Reading Time: 8 minutes
Reading Time: 8 minutes
We are starting a mini-series to give high level overviews of some contemporary theologians, providing arguments for and against their positions. Part 1 discusses James H. Cone, an 81 year old Black man.
A Summary and Explanation of Black Liberation Theology
How does the Christian faith relate to our race and identity? How does faith relate to the oppressed? How does faith relate to our historical and political context? These are the types of questions James Cone answers in his writing.
James H. Cone is the Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, and winner of the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion (one of the highest accolades in the world of theology). Well-known as the founder of Black Liberation Theology, Cone’s seminal work, A Black Theology of Liberation, came out in 1970. He has continued to write on and foster dialogue concerning the intersection of race and Christian theology for over four decades.
Cone’s Black Liberation Theology primarily arises out of a consideration of context and experience. Whereas much of White theology has begun from philosophical propositions and ideas—which only occasionally leads to pragmatic applications—Black Liberation Theology begins with the pragmatic; Black Liberation Theology begins with the experience of oppression, suffering, and persecution, of Black people.
Cone’s work focuses on Black liberation in light of Scripture—that is, the liberation of Blacks from the place of oppression in which they have been placed, historically, by Whites. And this liberation from oppression extends to all areas where oppression occurs: economics, socio-political, institutional, etc.
Although on the surface Cone may at times appear to be more social or political than religious and theological, make no mistake: Cone’s arguments are deeply theological—taking shape in light of a reading of the Bible that centers upon God’s liberation of the oppressed.
Cone argues that race issues and the Gospel are intimately intertwined. Cone sees God’s liberation of the oppressed as a central and primary theme throughout the whole Bible. Cone cites the Exodus of the Israelites—who were slaves in Egypt—and the cries of the prophets, as testimony that God is angered by and concerned with the poor and oppressed. In his own words, “to speak of the God of Christianity is to speak of him who has defined himself according to the liberation of the oppressed.”
Cone contends, based on historical, social, and economic analysis, as well as personal context and experience, that Black people are the poor and the oppressed, and thus those with whom God sides. Drawing upon the life of Jesus, Cone says that:
“Jesus is pictured as the Oppressed One who views his own person and work as an identification with the humiliated condition of the poor. The poor were at the heart of his mission: “The last shall be first and the first last” (Matt. 20:16). That is why he was always kind to traitors, adulterers and sinners and why the Samaritan came out on top in the parable.”
Because Jesus identifies with the “humiliated condition of the poor,” and Black people are, in Cone’s analysis, the humiliated poor, Jesus identifies with Black people. Moreover, because God is the God of liberation, God desires the liberation of Black people from their place of oppression (and this means all forms of oppression; e.g. economic, social, institutional, etc.).
Despite the term “Black Theology,” Cone’s contentions profoundly affect White people—for they are the oppressors from whom Black people need liberation. It is important to note here that this is not simply a demonization of White people. Rather, Cone insightfully points to the historical relations between Blacks and Whites to justify his contentions: the colonialism of Europeans, the atrocities of slavery, and the brutality enacted upon Blacks by Whites.
Furthermore, it is important to understand that Cone does not contend that White people are beyond salvation. Rather, discussing the interconnectedness of the Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone states that:
“The cross can also redeem white lynchers and their descendants too but not without profound cost, not without the revelation of the wrath and justice of God, which executes divine judgment, with the demand for repentance and reparation, as a presupposition of divine mercy and forgiveness. Most whites want mercy and forgiveness but not justice and reparations; they want reconciliation without liberation, the resurrection without the cross.”
These are strong words. And for some, they may be difficult to hear. But Cone’s provoking and insightful theology demands serious thought. Cone argues that redemption and reconciliation require confronting the reality and difficulties of racism (both historical and current), and repenting as well as making reparation. It is not so simple as to say “all is forgiven, all is well, let’s carry on.”
Criticisms of Black Liberation Theology
As with all new and significant developments in a field of study, Cone is not without his critics. We have highlighted a few of them below.
One critique levied against Cone’s thought is his starting place: the experience of oppression. H. Wayne House comments that a key problem with Cone’s thought is that starting with human experience is too narrow. Instead, the starting point should be the question “Who is Christ?” Once this question has been answered, House says, it is then possible to explore “where [Christ] is in man’s existence and problems, and how Christ will provide the help man so desperately needs.” Thus, House argues, the problem with Black Liberation Theology lies in making human experience the starting point of theology, rather than the person, life, and work of Jesus the Christ.
Rev. James Ellis III mentions that no group has a monopoly on oppression, and thus he is concerned that Cone’s theology “can quite easily transform into an us versus them theological boxing match, with blacks being us and whites being them.” Ellis worries that Cone’s theology places too much emphasis on being black, and that this emphasis excludes other people and communities that also partake in being oppressed—in short, Cone’s theology does not provide enough space for non-Blacks and non-oppressors. Moreover, Ellis contends that Cone’s thought seems to ignore, or at least fails to address, that even within the black community there are those who are oppressors.
