Editor's Note: Recently, CNN's Belief Blog discussed the significance of James Cone's theology in an article, "America's 'angriest' theologian faces the lynching tree." Today, on the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we describe the nature and influence of Cone's theology---not to commend his project but to promote understanding.
One of the most significant days in the history of the United States was May 17, 1954, when the nation acknowledged oppressing its own people. Brown v. Board of Education was more than a legal case to be tallied in law books; it intended to close a hideous chapter in our history, marked by slavery, bigotry, boldfaced discrimination, violence, and terror. The verdict in Brown v. Board of Education was not just a decision---it was the beginning of a revolution.
The civil-rights movement of the past generation began with black Americans but spread, with major consequences, to a variety of groups in American society. The revolution has not only changed the political environment and social history of the country but also the concept of constitutional law and the role of courts.
Thomas Sowell writes,
The very meaning of the phrase "civil rights" has changed greatly since the Brown decision in 1954, or since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Initially, civil rights meant, quite simply, that all individuals should be treated the same under the law, regardless of their race, religion, sex or other such social categories. For blacks, especially, this would have represented a dramatic improvement in those states where law and public policy mandated racially separate institutions and highly discriminatory treatment.
Two prominent black leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (an integrationist) and Malcolm X (a segregationist), gained academic, social, and political attention for the movement. Theologian James Cone (b. 1938) followed in the Black liberation trend with a Black theology of freedom. Cone, who serves today as the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, borrowed from Paul Tillich in his attempt to balance a biblical community of faith and the contemporary social situation. Tillich argued that theology "is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of the truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation."
Cone explained the appearance of Black theology as "due primarily to the failure of white religionists to relate the gospel of Jesus to the pain of being black in a white racist society." Cone argued that white theology has basically been a theology of the white oppressor, sanctioning genocide, enslavement, and brutality. Because American white theology has been "patriotic," it has become a servant of the racist state and "can only mean death to black people." Cone wrote:
American theology . . . has largely ignored its domestic problem on race. It has not called the Church to be involved in confronting this society with the meaning of the Kingdom in the light of Christ . . . [American theology] has virtually ignored the task of relating the truth of the gospel to the problem of race in America.
He contended that the lack of relevant and "risky" theology suggests that theologians are unable to free themselves from the oppressive structures of society and proposed an alternative:
It is evident, then, that the main difficulty which most whites have with Black Power and its relationship to the Christian gospel stems from their own inability to translate traditional theological language into the life situation of black people. The black man's response to God's act in Christ must be different from the white's because his life experiences are different.
Beyond this emphasis on the "black experience," Cone suggested that a significant message of biblical theology is liberation from oppression. He wrote, "The God of the biblical faith and black religion is best known as the Liberator of the oppressed from bondage. . . . To resist evil is to participate in God's redemption of the world." The task of Black theology, then, is to analyze the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of "oppressed black people" so they will realize the inseparability of the gospel and their humiliated condition. Cone explained that this realization will bestow upon them the necessary power to "break the chains of oppression." Cone viewed Black theology as "a theology of and for the black community, seeking to interpret the religious dimensions of the forces of liberation in that community."
Reconciliation or Liberation?
Cone's liberationist theology is not the only approach taken in Black theology. Black theologian J. Deotis Roberts offered reconciliation, rather than Cone's emphasis on liberation, as a valid theme for the framework of theology. According to Roberts, "Christians are called to be agents of reconciliation. We have been able to love and forgive . . . The assertion that all are 'one in Christ Jesus' must henceforth mean that all slave-master, servant-boss, inferior-superior frames of reference between blacks and whites have been abolished."
Roberts also commented on the "black experience" motif of many Black theologians, arguing firmly that a person is not automatically "heaven bound" due to being black, poor, or oppressed. Neither is a wealthy white person barred from heaven on the basis of financial status.
It is not that Cone has overlooked reconciliation. The point of disagreement is that Cone contends that only black people can define the terms on which reconciliation with white people can be achieved. To this point Roberts believed that blacks must hold up the possibility of interracial cooperation and fellowship. Cone's response to Robert's reconciliation thesis was not favorable on many counts: "[Roberts's] assumption is unbiblical and unhistorical. Indeed, in black history, reconciliation and liberation on white terms have always meant death for black people." However, both agreed that "liberation is a proper precondition for reconciliation in the area of race relations."
In a sense, Roberts and Cone mirror Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; the fundamental objective of freedom from oppression is agreed---the difference becomes apparent in the method of obtaining the common goal.
For more on Black theology, liberation, reconciliation, and Scripture you can read this free chapter: "Scripture in the African-American Christian Tradition" (pages 282-299) from Christian Theologies of Scripture, edited by Justin S. Holcomb.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He wrote Know the Creeds and Councils, Know the Heretics, and On the Grace of God. Justin also co-authored with his wife, Lindsey, Is It My Fault? and Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.