For James Cone, poverty had a colour


James Cone, widely regarded as the founder of black liberation theology, died on Saturday at the age of 79. 

Anthony Reddie, Professor Extraordinarius in the Department of Philosophy, Practical and Systemic Theology at the University of South Africa discusses Cone in the SCM Core Text: Black TheologyHere’s an edited extract. 

JamesHalCone.jpgJames Cone would not describe himself as a Marxist, nor could his work be seen as an expression of Marxist ideology. There is no doubt, however, that his early work saw in Marxism a helpful tool for constructing his Black Theology of liberation. Cone argued that Black Theology, as a theology of liberation, was committed to challenging and overturning the vicious White power structure that had long imprisoned Black people – both literally and figuratively.[i]

Cone’s approach to Black Theology is informed by his continued commitment to the biblical revelation of God. He is arguing for a clear difference between the Kingdom of God and that of the world economic system.[ii] While Cone’s early work used aspects of Marxist frameworks as a way of critiquing the socio-economic system of America, his preferred approach to undertaking Black Theology, and its resultant attack on White power, has come from the Bible.

Cone’s biblical theology provides a robust theological rationale for outlining the essential difference between the characteristics of the Kingdom of  God and that of the world economic system. His Jesus-centred approach to liberation for Black people is one that seeks to use Black history and experience, and to link these to biblical models of justice. His aim is to create a theological model that critiques the structures of the present world order, one based on White privilege.[iii] Cone does not engage in the analysis of class and how class distinctions between wealthy people who own capital and the poor at the bottom of society constitute the basis for how most societies are run. This latter perspective is one that is more commonly found in Latin American liberation theology. [iv]

For Cone, it is no coincidence that the people most likely to be poor in a world of global capitalism run by White people with power are poor Black people and other non Euro-Americans.[v] For Cone, poverty has a colour. It is his contextualized and particular reading of oppression that separates him from the more generic, class-based approaches to the subject that one often finds in Latin American liberation theologians, for example.[vi] Cone’s analysis of people most likely to be in Person 1 will be that they are Black.

One weakness of Cone’s analysis is that, in failing to engage with issues of gender in his early work, his default position regarding the identity of those in Person 1 is one that assumes a male subject. In actual fact, any serious analysis of global poverty will show that gender is a major contributory factor in the workings of world economic systems. In such systems, the more likely identity of an individual in Person 1 is that of a Black woman and not a Black male. As we will see, when looking at the work of Womanist theologians, if poverty has a colour, then it also has a gender.

Cone notes that the ‘free market’ proponents of the world economic system will assert the goodness, generosity and the efficiency of choice that is gained for all people across the globe from this mode of economic activity. Cone, however, is clear that this is a smokescreen, not unlike the kinds of ‘diversionary tactics’ I have illustrated previously in this chapter.[vii]

The proponents of ‘free trade’ would like it to be believed that this system is for the benefit of ordinary people in the world, but the evidence from the peoples themselves tells another story.[viii] Cone’s approach to analysing why people are poor is one that is very much drawn from his commitment to anti-racism. While he has focused attention on the ways in which American capitalism has impoverished the poor, across the globe,[ix] the  bulk of his work has been directed at the historical experiences of African Americans.

While some Black theologians have critiqued Cone and other African American Black theologians for their short-sightedness in looking only at their own experiences, I would argue that, on the contrary, Cone and his ilk are simply being true to the basic tenets of ‘contextual theology’.

As a contextual theologian, the immediacy of Cone’s view is the United States. For him, the individual in Person 1 would be an African American. This would be the case, not because other peoples do not suffer, but because the impact on his own experience and consciousness has been shaped by being born and socialized within the United States of America. Cone’s racialized, theological reflections illustrate the gap between the world economic system of White privilege and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The latter is one of equity, justice and liberation for all marginalized and economically dispossessed people, most of whom have non-European backgrounds.[x]

As the dominant voice in Black Theology, since its inception as an academic discipline, James Cone has set the tempo for the movement, in which the analysis of ‘race’-based oppression has largely been the norm. The strength of this approach to understanding the nature of world poverty is that it has ‘put a face’ to the individual crouched in Person 1. That person is most likely to be a Black person. The inequities of racism and the notion and practice of White supremacy have impacted on Black people.

