For those of you who do not know much on Black Liberation Theology, heres a little post for you. If you want to see more on Cone’s thought, rather than just the book suggestions below, see this post.
I remember an interview of Dr. Wright a few years back where he cites James Cone and Dwight Hopkins as the church’s chief theological influences. Funny enough, Sean Hannity said he’d gone to seminary, which by any standard after seeing the interview, his seminary failed him (or he failed himself) because he displayed an appalling lack of understanding to say the least. (Edit: I’m told he went to a “minor seminary” which apparently means a Catholic high school. If this is true, he seems to think some theological training back in high school is good enough? Either way, minor seminary or graduate school, he is woefully out of his element.)
Now, for James Cone, where to start? He is seen as the start of Black Liberation Theology in academic space (while the black church movement just prior to Cone is less talked about) and has written numerous books. However, it might actually be best to start with Dwight Hopkins’ Introducing Black Theology of Liberation. An introductory text will always be helpful. I would also suggest giving the Cone interview on Bill Moyer’s Journal a watch. I find myself from time to time revisiting it. Its a terrific interview.
You want to go straight to the source and read Cone’s books? Well there is, to name a select few: A Black Theology of Liberation, Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998.
Personally, I think Risks of Faith to be one of the most accessible books in the short list. It has been required in two different classes by two different professors here at Union and for good reason, it is actually a collection of articles spanning Cone’s career and makes a great little package. Martin and Malcom is essentially Cone’s theology in one book. Anyone reading Cone needs to go through God of the Oppressed – you just shouldn’t even try to get around it. A Black Theology of Liberation is the beginning construction of, you guessed it, Black Liberation Theology. Black Theology and Black Power again, this needs to be read if you’re reading Cone. This was his first book and it was from here that he launched towards the project of Black Liberation Theology.
I suppose if one were to read one book (which really shouldn’t be done, shame on you), I’d go with God of the Oppressed, however, in the specific case of the media latching on to specific sections of Cone’s work, read A Black Theology of Liberation. It is a seminal work, the beginning of his constructive work, etc. If one is going to read BTL, some concepts, theology, and theologians you need to understand or be aware of are: Paul Tillich and his idea of symbolism, Jürgen Moltmann and Hope Theology, Reinhold Niebuhr and his anthropology and conceptions of power, Karl Barth, W. E. B. DuBois, Rudolf Bultmann, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to name a few.
Below is one of the foundational turns that Cone makes in BTL. Jesus was black.
If Jesus is the Suffering Servant of God, he is an oppressed being who has taken on that very form of human existence that is responsible for human misery. What we need to ask is this: ‘What is the form of humanity that accounts for human suffering in our society? What is it, except blackness?’ If Christ is truly the Suffering Servant of God who takes upon himself the suffering of his people, thereby reestablishing the covenant of God, the he must be black.
…But some whites will ask, ‘Does black theology believe that Jesus was really black?’ It seems to me that the literal color of Jesus is irrelevant as are the different shades of blackness in America. Generally speaking, blacks are not oppressed on the basis of the depths of their blackness. ‘Light’ blacks are oppressed just as much as “dark” blacks. But as it happens, Jesus was not white in any sense of the word, literally or theologically. Therefore, Alber Cleage is not too far wrong when he describes Jesus as a black Jew; and he is certainly on solid theological grounds when he describes Christ as the Black Messiah.
James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 20th Anniversary Edition, 122-123.
Read more on what it means for Jesus to be black here.
Cone is also working on, soon to put it out, a book on lynching and, as indicated in the Moyer’s interview, drawing connections between lynchings of blacks and the crucifixion of Jesus. It should be an interesting work and very helpful. As far as I can see, it will not be so much a change in Cone’s work as it continues his project as he fleshes it out.
For all that Cone has done, he is not without his critics. Of the critics I have read, I think perhaps the most interesting is J. Kameron Carter of Duke’s Divinity School. He is putting out a book quite soon called Race: A Theological Account.