I am reading from the 1990, 20th Anniversary Edition. This volume includes a new section that features critical reflections from several theologians who are specialists in the field of Liberation Theology.
A. Preliminary notes for consideration
First, we must understand that Cone, a distinguished professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary (NY), wrote this work at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and from a “black perspective.” This means his book must be read in its socio-political context and from the viewpoint of the black community which has been oppressed and marginalized in the United States for more than two centuries.
Second, the book’s intended audience is the black community and not the Anglo community, which Cone identifies as the oppressors of blacks, either directly or indirectly. Cone voices his frustrations as a Black theologian, knowing he will be misunderstood as he seeks to explain the redemptive nature of salvation history in the terms of an earthly liberation for the subjugated and exploited masses, starting with the Exodus and extending to the present time.
Third, because it was written in 1970, “A Black Theology of Liberation” contains dated materials, although many principles that underlie the book’s premise remain valid. Cone admits, for example, in the Preface of the 20th anniversary edition that his original work was marred by his lack of knowledge regarding the global dimension of oppression, ranging from sexism to colonialism to crony capitalism. He also faulted his methodological dependence on Karl Barth and other continental theologians. Likewise, he admits that at the time of the writing he naïvely believed if racial integration succeeded then racism as a practice would fall by the wayside. Obviously, it did not.
In his Preface Cone also explains that he has refused to define the gospel in a non-offensive way, e.g. “Believe in Jesus if you want to go to heaven.” Even a white racist can say “Amen” to that. Rather, the gospel, according to Cone, includes a message of liberation for the oppressed in the here and now, which is very much offensive to the oppressors.
B. Chapter 1 – Summary and Reflections
According to Cone, Christian theology is liberation theology, which sets people free both spiritually and politically. As such, God is the God of the oppressed. This means God is for the oppressed. In an American context, God is for Blacks; hence, the term “Black Theology.” Blackness, however, does not mean Blacks are the only people who suffer from racism. Rather, blackness is an ontological symbol or visible reality of what oppression looks like in America. It stands for all victims of domination and promotes their liberation.
Jesus was and is the great liberator who sets the captives free. Therefore, the gospel of Christ takes on a prophetic role and challenges the social structures that bind people. Since “White Theology” as a whole (whether of liberal or conservative) has supported the political structures of oppression, it is anti-Christ in nature.
Cone rejects the non-violent only approach to obtaining peace and justice for all, believing that the strategy actually undergirds the social and political interests of the White majority. Cone is open to an “all acts” strategy, which includes protest and revolution. One might say he more in line with a “Black Muslim” version of Malcolm X than Martin Luther King.
Thus far, I see two weaknesses in Cone’s orthopraxy, but not his orthodoxy. First, any protestation that includes violence is ultimately doomed to fail. Moses’s use of violence to free his people utterly failed, and set back their liberation by 40 years. Jesus, the definitive example of a liberator, refused to wield the tools of FORCE in order to conquer the oppressors, but instead operated by FAITH. When Rome executed him as a political subversive, it thought it had put an end to the Jesus movement. Three days later, God honored Jesus’ faith and raised him from the dead. Who won the victory—Jesus or Rome? Jesus could not be killed again nor his movement conquered.
Violence may succeed in the short run, but only until the opposition can raise up a new army of followers to fight another battle. This is an undisputed truth of human history. God’s supreme plan for equality, peace and justice (the universal kingdom of God on earth) is based solely on Jesus’ non-violent act of resistance, leading to his death and resurrection. Since God used non-violence to institute his ultimate kingdom, why do we think our violent actions will bring about a permanent end to oppression?
Second, I believe Cone is weak thus far (i.e. chapter 1) in his ecclesiology. The local church is the sphere of the “already/not yet” aspect of the kingdom, where liberation is found and experienced. Regardless of the oppressor—Roman Imperialism, Nazism, Communism, White racism—all in Christ find freedom in the church. This means that although we may be victimized and marginalized in society by inequitable structures, when we come together to eat and worship we are one in Christ. While differences remain— we do not cease to be male or female, bond or free, Jew or Gentile, Black or White—there should be no distinctions among us. In the church we are not only equal “in Christ,” but “in reality.” When this dynamic is present, the church becomes a snapshot of what the future kingdom will be like.
Having said this, I realize this is not normally the case. Unfortunately, most churches reflect the values and structures of the world rather than the kingdom of God. In my book “Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now” I present a workable model for functioning as a kingdom-oriented church.
In closing, let me say I personally believe there is a place for public protests or confrontation with the powers who dominate the masses. But these should be non-violent in nature. John the Baptist, Jesus, Gandhi, MLK participated in non-violent demonstrations. The prophet stands up and speaks truth to power and calls for all to repent and submit to the reign of Christ. However, there is a price to pay. The prophet may end up imprisoned or put to death.
In Democratic nations, rallies, marches, sit-ins, etc. can have a positive effect, drawing press coverage and publicity. They have the potential of raising public awareness and pricking the collective conscience of a society. In democracies Christians have certain rights of free speech, exercise of religion, protests, etc. But what about lands dominated by tyrants, whether ancient Rome or modern-day Yemen or China? Any Christian attempt to protest the government’s policies will be squelched in a moment. Since James Cone has directed his comments toward Christianity in America alone, it may not be fair to call into question the efficacy of his “all acts” Christian strategy in other parts of the world.
This has been a good chapter and has caused me to think through some important issues. James H. Cone pulls no punches. He speaks his mind. He takes the principles of Liberation Theology and applies them to an American context. The result is “A Black Theology of Liberation.”
I will now move on to Chapter 2 and in due time offer my comments as a Facebook post.