A Review of James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation
The framework of Black Liberation Theology (BLT) emerged nearly 60 years ago when Dr. James Cone began to craft a theology from a distinctly Black perspective, focusing on a critique of White theology and its churches. Over the last year, I have been silently wondering if BLT is having an increasing influence in prominent evangelical spaces. After reading Cone's book, A Black Theology of Liberation, I am more convinced of this than ever.
Crash Course on Cone's Theological Framework
The framework of Black Liberation Theology emerged nearly 60 years ago when Dr. James Cone began to craft a theology from a distinctly Black perspective, focusing on a critique of White theology and its churches. “In his well-known speech, "The Cry of Black Blood: The Rise of Black Liberation Theology," given at Yale Divinity School in 2017, Cone recalled the suppressed anger and passion that burst within him regarding the injustices to African American people during the era leading up to the Civil Rights movements. It was the “cries of Black blood” and the silence of White theologians that gave him zeal in creating a new stream of theology: Black Liberation Theology, or BLT. Cone described this anger as a “transcendent presence” that “seized my being which commanded me to write or be consumed by the rage inside me.”
A video of Cone's speech at Yale can be seen here.
First published in 1970, A Black Theology of Liberation was Cone’s effort to systematize his distinctly Black approach for doing theology—and his ideas have guided discussions about race and justice in many Black churches ever since. I have been reading a lot of Cone lately, and it’s clear that many elements of BLT are now being discussed in more traditional, Evangelical churches. This article discusses four of those elements. I pray that any knowledge you gain here will help prepare you to defend the faith as you encounter these concepts in your church, your ministry, or your school.
1. It Puts Race First, Not the Gospel
Cone used the terms “Blackness” and “whiteness” to refer to both ideology and skin color, long before Critical Race Theory was a formal framework. For example, a Black person participating in ways that Cone would deem oppressive to the Black community would be participating in whiteness. And a White person, working to eradicate the oppression of the Black community, is working within their Blackness. To participate in whiteness is to participate in the oppression of Black people.
The ground of Cone’s approach to doctrine is to see everything through the lens of oppression. He believes that to understand any issue of theology, we must view it through the experience of oppressed people–in other words, through the lens of the Black experience.
Cone recognizes that BLT departs from what many would consider historic Christianity. This is intentional; Cone regards historic Christianity as an expression of White American theology and whiteness (which, again, can refer to skin color or ideology). He defines the ideology of whiteness as “the symbol of the antichrist,” and “the activity of deranged [White] individuals intrigued by their own image of themselves, and thus unable to see that they are what is wrong with the world.” (pg. 23. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes in this article are from A Black Theology of Liberation.) He sees whiteness as Satanic in nature—a theology where White theologians and congregants lack the ability to see beyond themselves—allowing for injustice to continue (pg. 23). The following typifies Cone’s position: “American White theology is a theology of the antichrist insofar as it arises from an identification with the White community, thereby placing God’s approval on White oppression of Black existence” (pg. 22). As such, White Christians “are in no position whatever to question the legitimacy of Black theology” as their minds are “incapable of Black thinking” (pg. 23). For Cone, White theology is not a Christian theology at all (pg. 24).
In contrast, Cone sees BLT as the true story of God’s salvation: a plan of liberation for oppressed people. He states: “Whatever theology says about God and the world must arise out of its sole reason for existence as a discipline: to assist the oppressed in their liberation” (pg. 21). Cone uses the Exodus account of the Hebrews’ freedom from slavery in Egypt as a critical archetype for how God generally acts in history: God’s hand secures freedom for the oppressed. Thus, Cone’s project is to link the gospel with God’s acting in solidarity with Blacks and against White oppressors and whiteness. He states: “God has chosen to make the Black condition God’s condition” (pg. 26).
2. It Says The Gospel is Not for Everyone
This leads into another key feature of Cone’s framework: because God takes the side of the oppressed (which means that He contends for Blackness and Black people), then it follows that God is Black. Cone explains: “There is no place in Black theology for a colorless God in a society where human beings suffer precisely because of their color” (pg. 67). According to Cone, it is the Blackness of God that aids oppressed people in their understanding of God. God is known from the position of his solidarity with oppressed people in their liberation for freedom. For Cone, to not see God as standing only for oppressed people is to have a flawed understanding of God. Seeing God as Black means seeing God as having adopted the position of oppressed people as His own. Cone writes: “The Blackness of God means that the essence of the nature of God is to be found in the concept of liberation” (pg. 67).
