Cone’s Perspectives on Black Theology

To complete our examination of James Cone’s book Black Theology and Black Power and the affect that these theological suppositions may have had on Jeremiah Wright we will look into some perspectives that he offers in support of the way he recommends that blacks in America (in 1969) interact with the White church, the Black church, and ultimately, with the culture as a whole. What one finds most difficult to understand about the way Pastor Wright continues to apply this theology is that he sees no change has occurred over the ensuing four decades that have passed since the publication and codification of these ideas. White America and relationships between whites and blacks have been perpetually locked in the turbulence of the sixties, there must still be endemic racism (institutional racism per Carmichael), blacks are still attempting to throw off the heel of the oppressor, etc. Your own perspective on these matters will greatly affect then the way that you reacted to hearing the sermonic sound bites that hit the news several weeks ago.

Cone begins this way, ” Just as black revolution means the death of America as it has been, so it requires the death of the Church in its familiar patterns…We need a theology for the oppressed black people of America aimed at the destruction of racism in the society. Black theologians can no longer be tied to the irrelevancies of white American “Christianity.”” This theology lays its roots in black suffering; Cone insists that Black theology must see the reality of black suffering in the form of suffering and humiliation. The task of Black Theology is “to analyze the black man’s condition in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ with the purpose of creating a new understanding of black dignity among black people, and providing the necessary soul in that people, to destroy white racism.” It is, at heart, a way of restoring the humanity destroyed by oppression.

Following the path alighted by reformers before him, Cone presses on to the issue of religious authority answering the question of whether or not there is a ‘black’ theology. He is quick to point out that all theological authority is rooted in Scripture as Luther had before him so ultimately, the validity of his theology must be measure against the Word of God rather than the structures of man. Black theology, fomented in and by oppression, is formed only of doctrines of God, man, Christ, and Scripture that do not contradict demands for freedom now. It would be difficult to contradict this demand in light of God’s consistent demand for justice throughout the Scriptures. The crucible of oppression plays such a key role because it was through this hell that blacks came to know the Savior and through it, know that He identifies with them in their condition.

Black freedom that breaks the bonds of oppression necessarily requires the creation of new values likely to be alien and threatening to white society. This evaluation is stated by Cone to be based on the fact that “white American “Christian” values are based on racism.” This new value system is to be oriented singularly toward bringing alive the spirit of self-determination in the consciousness of black people. The newly enlightened will no longer be dependent on the white oppressor for their notions of truth, reality, or the proper approach to the relief of their oppression. This harkens back to the pre-Civil War black church which, in its independence from the white Church, was creative in its approach to spawning the idea of freedom among its members.

In conclusion, Cone closes with this:

Black Theology believes that we are on the threshold of a new order–the order of a new black community. The Black Power movement is a transition in the black community from nonbeing to being. In the old order, black people were not allowed to be human; we were what white America permitted us to be–no-things. We took on false identities which destroyed our real selves, our beautiful black selves. The new order (partially realized now, but not fully consummated) is an order which affirms black self-identity.

Black Power & Black Theology Part II

[Part I here]

Black power takes a myriad of forms throughout society in politics, culture, and education. As a theologian, James Cone goes on to explain the nature of Black power in the Church. As we learn to expect, in his mind there is a Black church and a White church. As we saw earlier, the process of the slave liberating himself from the devastating dehumanization and forcing the oppressor to recognize his God given image is the heart of Black power. Mr Cone states bluntly, “I contend that such a spirit is not merely compatible with Christianity; in America in the latter twentieth century it is Christianity.” He extends the liberation vocabulary to the Church as a whole, saying that the Church is composed of those called by God to share in his liberating activity. There are three activities that mark the modern (NT) Church: preaching (kerygma), service (diakonia), and fellowship (koinonia). Each is a weapon against white racism from both the Black and White perspective. From the viewpoint of the formerly oppressed, the preaching of the gospel is a message of freedom. Freedom from racism – Christ has conquered it; Freedom from oppression – Christ has freed you; Freedom from dwelling in one’s current circumstances – the Christ has set you free. It is, Cone says, the message of Black Power.

The White church fails in its Gospel mission in the latter two aspects of being the Church, service and fellowship. It fails to render services of liberation to the previously enslaved or to be the manifestation of the new society. Cone points to the failure of the White church to reach out in reconciliation (contra his earlier proclamation that Black power meant having nothing to do with Whites and their church) or to engage in true, equality-based fellowship. He sees the failure of the White church to radically follow Christ in obedience as unique to them (again, contra to his exclamation that many blacks have failed to grasp their freedom from enslavement.) In fact, to finally warn blacks away from engagement with the White church, the Antichrist is identified as the white Christian body.

The Antichrist..as in one most evil.

Is there hope then for a change in the White church that might lead to reconciliation between the races? Cone responds in the affirmative and with cautious theological support. In order for this chasm to be bridged, the White church must be willing to turn to a radical obedience of Christ and die. Whites must be willing to die to self and old ideas of the superiority and righteousness. They must be willing to die to their own status and follow Christ into radical identification with the poor and the oppressed, so much so that they themselves feel crack of the oppressor’s whip on their own backs. The whites who want reconciliation must be willing to join the others proclaiming Black Power. He must be both the agent of and the object of liberation.

Black theology is actively integrated with life as opposed to the overly scholastic theology of the greater White church. It is an encompassing worldview that instructs the follower in how to interact with a fallen world that appears to actively work against the black man’s liberation. Cone sees (in 1969) that the White church refuses to participate in this reconciling era and in that refusal, little hope for the future of black-white relations.