Monday, August 14, 2006

James Cone

An essay I wrote on James Cone two years ago, updated slightly.
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These past few weeks, I’ve been living with James H. Cone. I do not pretend to have a full understanding of him or his work. Reading Cone felt much like looking for the wind. I can see where he comes from, I can see where he is going, and I can see the affects of his theological framework, but I can’t really see his theology, itself, yet. However, I think I am able to make some good observations, interpretations and perhaps even a few applications, as well.

First, let me comment on the books I read. Then I will briefly summarize some of the main points of Cone’s unique theology, and critique it as best as I can.

Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Seabury Press, 1969)
This was Cone’s first book, and it is full of anger and hate. He describes it in later writings as a conversion experience. He wrote the entire thing in a few weeks during the summer of 1968 (shortly after Martin Luther King was assassinated). After he had studied Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, and other typical “white” theologians, Cone abandoned “white” theology that summer as he birthed this new work. It seems to me that this is still the first book to read, for any who are interested in Cone’s theology. In this book, Cone asks all sorts of questions and leads the reader to carefully selected answers. His theology is not yet formed. He is still working with it. He has not yet come to identify himself as a “Liberation Theologian.” He is just saying, “Something is not right” – and I think that most readers would agree with him, though they may not like his tone or his proposed answers.

A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1970)
The table of contents of this book reads like a systematic theology – revelation, theology proper, Christology, anthropology, eschatology, etc. Using standard categories, Cone addresses the same issues as his previous work, but with a stronger, more confident tone. He generalizes more, and he has adopted the language of Liberation. For example,

In contrast to this racist view of God, black theology proclaims God’s blackness. Those who want to know who God is and what God is doing must know who black persons are and what they are doing. . . . It is to be expected that whites will have some difficulty with the idea of “becoming black with God.” . . . “Who can whites become black?” they ask. This question always amuses me because they do not really wan tto lose their precious white identity, as if it is worth saving. … The question “How can white persons become black?” is analogous to the Philippian jailer’s question to Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” … The misunderstanding here is the failure to see that blackness or salvation (the two are synonymous) is the work of God, not a human work.

Spirituals and Blues (New York: Seabury Press, 1972)
This book comes in response to many of Cone’s critics. They suggested that he was not following his own advice. He had said that theology must come from the oppressed people, but he was doing his theology using categories of a sophisticated and trained theologian (such as he was and is). This book shows us that his theology has his roots in the African-American tradition and in the black church more specifically. This book was easier to read. It is a documentary of the way that African-Americans have “done theology” rather than a prescriptive statement of “this is the way things are and ought to be.” He interprets songs, both spiritual and secular. I would guess that this would be a great introduction to the meaning and purpose of black spirituals as a means of theology for anyone interested in such a topic.

God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury, 1975)
Cone again responds to his critics. This work is a rehashing of the same material, but looking at it from still different perspectives, namely social concerns. Particularly helpful is his interaction with Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Cone points out that Niebuhr’s work is useful, but he does not understand the relationship bewteen the oppressed and the oppressor in society. How does God relate to culture? He relates much differently toward the culture of the oppressed than he does the culture of the oppressor – and Cone goes on from there.

My Soul Looks Back (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982)
Here, Cone has matured somewhat. This is his religious and spiritual autobiography. It is fairly easy and quick to read. When struggling to understand someone’s point of view, it is often helpful to learn his or her story. Indeed, this book helped me put a lot of pieces into place, and I understood him better, even in places I still disagree with him.

Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NJ: Orbis, 1991)
This is, I think, the most interesting of Cone’s books. He evaluates the ministries of Martin and Malcolm with special attention to their changing messages and their relationship to each other. Cone, himself, spent the 60’s in a library rather than in marches or at rallies. Cone points out that at the end of their respective lives, Martin and Malcolm moved closer to each other ideologically. Martin moved into the Lawndale community of Chicago and experienced, for the first time, the racism of the northern ghettos. He lost some of his hopes and dreams, and became more despairing of America’s future. After Malcolm broke with Elijah Muhammad, he visited the Holy Land and saw people of all colors coming together in multi-ethnic worship and began questioning the doctrine of the white man as the devil. He found hope, and saw the power of love to change behavior.

