James Cone Black Liberation

I am beginning a new series of book reviews for you.  Each day, I will put out a new book review for you in the area of ethics.  Many of you keep up with theology and biblical studies, but you may not be as familiar with ethics.  Ethics is, of course, an area that affects all of us.  Everyone has ethical commitments.

We begin with James Cone and the ethical commitments of black liberation theology.  We start here because this theology has been in the news of late through the teachings of Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of presidential candidate Barack Obama.  

James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 1975, 1997.


Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas and comes out of the Macedonia A.M.E. Church tradition (Methodist-episcopal). The question we are left with after a reading of Cone is this: Is there anything Christian about black liberation theology?  Cone seems to have drifted further away from biblical Christianity since the book was first published in 1975. 


Cone has accepted many of the presuppositions of the so-called New Hermeneutic.  You can hear the influence of these hermeneutical commitments in the following quote, where Cone says, Interpretations of Jesus are shaped by the religio-cultural and the socio-political contexts in which they are made.  Jesus, it seems, is a matter of the community’s making.


 Not surprisingly, Cone admits, No longer can I do theology as if Jesus is God’s sole revelation. (xiv)

 I agree with feminists and womanists who reject the theories of the atonement—ransom, satisfaction, moral influence, substitution, penal, etc.—as reflecting the God of patriarchy, the values of the dominant group (xv).  That doesn’t leave much “Christian” in the black liberation ethic, does it?

Consistent with the hermeneutical commitments just noted, Cone says [on page xiv] that Christology does not drop down from Heaven but arises out of life.  He asserts that one must listen to those who have suffered in order to understand Christ, Christology, etc.

Cone believes that truth is not found in word(s), 136. Truth is encounter, decisive event.  Particularly, Cone does not allow for any deliverance except that of the oppressed, particularly of the liberation of those    perceived as oppressed (blacks, women, gays, etc) by the white patriarchal majority.  So, for instance, Cone says, Any analysis that fails to deal with racism, that demon embedded in white folks’ being, is inadequate, 143.


“White oppressors must be excluded from this black ethical dialogue, because they cannot be trusted.  To those whites who continually proclaim their goodwill, despite the long history of racism, the most blacks can say is: “There may be a place for you, but you will have to do what we say, without suggesting that you know what is best for our liberation.” 199.  “Whenever black people have entered into a mutual relation with white people, with rare exceptions, the relationship has always worked to the detriment of our struggle,” 220.


I will admit that I do not understand fully the black experience, but I do believe I understand Christ and the gospel.  My concern about this book and the black liberation movement is that it wishes to be accepted in some way as Christian.  It seems to me that if one were to name Christ as liberator, then the liberation in view will reflect something of the liberation spoken of in Scripture, namely, the liberation from the bondage of sin.  The only liberation Cone acknowledges is a westernized Civil Rights liberation from real (or, as is the case with homosexuality, imagined) oppression.  A genuinely Christian ethic will recognize the liberation from the law of sin and death as that which is central.


Romans 8:2, For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.


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