This has occurred within many White-majority societies (and Black-majority ones in Africa also). In such contexts, little account has been taken of the dignity and rights of Black people. Black  Theology under the aegis of James Cone has attacked the privileging of White concerns, particularly as it arises from White people with power. He has shown that a Black retelling of the story, and the accompanying reinterpretation of the gospel, is critical for the development of a Black Theology of liberation.[xi]

[i] Cone, God of the Oppressed (1975), p. 156.

[ii] Cone, God of the Oppressed, pp. 39–114.j

[iii] See Cone, ‘Theology’s Great Sin’ (Black Theology 2:2) pp. 139–52.

[iv] Cone’s work does include some aspects of class analysis, where he looks at economic structures and shows how they impact on poor Black people. See Cone, God of the Oppressed, pp. 108–37. For a better understanding of Latin American liberation theology, see Christopher Rowland (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[v] See Cone, ‘Theology’s Great Sin’, pp. 142–5.

[vi] See James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back  (1986), pp. 114–38.

[vii] See James H. Cone ‘Looking Back, Going Forward: Black Theology as Public Theology’,in Dwight N. Hopkins (ed.) Black Faith and Public Talk: Critical Essays on James H. Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (1999), pp. 246–59.

[viii] See the excellent Christian Aid video Life and Debt, New Yorker Films, 2001, for the differing accounts on the impact of free trade on poor neo-colonial countries like Jamaica. Black Theology sides with the first-hand accounts of the poor themselves and not with the free-market apologists like the officers from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

[ix] See Cone, My Soul Looks Back, pp. 93–113.

[x] Hopkins and Lewis, Another World is Possible: Spiritualities and Religions of Global Darker Peoples (2009).

[xi] See James H. Cone, Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation and Black Theology (1986).



Publishing your thesis as a book – 6 Dos and 2 Don’ts

A person writing with a pencil in a notebook with pencil shavings on itSo you’ve finished your PhD, and now you’re starting to think about what’s next. To celebrate Academic Book Week, here are a few tips if you’re thinking of publishing your work as a monograph:

DO give yourself a break once you’ve handed in the thesis before turning to the book. Take a few months to do other things. Go and find your cat. Visit your gran. And then come back fresh to the thesis a while later.

DO your research. Make sure you know what subjects different publishers specialise in. Are there particular markets they are especially able to reach? Do they have a global reach? Are they small or large?

DON’T be afraid to befriend an academic book editor and ask them their advice. They generally don’t bite, and they want to help you turn your thesis into the best book it can be.

DO make sure book publication is the best route to take. Ask yourself whether your thesis might be better presented as a series of journal articles, or submitted as a paper for a conference.

DON’T use the phrase ‘general readers’ when outlining the readership of the book in a book proposal. Be specific. What level are you writing at? Who do you imagine your reader to be? Undergraduates? Postgraduates? Researchers?

DO be realistic. Your re-written thesis is unlikely to be a top bestseller on the shelves of your local Waterstones. But it might play a vital role in filling a gap in the scholarship. And that’s probably  more important!

DO expect it to take a while – a year or so – to re-work the thesis so it makes for a good scholarly monograph. It won’t happen overnight. Remember you’re writing for a much wider audience than your original (which was read by examiners, supervisers, one or two others and your mum).

DO ask different groups of people to read sample chapters of the book. Do you know scholars in other related scholarly disciplines who might be interested in being guinea pigs. They will help you weed out jargon where necessary, and give you an outside perspective.


God in the trenches: “To me He is still the unknown God”

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy – or “Woodbine Willie” as he became known – saw the horror of the Western Front first hand as he served as a chaplain in the trenches. In The Hardest Parthe vividly captures the immensity of the suffering he witnessed, and reflects deeply on what such carnage does to Christian faith. William Moore Ede, Dean of Worcester Cathedral at the time of the book’s publication in 1918 said that:

“Kennedy expresses in a striking and graphic manner what multitudes who have not his power of expression are dumbly thinking.”

