" (100-101). Then oppression must be perpetual for freedom. Liberation can only be found within situations of evil, thus oppressors are doing a sort of implicit divine favor for the oppressed. Of course this is only complicated by the fact that oppressors are themselves oppressed. Oppressors are "enslaved and dehumanized by their own will to power" (103). The difference between the two is that the oppressors' oppression is voluntarily entered into, while the oppressed's oppression is not. These tensions are not so much `gotcha' moments for Amazon reviewers. Rather, they should be seen as evidence of the importance Cone believed his work to be, and the urgency with which he felt it needed to be said. That in itself is not a bad thing. It's just for future reflection.

So the big question is why is this a gospel of revolution and not passive acceptance of suffering? If true freedom is found in oppression and God's elect are only those that are oppressed, why would you fight not to be oppressed (aside from merely asserting your humanity)? Why would you even talk about revolution or a radical restructuring of society? A restructuring of society where everyone has *freedom* means that no one has freedom because freedom must be found in oppression. So, it's not clear whether liberation of oppression is what Cone wants. Cone makes vehemently clear that God is for liberating the oppressed. However, at other times, it's clear that those that belong to God *are* the oppressed. So, is God liberating his elect from oppression, or choosing to put his people into oppression to show them they are his children? Further, why would one want to be liberated from oppression if oppression equates with God's election? Since the history of the world is one of oppression, perhaps one should rather conclude that the God that exists apparently loves oppression rather than relieving people of oppression because it usually seems to win the day.

Finally, the last question remaining for me concerns what theology we should adopt once a particular group is liberated. If, for example, Cone's revolution actually took place the way he wants in America, do we form a new theology ex nihilo?

Fascinating work. It has its shortcomings, but it is worth the read for anyone studying theology.
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James Hal Cone (born 1938) is the founder of Black Liberation Theology, a Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, and author of books such as Black Theology and Black Power,God of the Oppressed,Black Theology: A Documentary History, etc.

He wrote in the Preface to this 1970 book, "It is my contention that Christianity is essentially a religion of liberation... Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in the society is not Christ's message... Christian theology must become Black Theology, a theology that is unreservedly identified with the goals of the oppressed community and seeking to interpret the divine character of their struggle for liberation."

For Cone, the role of Black Theology is to tell black people to focus on their own self-determination as a community by preparing to do anything which the community believes to be necessary for its existence. (Pg. 41) Black Theology "rejects the tendency of classical Christianity to appeal to divine providence." (Pg. 44) Black Theology is only concerned with that tradition of Christianity "which is usable in the black liberation struggle." (Pg. 74)

He argues that the wrath of God is the love of God in regard to "the forces against his liberation of the oppressed." (Pg. 133) Moreover, Black Theology is suspicious of people who appeal to a universal, ideal humanity, because "the oppressors are ardent lovers of humanity." (Pg. 156)

