James Cone is one of the most commonly mentioned names in connection with the founding of Black Theology. The definition advanced by Cone requires one to view black theology in connection with black history and Black Power. “Black history is recovering a past deliberately destroyed by slave masters an attempt to revive old survival symbols and create new ones. Black Power is an attempt to shape our present economic, social and political existence according to those actions that destroy the oppressor’s hold on black flesh. Black theology places our past and present actions toward Black liberation in a theological context, seeking to destroy alien gods and to create value-structures according to the God of Black freedom” (Black Theology and Black Liberation, 1085). While there are many currents in the modern discipline of Black theology, most proponents affirm Cone’s contention that its mandate requires the formation of a new definition of Black dignity among black people to oppose and gradually destroy white racism. Most proponents analyze the situation of black persons in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and seek to demonstrate the biblical character of their conclusions.
Thus, black theology is a theology of engagement. It is dedicated to the improvement of the social condition of the black man and it is militantly arrayed in a battle with white racism. The proponents of Black theology consider white racism to be a religion for which they have labels: “white religion,” “whitianity,” and “Christianity;” (contrasted by the black theologian to “true Christianity”).
Black theology begins with the mostly accepted principle that the God of Israel and the Church acts in history to affect the salvation of men and women. However, they contend that a salvation having exclusively spiritual connotations is an irresponsible theology that fails to capture the whole meaning of true Christianity. To the black theologian, social components are inherent in the concept of Christianity as well as economic and political dimensions. Black theology relies upon the book of Exodus and the Old Testament account of God’s dealing with Israel to make the argument that these dimensions are evident in Christian orthodoxy. They conclude that God’s election of His people and His freeing of them from bondage are inseparably linked to sound Christian doctrine. Tones of Liberation Theology, as first advanced by Karl Barth, are called up for verification: “In the relations and events in the life of His people, God always takes His stand unconditionally and passionately on this side alone; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it.”
A case is made from the New Testament by citing Jesus’ deliberate identification with the underprivileged and insignificant people. Jesus’ own words serve as the biblical authority for the primary texts of Black theology (and for all of Liberation Theology). To black theology, Jesus principle ministry and concern was for the liberation of oppressed people. Many black theologians agree that the primary meaning of liberation vests in the spiritual context of conversion and new birth, but they argue that leaving social, economic, and political concerns out of the Gospel message makes it incomplete at best and probably a distortion.
To the advocate of Black theology both the Old Testament and the New Testament are claimed as a witness to the fact that God’s program of liberating underprivileged and oppressed people is mandatory for a proper understanding of God’s dealing with His people. According to this theology, it is assumed that in the 21st century Christ is radically identified with blackness. In the Old Testament and the earthly ministry of Jesus the Christ in the New Testament, God took the side of the weak and the oppressed. This forms the theological basis for Black theology to make the claim that identification with blackness is where God’s interests and emphases lie in our times. That being the case, it necessarily follows that obedience to God in the 21st century requires the faithful and knowledgeable Christian to identify with the poor and the oppressed, i.e., with blackness. Therefore, black theology defines any activity or teaching that denies the Lordship of Christ or a word that refuses to acknowledge His liberation activity in the struggle for freedom as heresy.
The Birth of Black Theology
The birth date of Black theology is hotly argued and far from settled. James Cone is regarded as the father of the movement by many scholars. There are two reasons for that conclusion. One is that Cone has written more articles on the subject than any other individual. Another reason is that Cone’s views establish a system and more accurately define the discipline. Even so, there are many students of the doctrine who do not afford James Cone that title. William Jones is another prominent name in the discussion. Jones takes the matter very seriously, observing that identifying any one person as the founder has far-reaching implications as to how black theology is defined. He, along with others, directs attention to 1964 when Black Religion was published as the most acceptable date of origin. In keeping with that conviction, Jones and others regard Joseph Washington, the author of Black Religion, as the founder of the movement. Because Washington uses the word black in his title Jones and his adherents regard this as expressing opposition to, and joining the contest with, white theology.” In theological circles, it is generally accepted dogma that while it is implied, there is no announced and expressed white theology. Jones and his brethren hold firm to the position that Black theology must identify and define white theology. It is only then that the two will be in tension and black theology can emerge.
