Why James H. Cone’s Liberation Theology Matters More Than Ever

In 1975’s God of the Oppressed, theologian James H. Cone described how Christian responses to the 1967 Detroit riot revealed not only an insensitivity to black suffering but, as he argued, a larger theological bankruptcy on the part of white theologians.

As he saw it, many white theologians of that era were not genuinely concerned about all cases of violence. Worried about the threat of black revolutionaries, they did not see the structure of violence embedded in U.S. law and carried out by the police. Cone asked: “Why didn’t we hear from the so-called nonviolent Christians when black people were violently enslaved, violently lynched, and violently ghettoized in the name of freedom and democracy?”

Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland have shown us that not much has changed since the summer of 1967.

While Cone proceeded to reimagine theology and American Christianity, many Christians ignored him or rejected his work. The national spotlight brought upon Cone’s black liberation theology in 2008 by the Jeremiah Wright-Obama controversy led to some sympathetic hearings but also sparked Christian accusations of “Marxist victimology.”

Conservative Christians have consistently ignored or rejected Cone—and liberation theologies—as heretical, unbiblical, reverse-racist class-warfare. A Christianity Today piece on Michael Brown suggests that Cone’s gospel is “for hatred, bitterness, [and] unforgiveness.” Even when he is not vehemently repudiated, I believe that Cone is largely misunderstood.

One misunderstanding of Cone takes the form of an endorsement. I’ve often heard Cone and other liberationists’ work reduced to the axiom, “all theology is contextual.” The main thing about Cone is that he contextualizes Christianity to his black experience, this interpretation goes. While perhaps not untrue, this reductionistic interpretation loses sight of the bigger picture. One cannot properly understand Cone’s claims about Black Power and God being black without understanding how Christianity got wrapped up with White Power in the first place—and made God white.

Cone’s project is not simply about experience but is a direct assault on theology’s entanglement with white racism. Cone was critiquing whiteness before virtually anyone in the theological academy realized what it was or the fact that it was a problem. To reduce liberation theory to “all theology is contextual” is a domesticating misreading that can amount to “to each their own.”

Meanwhile, a serious reading of Cone doesn’t stay at a neutral distance but confronts us with important decisions to be made about Christian theology as a whole.

In a recent lecture at Duke, Cone sketched the trajectory of his life’s work. He recalled how he had to respond to white theologians’ attitude that black people’s lives, thought, and theology were insignificant. How was it that the black church went ignored so long? Cone rethought U.S. church history by seeing it in light of the crucified. The black church that the white theological builders had rejected was actually the hermeneutical cornerstone for properly understanding God and Jesus.

Cone’s statement that “God is black” has always been grounded in Jesus’ Jewishness and the biblical narrative which presents God as being in solidarity with the oppressed. As he has clarified on numerous occasions, it is a symbolic statement and not a statement of biology or literal skin color. At the same time Christianity has said “God is white”—in deeds if not in exact words—for the past 500 years. That some hear God’s blackness as a zero-sum statement is a mistake.

In an interview this past January, Cone told HuffPo’s Paul Rauschenbush: “God is red. God is brown. God is yellow. God is gay…I don’t use blackness as a way to exclude anyone.”

Liberation theology is for the liberation of all creation and all people but not in a way that erases concrete injustices, inequalities, and power differentials in society. Cone says that oppressors “never recognize that the struggle of freedom is for all, including themselves.” Everyone needs to be set free. But all lives cannot truly matter unless black lives matter, or as Cone puts it: “if the bottom matters then everyone matters.” Given our nation’s ongoing history, the burden of proof does not lie with black liberation theology; the indictment is upon U.S. Christianity and its traditional theologies which have rendered black life irrelevant.

Some have juked Cone’s theological critique by blaming the problem on ethics. In other words, “Orthodox” theology is faultless but has been at times simply misapplied or not faithfully lived out. These critics say we should be sympathetic to Cone’s passion but reject his answers as “unbiblical and untenable.” But part of Cone’s brilliance was to avoid such an unhealthy disconnect between theology and ethics. If Cone is right (and I think he is), then we can’t keep using the master’s theological tools as they are to dismantle his church. If the theological well keeps yielding poison, we need to question that well and remember that God is the source of life.

In December 2014, I drew up and carried a sign with the words “James Cone Was Right” as I marched with members of the Union Theological Seminary community for the Millions March NYC. My sign became a hashtag and sparked a larger conversation. I think #JamesConeWasRight is about much more than just one person, it’s about voices that have long been sidelined; this includes Womanist theologians (many of whom were students of Cone who rightly critiqued him on sexism), Latin American theologians, and Queer theologians for example. There’s a whole host of voices that many churches have refused to listen to even as the poverty, abuses, and bodies have piled up around us.

Documented police brutality and current unrests have prompted more conservative Christians to take stronger stands for social justice and against racism. Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, denounced the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, saying: “…it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem.” And he recently explained that “normal Christianity is not white.”

This leaves me asking, again: will Christians who have long dismissed Cone ever admit that he was right?

  • Jim Reed

    To put Christianity into perspective, the Christian church was set up to be God’s spokesperson to the world, and Christians are those who believe it is.

  • conjurehealing

    James Cone has changed and evolved with the times, and has adjusted his theological perspective accordingly since 1969 when he came out with BLACK THEOLOGY AND BLACK POWER. We were all younger then, and the ideas are still relevant, but the very idea of “black theology” has been reshaped by theologians who are female, gay, white, dis-abled and many others. Black theology is no longer a single thing or perspective as the author here makes it out to be. Which Cone are you reading?