Cone sees that God’s major purpose in the world is releasing the politically and socially oppressed from their bondage to their oppressors. God is on the side of the oppressed, and against the oppressors. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with violence itself, as long as it is not one people-group oppressing another people group. In fact, it is the duty of blacks to use any means necessary to gain equal social standing in society. One question I have for Cone is this, what happens then? Whose side is God on, when blacks take over and start oppressing whites?

Sin and guilt are only corporate. Cone never talks about individual sins (even individual sins of oppression). He occasionally talks about the oppression of men (even black men) over women. However, as best as I can tell, he would say that a black woman never has the opportunity to sin because she is not a part of a group of people who are oppressing another group of people.

I think that Cone is right about much (but not all) of what he professes, but is wrong in his exclusivity. Is God’s purpose in the world to release those who are socially oppressed in the world? It is certainly not less than that, but it is so much bigger than that. However, Cone is a helpful corrective to white theologians who have the option not to think about God in the light of social oppression.

Why is Cone so popular? He is controversial (which always draws a crowd) and he is influential. Why is he influential? He is a very intelligent black man, raised in the black church, with a white theological education. He is able to dialogue articulately with both blacks and whites about the issues. Further, many whites with “liberal guilt” like to read him to pacify their guilt – he is the identified “angry black male theologian,” and for those who consider themselves tolerant of others, they like to read him – he is en vogue. Or, to put it another way, whites read Cone to say, “look how tolerant I am, I’m even reading something as crazy as this!”

For blacks, it seems to me that he represents a Christian version of Malcolm X. Many blacks were drawn to Malcolm, but could not leave Christianity to follow him. Cone gives Christian support for Malcolm’s conclusions, though Cone is not nearly so eloquent. I think the black attraction to liberation theology is based on at least two things. First, what he is saying has a lot of truth to it. His words ring true to their experience of the world, and to their understanding of God, religion and the Bible. Secondly, they like how he woops up on white people. Ah, mixed motives -- is any motive pure? I don’t think so.

Finally, I should note that as I have reflected on Cone with my friends who know him and his tradition, his voice is nearly so influential as it is popular. In my experience, African-American Christianity is far more peaceful and forgiving than Cone. As one black pastor told me, "I don't know why white people think Cone represents the black church -- he doesn't." Perhaps we whites need to broaden our understanding of the multi-faceted nature of black theology. Cone's voice is one among many.

I am ready for James Cone to move out of my home for a while, now. I’m sure I will entertain him again, he was a wonderful and helpful guest, and he has taught me a lot. I am a better person, a better chaplain as a result of my time with him. Let me finish with a quote from Black Theology and Black Power I find to be quite helpful and a good summary of Cone’s value to us.

Reconciliation does not transcend color, thus making us all white. The problem of values is not that white people need to instill values in the ghetto; but white society itself needs values so that it will no longer need a ghetto. Black values did not create the ghetto; white values did. Therefore, God’s Word of reconciliation means that we can only be justified by becoming black. Reconciliation makes us all black. Through this radical change, we become identified totally with the suffering of the black masses. It is this fact that makes all white churches anti-Christian in their essence. To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people!

It is to be expected that many white people will ask: “How can I, a white man, become black? My skin is white and there is nothing I can do.” Being black in America has very little to do with skin color. To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are. We all know that a racist structure will reject and threaten a black man in white skin as quickly as a black man in black skin. It accepts and rewards whites in black skins nearly as well as whites in white skins. 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. Some may want to argue that persons with skins physically black will have a running start on others; but there seems to be enough evidence that though one’s skin is black, the heart may be lily white. The real questions are: Where is your identity? Where is your being? Does it lie with the oppressed blacks or with the white oppressors? Let us hope that there are enough to answer this question correctly so that America will not be compelled to acknowledge a common humanity only by seeing that blood is always one color.


Blogger nickg said...

very interesting, sounds worth checking out and I think I will

11:59 AM, August 14, 2006  

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