A series of factors joined to persuade Jones to create a context to black theology that would make it acceptable to black peoples and to sympathetic theologians in the white community. One of the most prominent of these factors was the collapse of Colonialism on the international stage and the emergence of the Third World as a viable player on the stage of philosophical, theological, social, and political ideas. Another significant force was the impact on American communities that resulted from the black soldier returning from World War II. A very important consideration was the rise of the Black Muslim movement and the emphasis placed on black pride. Whether or not white theology recognized it or even knew about it a crucial change in attitudes was taking place in post World War II America. It was driven by the somewhat-hidden-but-nevertheless-real terms used by existential philosophy. Behind this discipline, was the persuasion that blacks were reacting with some degree of outrage to the absurdity of a nation positioning itself as Democratic but rejecting equality of all of its people and resisting the struggle for freedom. These were the considerations that motivated Jones and sponsored the rise of Black theology. Of course, Black theology existed long before Jones as a theological theory. From 1916 to 1927, Marcus Garvey strongly advocated and influenced for Black pride. Before that, Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in 1828, was very influential in the movement. Cone and others honored Turner. Their praise did not center on the bloody uprising but rather Turner’s recognition of God as a liberator of oppressed people. Many other unnamed black religious leaders never lost their faith and kept hope alive that liberation of black peoples would some day become a reality.
Black theologians have been involved in one perpetual issue. It is phrased as a question: is black theology a bona fide theology? This question is most often asked by white theology of black theology. Black theologians have a difficult time finding suitable criteria for answering the question without appearing to, and very often actually engaging in, an attack upon the white theologian’s doctrinal positions. When this conflict takes place between a questioner and an answerer who are both insincere and merely engaging in an academic skirmish it has little to add to or take from the cause of Black theology. The real problem arises when the white theologian is trying to understand the position of the black theologian with the thought in mind of possibly changing his views if he can understand what the black theologian to saying. In the overall context of the movement, it is then important for the black theologian to have answers that resonate if he is to find a theological meeting point. The inability of the black theologian to do that remains as a major problem in the dialogue.
Another crisis point is the effort to adequately define the theology of hope. Even liberation theologians like J. Deotis Roberts, who are fully committed to the liberation of black people, are forced to the position that black theology, in order to remain Christian in the historic context, must formulate and preach a theology that brings black men together in a common, righteous purpose in the view of Historic Christian Orthodoxy. That unity of black purpose must also have the goal of bringing black men and white men together. In theory, this may not seem much of a problem but in reality, it is very difficult. In 21st Century America, we see this dichotomy of concept erecting intimidating barriers. In his Audacity of Hope, and in his political philosophy our president holds for a black liberation position that envisions the removal of all economic, social, philosophical, religious, and political barriers and effecting a union of all peoples in our society on a common ground. Does the president also believe, as do many of the leaders of Black theology, that Black Power must be in control in order to assure that this newly formed egalitarian state be righteously and fairly administered?
The white theologian in America longs for unity between the black man and the white man and that is at least one of the important reasons why there was such a generous outpouring of support to elect this black man as our president. But white America did not know that the president was a Black Liberation Theologian. The views of the white theologian are far different from those of black theology. White theology wants to see a unity of faith, respect, and cooperation that does not employ Marx’s class warfare and does not believe, as the black liberation theologian does, that this goal can never be achieved until there is a functioning equality in all these areas. Upon this theological and philosophical field, the battle rages. A critic of black theology, Maj. Jones, sees in Cone, William Jones, and others, a theological justification for Black racism. Other critics focus upon Cone’s theological methodology as closely related with Cone’s affection for abstract German theology. They regard Cone with suspicion, seeing in his theological persuasions a withdrawal from historic black theology. Cone, to many observers, is a black nationalist who wishes to establish an independent black nation in America that regards the white man as the enemy.