In the book’s introduction, Kennedy raises a question which he says  to which he constantly returns – what is God like?

When I had been in France as a chaplain about two months, before I had heard a gun fired or seen a trench, I went to see an officer in a base hospital who was slowly recovering from very serious wounds. The conversation turned on religion, and he seemed anxious to get at the truth. He asked me a tremendous question. “What I want to know, Padre,” he said, “is, what is God like? I never thought much about it before this war. I took the world for granted. I was not religious, though I was confirmed and went to Communion some times with my wife. But now it all seems different. I realise that I am a member of the human race, and have a duty towards it, and that makes me want to know what God is like. When I am transferred into a new battalion I want to know what the Colonel is like. He bosses the show, and it makes a lot of difference to me what sort he is. Now I realise that I am in the battalion of humanity, and I want to know what the Colonel of the world is like. That is your real business, Padre; you ought to know.”

I think that this question sums up in a wonderful way the form which the spiritual revival is taking among men at the front. First there comes a wider vision of humanity. This arises partly from the new sense of comradeship and brotherhood which exists in our new citizen armies, and unites them with the citizen armies of the allied nations, and partly from the world-wide scale of this tremendous conflict. The cutting of the world in two by the sword has helped men to see it whole. Men’s minds are of necessity less parochial, less insular, and more cosmopolitan, in the best sense, than they were. As a consequence of this there is a quickened interest in ultimate questions, a desire to know the meaning of it all. This grows in some cases to a positive hunger for the knowledge of God and a conscious seeking after Him; in others it remains a kind of dim dumb longing for some ultimate truth. Finally, there is a certain, partly wistful, partly disappointed, turning to the Churches in the rather forlorn hope of obtaining information and light. Sometimes the question is put to the Church anxiously and sadly, sometimes with bitterness and contempt.

Image resultIn the vast majority of cases, of course, it is not put in words, because those who would ask it have no words in which to express it. It appears rather in the attitude of mind, and is hinted at in the conversation of these splendidly dumb soldiers who act and cannot speak. But the question is there in the heart of the army and of the nation, “What is God like?”

When a chaplain joins a battalion no one says a word to him about God, but every one asks him, in a thousand different ways, “What is God like?” His success or failure as a chaplain really depends upon the answer He gives by word and by deed. The answer by deed is the more important, but an answer by words is inevitable, and must be given somehow.

When the question was put to me in hospital I pointed to a crucifix which hung over the officer’s bed, and said, “Yes, I think I can tell you. God is like that.” I wondered if it would satisfy him. It did not. He was silent for a while, looking at the crucifix, and then he turned to me, and his face was full of doubt and disappointment. “What do you mean?” he said; “God cannot be like that. God is Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, Monarch of the world, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, Whose will sways all the world. That is a battered, wounded, bleeding figure, nailed to a cross and helpless, defeated by the world and broken in all but spirit. That is not God; it is part of God’s plan: God’s mysterious, repulsive, and apparently perfectly futile plan for saving the world from sin. I cannot understand the plan, and it appears to be a thoroughly bad one, because it has not saved the world from sin. It has been an accomplished fact now for nearly two thousand years, and we have sung hymns about God’s victory, and yet the world is full of sin, and now there is this filthy war. I’m sick of this cant. You have not been up there, Padre, and you know nothing about it. I tell you that cross does not help me a bit; it makes things worse. I admire Jesus of Nazareth; I think He was splendid, as my friends at the front are splendid – splendid in their courage, patience, and unbroken spirit. But I asked you not what Jesus was like, but what God is like, God Who willed His death in agony upon the Cross, and Who apparently wills the wholesale slaughter in this war. Jesus Christ I know and admire, but what is God Almighty like? To me He is still the unknown God.”

How would you answer him? How would you answer the thousands like him, who feel all that but cannot put their feelings into words? That is what I have tried to do in this small book. For two years I have been serving with the army, always learning more than I could teach. Part of the time I have been with the men in the line, part of it I served at the base, and part I spent touring about from base to front and from front to base, preaching to great crowds of men, and trying to answer their questions. I have learned a great deal about the mind of the ordinary man, and I have learned to love and respect him, and to be ashamed of myself.

All my experience has grouped itself round and hinged itself upon the answer to this question, asked me at the beginning, “What is God like?” because it appears to me to be the only question that ultimately and really matters and must be answered.

This month, SCM Press is publishing a new critical edition of The Hardest Part, to mark 100 years since the book’s first publication, and 100 years since the end of the Great War. The book is edited by Thomas O’Loughlin (Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham) and Stuart Bell (honorary research fellow at St John’s College Durham). As well as the full 1918 text with explanatory footnotes, the edition contains contextual articles, examples of Kennedy’s poetry and illustrations setting the work in its context.

Order a copy of The Hardest Part: A Centenary Critical Edition from our website at the launch discount price until the end of April. 


Is Exodus still worth bothering with?

Mark Scarlata writes:

It’s hard to imagine that an event that happened a few thousand years ago to group of Hebrew slaves can have any bearing on life and faith today. However, the themes of Exodus surrounding the salvation and deliverance not only echo throughout the Old and New Testaments, they also give us a vision of a God who longs to abide with his people and be at the heart of their community.

Image result for parting of the red seaGod’s deliverance of his people from the oppression of the Egyptians is the single-most important event in the salvation history of Israel. Indeed, it is difficult to read the rest of the Old Testament without hearing some reference to the stories surrounding the deliverance from Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness and the events at Mount Sinai.

So essential was the exodus that virtually all of Israelite worship throughout the year celebrated the events that took place such as Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Booths. Yet at the heart of this salvation is the movement of God’s abiding presence coming to dwell with his people.

What changes so significantly from Genesis to Exodus is that God intends to reside permanently among his chosen community. At Sinai God commands Moses to ‘make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them’ (Exod. 25.8). To dwell on earth, however, means that God must teach Moses and Israel how they might approach his holiness.

When God first reveals himself in the mystery of the burning bush he tells Moses, ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground’ (Exod. 3.5). This holiness is a foreshadowing of God’s awesome appearance at Mt. Sinai later in the narrative when his glory descends in all its splendour.

His glory then appears in the final climactic moment of the book when he fills the tabernacle and not even Moses can approach! Not since Eden, when he walked in the garden with Adam and Eve, had God dwelt amidst his people, but now the tabernacle (and later the temple) become his home on earth.

The patterns in Exodus lay the theological foundations for a sovereign God who is powerful to save by his mighty works and who desires to be at the heart of his covenant people. This relational movement from heaven to earth is a profound expression of God’s pleasure in dwelling with those whom he has chosen and those whom he loves. His abiding presence is his promise to his people that he will protect them, guide them, heal them, provide for them and give them life.

It is no wonder that the gospel of John, in writing of a new creation and a new exodus, speaks of Jesus ‘dwelling’ (or more literally, ‘tabernacling’) among us (John 1.14). Jesus is the fullness of God’s glory made known in the tabernacle which has now been made manifest in the flesh.

The God who longed to dwell in the midst of Israel for their salvation is the same God who comes in the flesh to bring healing and life to the world. The patterns of Exodus can be seen throughout the gospels, but in John we find a distinctly relational aspect of God inviting us to participate in his glory through the Son and the Holy Spirit.

So why is Exodus important today? It recalls a story of a God who brings justice, healing and salvation to his chosen people and descends from heaven to earth to dwell in their midst. The second exodus of the New Testament reveals the same pattern in Christ. And today the Church becomes the place of Christ’s presence in the world.

As the apostle Paul writes, ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God’ (Eph. 2.19-22).

The patterns of Exodus continue today through the work of the Spirit in the Church bringing justice, healing and wholeness to the world.

Rev’d Dr Mark Scarlata is Tutor and Lecturer in Old Testament Studies at St Mellitus College, London.

His book The Abiding Presence: A Theological Commentary on Exodus will be published soon by SCM Press, and is available to preorder now from the website at a special pre-publication offer price.



After Post-Christendom – What Next?

