Why Black Liberation Theology Still Applies


Without concrete signs of divine presence in the lives of the poor, the gospel becomes simply an opiate; rather than liberating the powerless from humiliation and suffering, the gospel becomes a drug that helps them adjust to this world by looking for “pie in the sky.” – James H. Cone,

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

The ‘fro is gone, the piercing voice is a register or two lower and the once rapid-fire delivery has grown a bit halting. At 76 he is no longer the young lion of yore.

Yet if outlier theologian James Cone never writes another book or gives another lecture, his prophetic pen will forever be part of the socioracial/theological narrative of the black experience in America.

Cone is best known as the catalyst behind black liberation theology – a progressive, African American adaptation of leftist Latin American Catholicism wherein God is most present in the plight of the oppressed and Jesus, God’s agent for justice.

Cone was not the first widely recognized black thinker to rail at the godhead crafted and kept in vogue by centuries of economic, racial and educational privilege. (That honor is most often reserved for W.E.B. DuBois.) But if severity of opposition is any indication, Cone’s ongoing lambasting at the hands of conservative, moderate and at least some progressive theologians suggests he still has something to tell us.

Cone’s deviations from mainline Christian assumptions have multiplied over the course of his career, yet his gospel of “blackness” – a contextual (not universal), applied (not abstract) theology uniquely situated in communities of color – remains central:

“The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism … The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering … Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity.” (A Black Theology of Liberation, 1970)

As did the Latin liberationists before, Cone claims the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as the primary sources of authority for his cage-rattling epistemology; but he categorically parts company with orthodox (see white) readings of the canons on the grounds they were born of the Middle East, edited in Europe and Americanized to fit the colonial elites’ racial, religious, political and economic ends. For Cone, what was lost in the Bible’s convoluted journey to modern-day America was the God possessed of an unwavering preference for the broken and despised – a state of affairs Cone seeks to rectify by debunking the popular God that emerged from the first-century Christian fire mist, and recasting that deity in keeping with what Cone asserts is a purer understanding of holy writ.

It is no fluke that Cone, unlike many 1960s-70s disturbers of the theological peace, has remained relevant, even fresh. Sadly, black liberation theology’s God of the downcast becomes more commanding with every Ferguson, every Charleston, every fire-tinged black church – not as license for quietism, but to encourage black partnership with an empathic higher power in the struggle against brutal blood sacrifice.

Cone is ever the realist. He is clear that staunching once and for all the senseless flow of African American blood will require a sustained amalgamation of change agents: secular and faith-based; black and non-black; rich and poor.

To that end, his self-proclaimed mission to “… reconcile Malcolm and Martin, reconcile Blackness and Christianity …” will not resonate within every quarter of today’s Black Church, let alone without.

But in the wake of yet another binge of hate crimes and racial bloodletting, we don’t have time to fuss over who can come up with a one-size-fits-all paradigm for ending the carnage. If Cone’s gospel of liberation inspires even a small segment of us to deeper thought and stronger action, he will have advanced his prophetic mission and left us the better.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2015


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