William Jones, a professor at Yale at the time of his writing, criticizes Cone but also his critics: Albert Cleague, Maj. Jones, Deotis Roberts, and Joseph Washington. He denounces them, individually and as a group, on the subject of theodicy. For William Jones this concerns not only the black man but also the Jew and all other underprivileged and minorities. He notes that Joseph Washington describes God as the sovereign over human history and all activity within it. William Jones interprets this to mean that in the views of Washington God’s animosity toward blacks is the only sensible explanation for Black suffering. Men who attempt to reconcile the oppression experiences of the black man with the benevolence and kindness of God in general lead black theology. William Jones is not convinced and rephrases black theology. He builds a new foundation that he terms humanocentric theism. In this way, William Jones seeks to explain the functional ultimacy of man by transferring to man those areas of control and primacy that have previously been reserved for God alone. As of the present, few black theologians have chosen to align with Jones’s fundamentally humanistic doctrines that fly in the face of biblical revelation.
The advocacy of violence as a means to achieving a theological goal is an aspect of Black theology that is troubling and unacceptable to those inside the black community as well as elsewhere. Dr. Martin Luther King was one who certainly disagreed. Even so, it has advocacy and wide support in the Black theology movement. Howard scholar Dr. Cain Felder reviewed James Cone’s original writings on the subject in the summer of 1970. Felder’s review appeared in the Summer Edition of the Union Seminary Quarterly Review. In it, Felder noted Cone’s major contributions to the movement. At one place in his review, Felder recognizes Cone’s equivocal attitude toward violence as an option in the liberation struggle. This moderate position by Cone is dismissed entirely by Felder who maintains that Jesus was the first century zealot who advocated revolutionary violence. It did not seem to matter to Felder that most theologians, black and white, rejected his arguments as specious. Felder stated that violence should be espoused because of the “growing number of disillusioned blacks who believe that white America is beyond salvation and must, with her church, be destroyed.” This is one of the troubling views of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Black Nationalism. This is a doctrine of Black theology that is denounced by the preponderance of both black and white theologians.
Christianity in general regards black theology as one of the very few authentically original North American theological movements. There are Christian elements to it and many Christian men involved in it, but it fails the test of Historic Orthodox Christianity at many points. As time passes, this movement will undergo additional changes resulting from continuing dialogue and research into such areas as African roots. Open conflict with all adversaries, chiefly the white theologian, will also affect changes. Association with Latin American Liberation Theology, African theology, the feminist movement, and Black Nationalism will also mean alteration of views and behavior. But since it is Age of Enlightenment and Liberation-Theology based, it is doubtful that it will ever accept the Bible as the only guide to its faith and practice. Such a criticism as this is not of great concern to Black theology. It goal is not Historic Orthodox Christianity and the evangelical mission of the Church are not the goals of Black theology. It is basically an Old Testament theology attached to mortality. It is not committed to a kingdom that is no longer of this world and the glories of suffering for that cause. Its focus continues to be a biblically mandated message of liberation. As noted previously, Black theology considers it heresy to make the main interpretation of biblical liberation a spiritual matter. It wants to set the natural man free. The preponderance of black theologians acknowledges that blacks as well as whites are sinners. Even so, to black theology it is particularly the white man who must be called to repentance. That will necessarily mean a relinquishing of racial intolerance but it must, if it is to succeed, also result in an identification with blackness.
One does not know how many there are in the Black community that James Cone speaks for and how many agree with his words. Even so, we have chosen to conclude with his evaluation: “Being black in America has very little to do with skin color. To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.” (Black Theology and Black Power, 151)