A guest post from Stuart Murray, author of Post-Christendom:

For the past thirty years I have been reflecting on the implications of the demise of the Christendom era – the long period of European history in which church and state were partners in a sacral society and the Christian story shaped western culture.

I have tried to differentiate between the undoubted achievements and glorious legacy of that era and its follies, cruelties, compromises and collusions that have so damaged the church’s witness to Jesus Christ.

My inclination is to celebrate the end of this era and welcome the fresh opportunities that are emerging, alongside many challenges, but I have learned that many in our churches need first to grieve what they sense we have lost.

In hundreds of contexts in many nations I have attempted to offer some interpretation of what is happening and some guidance as to how we might respond. And I have insisted that the term ‘post-Christendom’ refers to a period of transition, not to whatever will emerge after Christendom.

For several years what I brought was clearly new to most people. They recognised what I was describing but they did not have an interpretive framework for it. They had many of the jigsaw pieces but needed the big picture. It has been exciting to watch lights going on all over the room. Some were troubled by what they learned, but many more were excited and energised by this new understanding.

In more recent years, though, the responses and questions have changed. The term ‘post-Christendom’ is much more widely understood (and not so often unhelpfully conflated with ‘post-modernity’), so conversations tend to move on more quickly to exploring the implications for mission, discipleship, church life and social engagement.

Indeed, for many young adults the term is largely meaningless – their perception is that they have never experienced the Christendom era (although they are affected by its legacy even if they don’t realise this). And more often the question arises – what might come next after the transitional period that ‘post-Christendom’ represents? What might be the features of ‘post-post-Christendom’?

I have responded to this question in three main ways.

First, I have suggested that the transitional period will be lengthy and complex. Rather than peering ahead and trying to discern the features of whatever might come next, our priority is to negotiate the turbulence of this transition as creatively and courageously as we can.

Second, I have focused on one significant feature of the transition that is almost certain to persist for the foreseeable future: the Christian community will be a minority in a culture it no longer dominates.

In my book, A Vast Minority, I have explored the implications of this. It is not just that we are a minority (as many Christian communities are across the world) but we are an ‘ex-majority minority’, which presents very different theological, psychological and logistical challenges. I’m very interested in what kind of minority we choose to be.

Third, in some contexts I have offered five possible scenarios of what might come after post-Christendom. I have prefaced this presentation by insisting that I don’t know which of these, or which combination, is more likely:

  • Europe after Christendom might be predominantly Muslim. Continuing growth in this community through its higher than average birth rate, conversions and limited further migration might at some point result in a Muslim majority in Europe.
  • Europe after Christendom might be predominantly secular. Continuing decline in religious belief and practice and the pervasive impact of secularisation on all faith groups might result in religion being further marginalised but tolerated because it is not worth persecuting.
  • Europe after Christendom might experience a resurgence of Christian faith as Christians from other parts of the world learn to engage effectively in ‘reverse mission’ and join forces with a chastened and renewed indigenous church.
  • Europe after Christendom might be a post-modern smorgasbord of philosophies, beliefs, subcultures and interest groups with no one of these persuasive enough to form a new basis for social cohesion to replace a discredited Christendom. This may result in a brutalist culture dominated by military consumerism.
  • Europe after Christendom might face civilizational collapse as multiple threats to health, the environment, economics and social stability combine with a vacuum in the realm of values and the absence of political vision.

As the revised and updated version of my book, Post-Christendom, is published, my hope is that the book will continue to stimulate debate. In this transitional period we are likely to have many more questions than answers, and any answers are likely to be provisional. I find inspiration and insights in the long-marginalised Anabaptist tradition, which challenged the Christendom synthesis nearly 500 years ago, but we will need each other and the contributions of many different traditions if we are to chart a course into this strange new world.

The 2nd edition of Post Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World is published later this month by SCM Press.  In the second edition of this provocative and important book, Stuart Murray looks at where we’ve got to, and where we’re heading. He presents an overview of the formation and development of the Christendom system, examines the legacies this has left, and highlights the questions that the Christian community needs to consider in this period of cultural transition.