Cone's book is more than 40 years old; but while some of its tone may seem to have been a "product of its time," other insights are still a piercing as they were in 1970.
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on December 19, 1999
Cone offers a radical reexamination of Christianity from the perspective of an oppressed Black community, dealing primarily with the notion that "white" theology cannot be accepted by African Americans, unless it can be directly related to "black" freedom from oppression. "Black" and "White" do not necessarily relate to skin pigmentation but to "one's attitude and action toward the liberation of the oppressed black people from white racism". Blackness is thus "an ontological symbol for all people who participate in the liberation of man from oppression". Seen in this light, "blackness" can be attributed to people who do not have black skin but who do work for the liberation of African Americans. By contrast, "whiteness" in Cone's thought symbolizes the ethnocentric activity of "madmen sick with their own self-concept" and thus blind to that which ails them and oppresses others. Whiteness, in Cone's view, symbolizes sickness and oppression, and White theology is therefore viewed as a theological extension of that sickness and oppression. Cone emphasizes that there is a very close relationship between black theology and what has been termed "black power". Cone says that black power is a phrase that represents both black freedom and black self-determination "wherein black people no longer view themselves as without human dignity but as men, human beings with the ability to carve out their own destiny." Cone's theology asks the question, "What does the Christian gospel have to say to powerless black men whose existence is threatened daily by the insidious tentacles of white power?" He says Black Theology is derived from "...common experience among black people in America that Black Theology elevates as the supreme test of truth". To put it simply, Black Theology knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself. This alone must be the ultimate authority in Black religious matters. Cone's book, A Black Theology of Liberation has been labeled as revolutionary because it claims that White theology has no relevance as Jesus Christ's message because it was "...not related to the liberation of the poor." It also asserts that "racism... is found not only in American society and its churches but particularly in the discipline in theology, affecting its nature and purpose." Cone rejects any form of Christianity that defends the oppressive status quo. He argues persuasively that the God of the Bible is first of all, a God of the poor and of those seeking freedom from oppression. Cone feels that what was needed was a "fresh start" in theology that would rise out of the black struggle for justice, and be in no way dependent upon the approval of white academics or religious leaders. Cone contends that theology grows out of the experience of the community; the community itself defines what God means. Western European theology serves the oppressors; therefore, theology for African Americans should validate the African American struggle for freedom from oppression and for justice. Cone argues that God must be on the side of oppressed Black people and presents the concept of a black God, with the words: "To say God is Creator means... I am black because God is black!" He claims that the preaching of God's Word, the teaching of God's love for mankind, love for one's neighbor, and forgiveness are spoken with a "white" interpretation. Although Cone admits that the teaching of brotherly kindness may have slightly helped his cause, dhe attacks the hypocrisy of white theologians who preach love, yet do nothing to ease the oppression of blacks. Cone states that the sole purpose of God in black theology is to "illuminate the black condition so that blacks can see that their liberation is the manifestation of God's activity". He reconciles the objections of some that proclaim the need of a more universal God in Black Theology; he replies that God is universal, He is Black. One of the more controversial aspects of Cone's Theology is his view that Jesus, too is black: "The `raceless' American Christ has a light skin, wavy brown hair, and sometimes - wonder of wonders - blue eyes. For whites to find him with big lips and kinky hair is as offensive as it was for the Pharisees to find him partying with tax collectors. But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black... with all of the features which are so detestable to white society".
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on April 30, 2015
As a former Warfare Planner, I found that most of this textbook stayed within the boundaries already set by the mainstream society. Historical realities show those who managed to elevate themselves to levels of prominence continuing their predation on the uneducated & disenfranchised. The author clearly chose not to delve into the realities of the Black American experience, nor the complex sets of events that put Christianity on the Black American Plate. Liberation, as the author defines it, does not provide a viable path to either a Christian or a Heathen God, nor acceptance in a society whose fabric endorses racial and cultural division. It basically translates into just what Christianity was designed to be - a means to control and exploit a defined population. Unfortunately, Black Americans have (1) adapted to this paradigm, and (2) have become complacent and obsessed with the notion of "hope", preferring to be ruled and oppressed than to move in a mature manner to socioeconomic parity. Most so-called "Liberationists" do not have a concept of the complexities that would sustain achieving liberation; much less than how to achieve it in a society that already has an established governance that is overtly shared across numerous ethnic, racial, social, and religious venues. This book is an excellent example of just how misleading a popular concept can be biased into cultural futility.
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on November 30, 2012
James Cone is one of the big heavies in Black Liberation Theology. It's kind of an offshoot of Liberation Theology, made popular in South America, which began when South American Christians picked up the Bible and found emphases in it that their white European counterparts had missed or obscured to some degree-- emphases like justice and liberation for the oppressed and downtrodden (Luke 4:16-21, Matthew 25:31-45, etc.). Though they are quite important, in Liberation movements, these emphases can often drown out other, extremely vital, elements of the Christian faith (particularly when mixed with Marxism), as they clearly do in Cone's Black Liberation Theology.

However, while Cone does make sure the emphases of justice and liberation in the Christian Scripture and tradition shine through, he also makes his own experience the judge of who God is and what God is for. While "white" Christianity does this without realizing it, Cone does so with full knowledge. So, for instance, while a conservative "white" theologian would say that his own views and actions *should* be judged by the Scripture, Cone makes the judgement of the oppressed black community the ultimate truth for them-- and if genocide against whites is decided by the group as the means to effect their liberation, so be it. Cone explicitly distances himself from the approach of King, identifying more with the violence-prone philosophy of the Nation of Islam as propounded by Malcolm X. If someone criticizes his approach, he assumes that they're doing so as a "white" oppressor and should be ignored-- an oppressor has no moral right to question the rightness or wrongness of the actions of the people he is oppressing. This of course ignores the non-violent Christian movements of blacks like King, Tutu, etc. Unfortunately, Cone also equates non-violence with inaction and acquiescence. While he is correct in seeing liberation as an important theme in the Christian faith, he, like "white" religionists, allows his experience and emotions to determine what is right and wrong to the point of supporting evil in the interest of what he feels is best for his community.

