Sunday, December 23, 2007

James Cone And the Legitmizing of Black Theology

By: Rev. Angela Lee Price

At the height of the Black Power Movement at a time when strong voices where needed to speak truth to power regarding the African American predicament in America, the Lord put fire in the bones of theologian James H. Cone, using him as a trailblazing catalyst in the development of black theology. James Cone is currently the Charles A Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. James Cone spoke on the subject of the black church and success in the following video clip from Tavis Smiley's 2003 State of the Black Union IV, The Black Church: Relevant, Repressive, Or Reborn?

In 2006, James Cone caused a stir by declining an honorary degree at the Interdenominational Theological Center Commencement Exercises after discovering that “prosperity preacher” Eddie Long would deliver the commencement address. Cone’s legendary spirit of protest some 39 years has led him to become a major voice in social justice for people of color. At the penning of books, Black Theology and Black Power (1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), he became known in black church and academic circles as the Father of Black Theology. Cone’s greatest accomplishment to systematic theology has been in successfully positioning black theology as a studied discipline within Christian theology.

James Cone in laying the foundation for legitimizing black theology called upon a range of Protestant theologians from Karl Bath to Jurgen Moltmann, and on the writings of Paul Tillich and others to prove that a theology rooted in the black experience was as legitimate as any. Cone based black theology upon a classical interpretation of the Christian faith. Black theologian Gayraud Wilmore in the book, Black Religion and Black Radicalism stated, “Cone showed how a radical but historically accurate exegesis of the biblical story leads to the conclusion that black power is an expression of the gospel in a particular situation of oppression” (Wilmore, p. 214).

Using terms like “being” and “nonbeing” with regard to white racism and black opposition to it, Cone found in the Protestant writings correlative ideas to argue that black theology was a theology of black liberation and that the message of the gospel was one of liberation. Cone wrote in a statement of the National Commission of Black Churches against the backdrop of the Black Manifesto in the late 1960’s:
Black people affirm their being. This affirmation is made in the whole experience of being black in the hostile American society. Black theology is not a gift of the Christian gospel dispensed to slaves, rather it is an appropriation which black slaves made of the gospel given by their white oppressors. Black theology has been nurtured, sustained and passed on in the black churches in their various ways of expression. Black theology has dealt with all the ultimate and violent issues of life and death for a people despised and degraded (Wilmore and Cone in Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979, p.100-102 found in Wilmore, Black Religion And Black Radicalism, p. 215).

Very early in his discourse, Cone answered the question, is black theology Christian theology? He wrote, “Black Theology is Christian theology precisely because it has the black predicament at its point of departure.” Wilmore stated, “But in an effort to lay the foundation for a systematic theology of black experience that met the requirement of universality, Cone added:

Being black in America has very little to do with your skin color. To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are….Therefore, being reconciled to God does not mean that one’s skin is physically black. It essentially depends on the color of your heart, soul and mind (Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, p. 151 found in Wilmore, p. 217).
In A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone also borrowed from Paul Tillich’s writings to further develop his position. Cone wrote, "The focus on blackness does not mean that only blacks suffer as victims in a racist society, but that blackness is an ontological symbol and a visible reality which best describes what oppression means in America…..Blackness, then, stands for all victims of oppression who realize that their humanity is inseparable from man’s liberation from whiteness (Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, p.27-28).

Cone was criticized for using orthodox Eurocentric Christian constructs in developing black theology and postulating Jesus was black and on the side of the oppressed. His critics believed he should have drawn upon the black church fathers, black history, and black culture for its genesis. Wilmore wrote:
To say that being black in America has little to do with skin color is true, but only a half-truth and capable of gross misunderstanding. It is possible to argue that in a world dominated by white power that is inextricable from white Christianity, being black, or identifiably “Negroid,” is a unique experience that has, since the contact of African peoples with the white Christian West, produced a unique religion – closely related to, but not exclusively bound by, the classic Christian tradition. That, in fact, is the reason for the emergence of a black theology. Simply being oppressed, or psychologically and politically in empathy with the dispossessed, does not deliver one into the experience of blackness any more than putting on a blindfold delivers one into the experience of being blind (Wilmore, 218).
In retrospect, however, Cone had only done in developing his thesis what white church fathers had done for centuries in borrowing upon the constructs and languages of other disciplines. The church fathers had done it in using philosophy to explain Christianity. Delores S. Williams made reference to the fact with regard to the atonement in her book Sisters In the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Williams wrote, “…theologians since the time of Ireanaeus and Origen have been trying to make the Christian idea of atonement believable by shaping theories about it in the language and thought of the people of a particular time….(Williams, p. 162)

Furthermore, Cone did lay an African American foundation when he wrote, "Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, and Denmark Vesey are examples of free persons. They realized that freedom and death were inseparable. The mythic value of their existence for the black community is incalculable, because they represent the personification of the possibility of being in the midst of nonbeing – the ability to be black in the presence of whiteness (Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 102). "

The significant contribution of theologian James Cone to systematic theology has been his efforts in legitimizing black theology. The preponderance of what has been written over the past 39 years on black theology recognizes his contributions in this area. Cone borrowed upon the motifs of Black Nationalist Malcolm X and others in developing black theology “by any means necessary.” Since his fight was against the Euro-centric Christian establishment, he used the foundations of that establishment, in the writings of Protestant theologians and church fathers, to say that black theology deserved its rightful place with the halls of academia.

Cone did not mix words in A Black Theology of Liberation, nor in his others works for that matter, in communicating the horrific role Euro-centric institutions and religion played in supporting white racism and oppressing people of color. Cone was extremely militant for example in saying Jesus was black. I agree with Gayraud Wilmore that perhaps Cone should have drawn more upon the poor black community, ancestors like W.E.B. DuBois, David Walker, Richard Allen, Sojourner Truth, and others, and our African heritage in pouring the foundation for his two-story building of faith and reason. His critics, like Henry H. Mitchell, failed to come up with solutions that eclipsed Cone’s efforts. So, to the extent that black liberation theology is currently studied in most major American universities, Christian colleges, and historically black colleges and universities, Cone’s strategy worked brilliantly.
A research paper excerpt. This paper originally written to satisfy requirements for a Christian Theology class at Simmons College of Kentucky, Fall 2007.

Remember, it is not Mohammad, Buddha, Confucius, nor New Age that saves. Jesus saves!


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