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 Theology. Here’s an edited extract.
James 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).