Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Book Review: A Black Theology of Liberation by James H. Cone

A Black Theology of Liberation: 50th Anniversary EditionA Black Theology of Liberation by James H. Cone, 200 pages
Finished reading on 2/11/2021 for my seminary class on political and liberation theologies.

James H. Cone (1938-2018) published this book in 1970. In the preface to the 1986 edition, Cone writes, “This book cannot be understood without a keen knowledge of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s and a general comprehension of nearly four hundred years of slavery and segregation in North America, both of which were enacted into law by government and openly defended as ordained of God by most white churches and their theologians” (Loc 186). Cone also says his style of doing theology was “influenced more by Malcolm X than by Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Loc 255). Peter J Paris points out in his forward to the 2020 edition that there was little to no conversation in their seminaries in the mid-twentieth century about Martin Luther King, Jr, and the civil rights movement as it was considered out of bounds for theological inquiry. This silence around all of that is what Cone would have been experiencing in seminary. Paris also tells us that Cone was not familiar with the rise of liberation theology in Latin America at the time he wrote this book. Instead, he took his seminary training and used those tools to construct his own theology of liberation (Loc 84). I appreciate what Cone wrote in his preface to the 1986 edition acknowledging his failure to pay attention to sexism in the black community and society at large, and so he changed the exclusive language from 1970 to more inclusive language (Loc 266).

Cone directly states in the preface to the 1986 edition: “A Black Theology of Liberation was first published in 1970, and it was written for and to black Christians (and also to whites who had the courage to listen) in an attempt to answer the question that I and others could not ignore, namely, “what has the gospel of Jesus Christ to do with the black struggle for justice in the United States?” (Loc 186).

Cone interacts extensively with many of the classical (white) theologians, especially Karl Barth. He mentions Paul Tillich a lot too, and Bultmann. I thought it was interesting that in the preface to the 1986 version he said that if he were writing the book at that time he would not follow the theological structure “that begins with a methodology based on divine revelation, and then proceeds to explicate the doctrines of God, humanity, Christ, church, world, and eschatology” (Loc 319). His reason for saying that is that he now believes that “Revelation as the word of God, witnessed in scripture and defined by the creeds and dogmas of Western Christianity, is too limiting to serve as an adequate way of doing theology today” (319).

This book is James Cone’s “attempt to construct a new perspective for the discipline of theology, using the Bible and the black struggle for freedom as its chief sources” (Loc 329). Liberation became the “organizing principle” (329). He explores the implications of this within the framework of classical theology, fully showing off all of the training he had received in seminary about the traditional (white) theologians. Chapters three through seven tackle Revelation, God, human beings, Jesus, the church, the world, and eschatology, always emphasizing "blackness" as opposed to "whiteness." He is writing a theology that is liberated from the racism of white supremacy and oppression. Over and over again he says in many different ways, that any message or theology that is not about the liberation of the poor is not Christ’s message. It’s not the Gospel. It’s not Christian theology. In his preface, he writes, “It is my contention that Christianity is essentially a religion of liberation. The function of theology is that of analyzing the meaning of that liberation for the oppressed so they can know that their struggle for political, social, and economic justice is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ's message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology” (Loc 345).

View all my book reviews

No comments: