black theology, James Cone

Understanding Wright by Understanding Cone (1): Black Liberation Theology from Cone

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.


12 thoughts on “Understanding Wright by Understanding Cone (1): Black Liberation Theology from Cone

  1. Terry says:

    Even one who is not physically or emotionally plugged in learns pretty early on in Sociology 101 that lighter skinned Black people earn considerable more income than darker skinned Black people, and are generally preferred by Whites in hiring and in myriad ways.

    Lighter skinned Black people are absolutely not as oppressed as darker skinned people, many lighter skinned Black people will openly attest to that reality – and even a drive of our community will exhibit that to you loud and clear. Homeless shelters, unemployment and food stamp lines and every area of disenfranchisement are flooded with darker skinned Black people – while business districts and posh spots are flooded with lighter skinned people.

    I sure helps when people study before they write.

  2. I’m kind of confused, Terry. Are you trying to fault me or James Cone for binary thought when it comes to identity? And fault either of us for not doing any research?

    Of course it is well known that at times, lighter skin can be an “asset.” Although this is still a way of putting someone down (dehumanizing them) by labeling them as “exotic.” However, there is also the understanding that those in the in-between can be putdown by both groups. Yes, this points at one of the inherent flaws of racism: the division of people and valuing them according to a social construction. To be not white is to be put down, particularly in 1970 when Cone wrote what I quoted above.

    Perhaps, also, your sociology 101 class taught you about “silent” or “invisible” racism?

    I can assure you that neither Cone nor I are actually advancing a simplistic, binary way of seeing the world. In fact, Cone almost gave up theology to become a sociologist. Ironically, you’re right, it does help when people study before they write, which is the whole point of the post – to help someone begin to read James Cone, who has been subject to criticism by people who do not care to read what he actually said in its context, for whatever reason.

  3. Jerry says:

    I find this much more enlightening in my attempt to understand “Black Liberation Theology.” They’re a few of my James Cone favorites:

    “In the New Testament, Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors … Either God is for black people in their fight for liberation and against the white oppressors, or he is not. ”


    “Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community … Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.”


    “The time has come for white America to be silent and listen to black people. . . . All white men are responsible for white oppression. . . . Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.’. . . Any advice from whites to blacks on how to deal with white oppression is automatically under suspicion as a clever device to further enslavement.”

  4. chad says:

    d.w.horstkoetter, typical response when the mans own words are pointed out to deflect attention by saying they are being taken out of context.

    Maybe you can enlighten me by putting this in context

    “If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him.”

    For a group of people who promotes that it is wrong to persecute or discriminate against a people for their skin color I find it interesting how often the term “white people” is used.

    As a Christian the God I know is for all people. None of us are good “no not one” as the bible says so for any group of people to single itself out as the truly righteous the people that has suffered as Christ has suffered is sanctimonies pride. God is not for one group of people over another to imply that he is or should be is wrong and should be pointed out.

  5. Chad, I’m getting sick of answering such comments that categorize me and Cone and black theology when you don’t seem to know much about this “thing” you object to. I suggest you go here – , if you continue to refuse to actually read what Cone is saying (along with my other posts, here: ). Its about time you got of your high horse and started acting like whiteness isn’t raced.

    Specifically see these posts:

    Oh, and btw, this God you speak of condemns the rich and lifts up the poor – try reading the prophets, or Jesus. God is about justice, yes, so this means God is for righting the relationships. Moving the rich out of their abusive relationships over the poor. And in this country, it means moving the white people to a place where they are not getting privilege at the expense of people of color. This is actually a healthy thing for the oppressor and oppressed alike. This “black theology” that you don’t seem to understand actually seeks to address all people in their sin.

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  7. Akinwale Chebuka says:

    This is a good post. I am writing my dissertation on Black Theology and the Invisible Institution. I think Cone is a brilliant scholar, but many people are too easily offended by what they are unable to grasp. We are not obligated to agree with everything that is said by any scholar, but we should not allow our personal biases hinder our objectivity. One of the problems with many people is still their unwillingness to see Christ in a global context. I had a difficult time getting advisors to support the writing of my dissertation, so I changed instituions. I appreiciate the encoragement that I received from Dr. Cone, via mail, that enabled me to boldly continue my research for my dissertation.

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