Cone’s framework doesn’t accept a God who could be for the liberation of the oppressed and for the salvation of the oppressor. “We will not accept a God who is on everybody’s side, which means that God loves everybody in spite of who they are and is working (through the acceptable channels of society, of course) to reconcile all persons to the Godhead” (pg. 66). Cone’s theology does not allow for a God who could be working for the redemption of an oppressor; it rejects the idea of a God who could love White oppressors the same as he would love oppressed Blacks (pg. 66).
Cone sees a particular role for each member of the Godhead to play in the drama of liberation. “Black theology says that as Creator, God identified with oppressed Israel, participating in the bringing into being of this people; as Redeemer, God became the Oppressed One in order that all may be free from oppression; as Holy Spirit, God continues the work of liberation." (Note: Although this quote may sound like the heresy of modalism, in other talks Cone is clear that he does not subscribe to a modalist viewpoint.) In fact, Cone would say that a God who is not continuously working on behalf of the oppressed ought to be rejected (pg. 72). Cone writes, “Black theology will accept only a love of God which participates in the destruction of the White oppressor” (pg. 74).
3. It Presents Two Christianities
BLT refuses any concepts that may be oppressive to Black people and takes a revolutionary stand against whiteness—by violence if necessary. BLT represents all oppressed people, as all oppression can be seen, ultimately, as the narrative of Black people. Cone creates two separate groups, constructing two different versions of Christianity: one is White and wicked, while the other is Black, righteous, and oppressed. And God is only on the side of the oppressed (pg. 26). These two Christianities cannot coexist. One will destroy the other. Either White American Theology will continue its injustice against Blacks, or Black people will rise up, and destroy the former. For Cone, Blacks and Whites, the oppressed and the oppressors, can’t have the same God. And the right thing to do is to destroy the God of White American Theology (pg. 63).
According to Cone, two key historical events reveal God’s nature: the liberation of Israel from Egypt, and the work of Jesus Christ (pg. 58). Through these archetypes, we see that God resides on the side of the oppressed, thereby continuously participating in the liberation struggle for Black people by “destroying everything that is against the manifestation of Black human dignity” (pg. 61). He writes: “Black theology must show that the Black God has nothing to do with the God worshiped in White churches whose primary purpose is to sanctify the racism of Whites and to daub the wounds of Blacks” (pg. 66). For this reason, BLT is suspicious of White theology and White theological radicals wanting to join the movement of Blackness. According to Cone, any White person wanting to join the divine work for Black liberation must be willing to destroy their White identity (pg. 67). “The God in Black theology is the God of and for the oppressed, the God who comes into view in their liberation. Any other approach is a denial of biblical revelation” (pg. 65).
4. It Redefines Sin
Critics may raise the concern that Cone’s anger and hostile views toward White people and White Theology may potentially be seen as sinful, creating partiality and division among believers—and, in some cases, inciting followers to violence. However, Cone contends that it is the responsibility of the oppressed to determine what is sin and how their oppression will be relieved (pg. 53). “Therefore, if Blacks are to have freedom, they must take it, by any means necessary” (pg. 96). The “means” put forward to end oppression can only be judged as sinful by the oppressed group itself. Again, Cone puts forth an idea of separate Christianities, White and Black. The result this time is differing definitions of sin; “oppressors,” he writes, “are in no position to speak about the sinfulness of the oppressed” (pg. 57).
While BLT affirms that all people are sinners (pg. 57), it gives no allowance for Blacks and Whites to share the same definition of sin (pg. 57). Cone asserts that “sin is a concept which is meaningful only within the context of a Christian community” (pg. 57). Since White Theology is not truly Christian in nature, he argues, it has no true understanding of sin. The understanding of sin is reserved for the community of the oppressed. In other words, for true Christians.
Cone defines the sin of oppressors as the enslavement of the oppressed; however, that enslavement may reveal itself in its current cultural context. (pg. 56) The sin of the oppressed is “trying to understand their enslavers, to love them on their own terms” (pg. 57). At no point do White Theology and BLT converge on a definition of sin that could be subscribed to consistently.
BLT & Scripture
While Dr. Cone may have regarded BLT as the needed approach to combat the racism he saw firsthand, the framework overall, as especially seen in the doctrine of sin and in the doctrine of God, results in the creation of creates two separate Christianities with two different Gods: one for the oppressors and one for the oppressed. Obviously, this is difficult to reconcile with foundational biblical passages such as, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4) and on the unity of believers (John 17; Eph. 2:11-22).
Regarding sin, Cone misses the objective standard of sin, as defined in Scripture. Historic Christianity lays out one universal problem for humanity: sin (Romans 5); resulting in man’s eternal separation from a holy God. This sin problem is irrespective of race, class, or gender. (Romans 3:23) And there is one universal cure: an invitation to receive the good news of Jesus’ work on the cross (Romans 6:23). The God of the Bible is not a God for only the oppressed. Rather, Jesus casts a wide net to all –– rich and poor alike –– to come to Him and receive his forgiveness (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). And, through the resurrection, God has created one new people, calling them out from the nations (Eph. 2:11-22).