One major problem with his view of violent revolution (apart from it being un-Christlike) is that when oppressed people rise up through violence, they become the oppressor-- co-opting the tools of oppression and dehumanization. "Blacks" become "white" through the use of violence. Cone apparently hasn't read about the Bolshevik, Cuban, or French revolutions, or if he did, he didn't understand them, as he clearly doesn't understand Nat Turner-- turning him into an unqualified hero. Cone's system re-establishes and re-affirms oppression-- it does not end it.

Also, like "white" religionists, he sees reality in terms of black and white-- literally! He uses the word "white" to mean the oppressor God hates and "black" to mean the oppressed which God endorses with qualification. He makes small caveats at points to say that it is not his contention that all whites are evil or all blacks are good, but his language is so stark and violent at times, it becomes difficult to tell if he really means those caveats (It's also difficult to know when he's using them literally or metaphorically-- it seems interchangeable for him). God is black and the devil is white, because God supports the oppressed and the devil supports the oppressor. But in so closely identifying God with blackness, the actions of those in the black community are now above being questioned, just like the actions of white enslavers were, according to them, above being questioned because they aligned themselves with God and those whom they oppressed with the devil.

What Cone is really trying to get at is that since Jesus supports the cause of the oppressed, the oppressor must so distance himself from his oppressor identity that he becomes indistinguishable from the oppressed-- willing to suffer along with them-- if he is to be Christ-like. In other words, the "white" must become "black." Cone says that God can't be colorless where people suffer for their color. So, where blacks suffer God is black. Taking this logic, which is indeed rooted in Scripture, where the poor suffer, God is poor. Where babies are killed in the womb, God is an aborted baby. Where gay people are bullied, God is gay. It is our obligation to identify with the downtrodden, because that's what Jesus did. Paul, quoting a hymn of the church about Jesus, puts it this way:
"In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
'Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death--
even death on a cross!'"
--Philippians 2:5-8

Elsewhere, using a different emphasis, he says it like this:
"He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
--2 Corinthians 5:21

Jesus not only gives up his power to express love to the powerless by identifying with them, He also takes on their sin and suffers with and for them. This is the essence of the gospel, and it often gets lost when we translate it into our daily lives. For Cone, it gets lost in the banner of black militantism. For so many American Christians, it gets lost when they reduce the political nature of Christianity to scolding those whose private expression of morality doesn't line up with theirs. We refuse to identify with sinners (which is a category we all fit into) in love.
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on January 4, 2013
This book, in my understanding, was one of the first and most important attempts at putting down on paper a cohesive black liberation theology. Cone is clearly well-educated and well-read, however his logic and basis of authority leave a lot to be desired. He tends to begin his remarks in each section with a well-researched history and discussion of the given theological topic, but then makes rather abrupt jumps to his clear agenda of black liberation which, in many cases, are not supported by scriptural or historical sources, or are even logical given his reasoning. Basically, he tends to make bold and sweeping assertions without adequately or logically supporting them.
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on March 16, 2016
Great book! We need more books and theologians like this who are willing to apologize when they're wrong. Dr. Cone highlights the holes in traditional theology, but has apologized for his earlier works which were non-gender inclusive. He's one theologian that is worth reading. He's deep and he's also deep in the Word as well.
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on June 2, 2016
This was a tough read for awhile guy. But very glad I invested the time. I was challenged and stretched. Did not agree with all the Dr. Cone wrote, but he is brilliant in his grasp of theology and the application to the social condition in which he first authored the book.
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on December 16, 2015
This is, I think, possibly the most significant theology text of the twentieth century. Here Cone deftly exposes white supremacy as a theological problem that is a threat to God's revelation in Christ precisely because it is a threat to black existence. Cone develops new sources and norms for black theology--a theology that is able to challenge the sovereignty of whiteness and instead see that Christ is the revelation of God's being for human freedom. As such, the struggle for freedom that occurs in black struggle is where God is revealed in the world. In all, Cone develops an innovative systematic theology that is tightly woven and clearly articulated. I think many understate just how well written and argued this book is, reducing Cone's argument to caricatures that allow them to dismiss his radical claims. But, if we take seriously the problem of idolatry that whiteness presents for theology, Only the most radical stance can be taken to affirm black humanity and God as a God of freedom.
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on May 21, 2015
Dr. Cone offers a theological point of view that challenges theologians who have been trained to see Christ through a euro-centric lens.

A must read for anyone who seeks to know what true liberation is.

Thank you Dr. Cone.
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