  • DHFabian

    The black power theme remains the same as it was by the late 1960s, in that it centers on the idea of a morally superior black people brutalized and oppressed by an evil white people. It clings to all the old stereotypes, and pits people more deeply against each other by race. When it comes to brutality, the overwhelming majority of victims are women — all races. When it comes to poverty, the great majority of desperately poor are white, and we live in an era when hatred for the poor dominates. It has been “open season” on our homeless for years, most of whom are white. When they are beaten or killed, whether by citizens or police, there is no public outrage, no protests, no concern whatsoever. America is more comfortable pretending that white poverty doesn’t exist.

    Hatred and brutality today are class-based, not race-based. Poor white and American Indian people largely live in the spaces between major urban areas, which can be an advantage; the fewer the people, the less conflict and violence. The hell and hopelessness of poverty remains the same. The rural poor can only laugh at the whole “white privilege” thing.

    Martin Luther King Jr. was right in pointing out these very facts. He said that if we had any sense, the poor of all races would unite to push back. What hasn’t changed is the reality that not everyone can work (health, etc.), and there aren’t jobs for all. The US shipped out a massive number of jobs since the 1980s, ended actual welfare in the 1990s, and got very, very tough on the poor.

  • DHFabian

    Indirectly related, you might find it interesting to explore current trends (in govt.) against the disabled, particularly since the Clinton administration. The thinking is that there is “no excuse” for the severely disabled to be jobless, which defies all logic. Weirder yet, there is a segment in the public arena that doesn’t even believe that disability/disabling conditions exist. I think this goes along with the common American idea: “Of course we’re willing to help the deserving poor, but no one who is poor is deserving.”

  • DHFabian

    I think Christians are those who try to follow Christ’s teachings. In our culture, churchism is far more popular than Christianity.

  • Jim Reed

    I think that is another way of saying it. Christ’s teachings come from the church. The church invented those teachings when they wrote the gospels, and refined the doctrines in the early centuries. The different denominations tend to see their sect as Christianity, and the other ones as churchism.

  • Jim Reed

    The rich are winning, and receiving all of the gains that the nation makes. The middle class has been holding even, and dropping. We started becoming concerned back in the Bush administration when we were losing pensions, and health care, then jobs, then houses. We are so concerned about ourselves, we no longer think much about the poor and disabled.

  • Jim Reed

    If we had any sense, the poor would unite with the middle class and stop voting for any Republicans. Vote for Democrats who are on the more liberal or socialism side of the spectrum. We could do this except the rich have all the money, and they use it to influence our votes. They have learned to keep us fighting each other so we won’t gang up on them.

  • Frank

    Since he wasn’t, no.

  • Aquifer

    I would quibble with just one statement …

    “But all lives cannot truly matter unless black lives matter,”

    I suggest the obverse – “Black lives cannot truly matter unless all lives matter” – a unifying banner – once we accept that all lives matter, of course that will include black lives, and yellow and red and brown, and, yeah, white ones… otherwise we wind up with dueling ideologies and which ones matter “more” or first, or whatever, and the resentment and division sure to follow – that was how we got “white privilege” – white folks started out long ago with a “white lives matter” movement, which, by the simple process of exclusion, sidelined the rest ….

  • Bern

    All perfectly true. However, it is racism as embedded in the American psyche and in every American system from educational to political to economic that, encouraged and abetted by the so-called conservatives that divides the poor and does so specifically to prevent them from coming together to stop the assault upon their persons and dignity. I would not say that the “black power theme” has remained unchanged since the 1960s–and even if that was so it is not what informs Cone’s theology either then or now.

  • Craptacular

    “Since he wasn’t, no.” – Frank

    Another well thought out, reasoned critique, Frank. Try to keep it under three words next time (great use of a contraction, btw), though, the RD servers are running out of storage space.

  • Frank

    A simple truth requires a simple reply.

  • Abide

    Liberation theology is consistent with recapitulation theory of the atonement – the one (of the six dominant theories) that best relates to us today. Penal substitution and satisfaction theories are limited to an Old Testament context and are a completely different track than anything that is useful. The contemplative tradition and the prophetic tradition, with which liberation theology is entwined, are the only approaches to Christianity that make Christianity in any way useful in the 21st Century. Apart from contemplative spirituality and social justice – we would be better off to throw Christianity out the window.

  • Jim Reed

    It’s not that simple. People don’t yet want to give up on the Promise.

  • Geoff, God of Biscuits

    Or you could just stop shooting unarmed black people. Crazy, I know, but maybe worth a (pun very much intended) shot.

  • Abide

    the promise that the human misunderstanding of god as represented by temple sacrifice will turn out to be true and, therefore, that god is a bloodthirsty monster, after all? that promise? no thanks.

  • Jim Reed

    Nowdays the promise is Jesus will take believers to heaven when they die. End times might seem like God is bloodthirsty, but belief has a promise of rapture to avoid the pain.

  • joeyj1220

    Not so sure I agree… did you read Cone’s “The Cross & The Lynching Tree”?

  • joeyj1220

    Should we be at all surprised to find out that Frank is not only homophobic and sexist, but is a racist as well?

  • Abide

    Frankly, I’m unconcerned concerning your agreement. It isn’t something I was seeking and being deprived of it means nothing to me.

  • joeyj1220

    Wow! So much for conversation….Excuse me princess