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A Black Theology of Liberation (Ethics and Society) Paperback – November 1, 1990
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Twenty years ago, when the civil rights and "Black Power" movements were at their peak, James Cone introduced a revolutionary theology based on the African-American experience of oppression and the quest for liberation. The book brought a new perspective to theology in the United States. 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 their struggle for liberation and justice. In seven brief chapters, he argues passionately that God must be on the side of oppressed black people and develops the concept of a black God, noting: "To say God is Creator means ... I am black because God is black!" The anniversary edition recognizes Cone's contribution to U.S. theology with a 50-page section of critical reflections by six leading theologians including Gayraud Wilmore, Robert McAfee Brown and Rosemary Radford Reuther. Cone responds to these commentaries in an afterword. The foreword points out Cone's influence on Latin American liberation theology. The interplay among text, commentaries, afterword and preface provides a lively discussion and analysis of developments in black liberation theology over the past two decades. The book should be read for the clarity with which it demonstrates the relationship between theology, oppression and liberation, and for its historic importance in raising the consciousness of its readers about the possibility of viewing God from a black perspective. Anyone concerned about U.S. social history, liberation theology and racism will find the book of interest. It is particularly suitable for university and seminary libraries. -- From Independent Publisher
About the Author
James H. Cone is Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. His many books include Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, The Spirituals and the Blues, and Martin & Malcolm & America.
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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.
He admits his own shortcomings in the preface for not dealing as effectively as he could have with women's and other minorities issues. His focus is freedom for Black America-for this he makes no apologies!
A must read for anyone who seeks to know what true liberation is.
Thank you Dr. Cone.