The idea that sin is subjective; defined and understood by man goes directly against
No, BLT’s two God/Christianity framework is not in alignment with historic Christianity. In historic Christianity there is only one God and He is not for some and against others. Cone’s idea of a God who is specifically for some, in a way that He is not for others goes directly against the just nature of God (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 89:14).
No, God is not Black; upholding the cause of oppressed and marginalized people, associating with them on a personal level while standing against the White God who represents whiteness, wealth, and capitalism. Asserting that Jesus’ aligned solely with the poor and oppressed is a redefinition of the gospel and at odds with historic Christianity. Yes, we can see His nature of being with the oppressed as He sat with the woman at the well. And, yet, we also see His nature being revealed as He dines with with the wealthy at the house of Zaccheus. God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:11).
Why Should Christians Be Concerned?
Many of the tenets of BLT have seeped into Evangelical churches and are taught by well-meaning pastors and leaders. BLT is also taught at a number of historically conservative Christian colleges and universities. We see this when we are told to view the gospel or issues of justice through the lens of minority groups or the poor. We see it in the racializing of God/Jesus, and in the reframing of biblical texts to support the idea that Jesus came to liberate physically marginalized and oppressed people groups. And we see it in a redefinition of “marginalized” and “oppressed” to fit our current cultural context. According to BLT, Jesus did not come to liberate all people from the spiritual oppression of sin; the gospel is instead reframed to apply only to oppressed groups. (You may notice that BLT’s ideas sound a lot like conversations from Marxism. In fact, Cone was sympathetic to Marxism. He even believed that the Marxist framework offered a better chance of addressing race-based social inequalities than that of Christianity did.)
As I mentioned earlier, Cone’s positions on God and sin essentially create two separate versions of Christianity. But which Christianity is true? How can one know which version is true? While A Black Theology of Liberation didn’t go into detail on Cone’s view of truth, I think it’s helpful to add that, for Cone, there is no objective truth when it comes to the study of God or the Scriptures. For Cone, objective theological truth cannot be known; we can only know “truth” according to our social position within society. And the “truth” of the oppressor is very different from the “truth” of the oppressed. (This is a very postmodern concept that we see playing out in real-time in the cultural conversation of “my truth”).
In his 1997 book, God of the Oppressed, Cone states:
Like White Theologians, Black Theologians do theology out of the social matrix of their existence. The dissimilarity between Black Theology and White theology lies at the point of each having different mental grids which account for their different approaches to the gospel. While I believe that the social priori of Black Theology is closer to the axiological perspective of biblical revelation, for the moment the point is simply the inescapable interplay between theology and society—whether White or Black Theology. This means that theology is political language. What people think about God, Jesus Christ, and the Church cannot be separated from their own social and political status in a given society (pg. 41).
Later he writes, “Like White American theology, Black thought on Christianity has been influenced by its social context. But unlike White theologians, who spoke to and for the culture of the ruling class, Black people’s religious ideas were shaped by the cultural and political existence of the victims of North America.” (pg. 49)
Family, I could keep going on the problems of BLT, but I’m hoping that I’ve written enough to at least get you considering how this ideology may be showing up in your church, ministry, or university.
Consider watching this presentation by Cone at Union Seminary to get a feel for the key ideas and themes of his framework. As you listen, pay close attention to how he departs from the historic Christian faith.
Then read through this Twitter thread featuring Atlanta-based pastor, Leonce Crump (Thank you, Woke Preacher Clips!) explaining what he would consider “the good news” of ChristianityCone’s influence on a generation of evangelicals has been significant. If we are going to defend the faith given to the saints, we have to know what we are contending against so that when we hear it we can defend the truth of the gospel..
The entire sermon is available here, if you’d like to hear the comments in context.
Can you hear the echoes of Black Liberation Theology and Crump's departure from the historic Christian faith? Here’s my question: What will the long-term impact be if an entire generation of Christians is discipled to believe that Cone’s version is the true version of our faith? Cone’s ideas are getting mainstreamed into evangelical churches by pastors like Crump. One website hailed Crump as “one of the country’s most influential voices in multi-ethnic and multi-generational ministry.” He also appears to be a close friend of Lecrae (a prominent Christian hip hop artist) and the forward to his book was written by Matt Chandler.
The point here is simply to say that Cone’s influence on a generation of evangelicals is significant. Thus, if we are going to defend the faith, once for all, given to the saints we have to know what we are contending against so that when we hear it we can defend the truth of the gospel.