Frederick Sontag raises questions about whether Cone even succeeds on his own terms to articulate a Black Theology—or if instead, Cone has offered a “Coconut Theology,” i.e. one that appears to be black on the outside, but is truly built upon white theological norms. Sontag points to Cone’s European philosophical sources, and in particular Cone’s use of Marx, to raise suspicions about the truly ‘black’ nature of Cone’s theology. Additionally, Sontag questions if Cone has not overly simplified black religious experience, failing to account for the diversity of experiences had in the black community.
Dr. Anthony Bradley contends that Black Liberation Theology is problematic on two fronts: First, it promotes victimhood, and second, it promotes Marxism. To the first point, Bradley draws upon the work of John McWhorter to argue that Black Liberation Theology promotes victimhood—namely, it makes ‘being a victim’ the central component of one’s identity. This is problematic, because “reducing black identity to ‘victimhood’ distorts the reality of true progress.” Bradley signals Barack Obama’s presidency as one such indicator of true progress.
With regard to the promotion of Marxism, Bradley cites multiple comments and pieces by James Cone as well as Cornel West to show the interconnectedness of Black Liberation Theology and Marxism. Bradley suggests that Marxism actually furthers oppression. This is because it encourages Black people to depend on the government to provide for them, rather than seeking upward mobility for themselves. Thus, for Bradley, Black Liberation Theology serves to hinder, rather than help, Black people in America.
A deeper understanding of Black Liberation Theology and its critics requires far more space than we have here. If you’re interested in learning more, then we’d encourage you to dive in to the plethora of works on the subject. We would not do justice to Cone, Black Liberation Theology, or their critics, by writing a back and forth of both side’s arguments, so we’ll leave it to you to dig in deeper.
Cone’s work has greatly influenced the field of theology, and should spur each of us to pursue—not just think about—redemption and reconciliation, particularly in light of race and its continuous effect on the world. That being said, Cone’s work has its critics, and the points they raise are worthy of weighty consideration as well.
It’s worth remembering Cone has written far and wide on a host of subjects. Doctoral dissertations could be written on him and his works. Hence, this article only attempts to briefly overview some key aspects of his theology, as well as some of the criticisms raised in response to his thought.
What are your initial thoughts about Cone? Leave a comment below!
Recommendations for Further Reading:
Works of James Cone
- A Black Theology of Liberation
- “Black Theology and Black Liberation,” Christian Century, Sept. 16, 1970, pp. 1084-1088.
- The Cross and the Lynching Tree
- “Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 148 (March 2014) pp. 7-17.
- “Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy,” Black Theology: An International Journal, 2.2 (2004), pp. 139-152
Critiques of James Cone and/or Black Liberation Theology
- “Coconut Theology: Is James Cone the ‘Uncle Tom’ of Black Theology?” in The Journal of Religious Thought, Vol. 36, Issue 2, Fall 1979/Winter 1980, pp. 5-12.
- “The Marxist Roots of Black Liberation Theology,” Acton Institute, April 2, 2008. Accessed Feb. 1, 2018. <https://acton.org/pub/commentary/2008/04/02/marxist-roots-black-liberation-theology>
- “An Investigation of Black Liberation Theology,” March 9, 2007. Accessed Feb. 1, 2018. <https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/blackliberation.html>
- “A Critique of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology,” June 9, 2011. Accessed Feb. 1, 2018 <http://day1.org/3145-faith_seeking_understanding_a_critique_of_cones_black_liberation_theology>
About the Author:
Gareth Leake graduated with a Master of Theological Studies from Emory University. His research focused upon fourth-century Trinitarian theology.
 “Black Theology and Black Liberation,” in Christian Century, Sept. 16, 1970, p. 1086.
 “Black Theology and Black Liberation,” in Christian Century, Sept. 16, 1970, p. 1086.
 “Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 148 (March 2014), p. 15.
 “An Investigation of Black Liberation Theology,” March 9, 2007. Accessed Feb. 1, 2018. <https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/blackliberation.html>
 “A Critique of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology,” June 9, 2011. Accessed Feb. 1, 2018 <http://day1.org/3145-faith_seeking_understanding_a_critique_of_cones_black_liberation_theology>
 “Coconut Theology: Is James Cone the ‘Uncle Tom’ of Black Theology?” in The Journal of Religious Thought, Vol. 36 Issue 2, Fall 1979/Winter 1980, pp. 5-12.
 “The Marxist Roots of Black Liberation Theology,” Acton Institute, April 2, 2008. Accessed Feb. 1, 2018. <https://acton.org/pub/commentary/2008/04/02/marxist-roots-black-liberation-theology>