The Glorious, Complicated Legacy of James H. Cone

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By Matthew Burdette

We cannot foresee what strange new future is being thrust upon us by opening a book. Some authors are barely able to trouble the waters of our souls. Others baptize us into a new life and sense of self. Such was my experience with James Cone, who died at 79 on April 28. I did not know what would become of me when, in 2012, I finally got around to reading Black Theology and Black Power, Cone’s first book, which was published in 1969.

I had been reluctant to read Cone. I was exposed to the occasional excerpt of his work in divinity school, but had not been assigned one of his books. A professor repeatedly warned me that I was doing myself a disservice by ignoring Cone. Not only was I an aspiring theologian who should have some knowledge of one of the most significant figures in recent theology, but more fundamentally, it was important that I, as an aspiring theologian with dark skin, learn from one who took seriously both his identity as a Christian theologian and his identity as a black man — as a singular identity. Whenever my professor would remind me to read Cone, I would respond that yes, certainly, I should read Cone, and it would be nice if I had more time to read more books, and of course I would get to Cone just as soon as I finished the other books on my to-read list.

I didn’t want to read Cone.

I thought that I understood that racism is bad, that the Christian faith is against racism, and that American society is plagued by it. And I kept it to myself, but I assumed that Cone would say in great detail all of this stuff about racism that I already understood, and that his work would be very moralistic but only tangentially theological. I wanted to read what I was then calling real theology, and I quietly assumed that Cone’s work did not qualify.

But in 2012 I picked up Black Theology and Black Power. I was just beginning my doctoral studies, and my divinity school professor sent one last email reminder to read Cone. I submitted.

And then I read, “The issue is clear: Racism is a complete denial of the Incarnation and thus of Christianity. … In our time, the issue of racism is analogous to the Arian controversy of the fourth century.” Racism, according to Cone, was not a moral issue that theology might speak about; rather, racism is, first and foremost, a theological issue, and this fact determines what it means for the Christian to think morally about racism. By the time I finished the book, I had already acquired Cone’s other works, and I was disabused of my assumptions about black theology’s content and significance. And not insignificantly, I came to admit that my earlier reluctance to read Cone was not due solely to the presumption that his work would be insufficiently theological, but was also because of a painful truth that I was not ready to acknowledge — an “unknown known,” to use Slavoj Žižek’s pointed description of the unconscious and even willingly disavowed knowledge of something — namely, that even I had internalized white supremacist attitudes, and so black self-hatred, which needed to be confronted by Christ. I learned that I did not know what to make of my experience and humanity, and so experienced the redeeming power of Cone’s words, which are written in the first person in A Black Theology of Liberation: “We must become black with God!”

In the end, half of my dissertation was an explication of Cone’s doctrine of God, and much of my writing and work in the Church since that time has dealt with race. Cone’s work transformed my faith, my life. And thankfully, I had the privilege of meeting with Cone on more than one occasion to discuss, and indeed to argue about my work.

Cone’s theology is a stumbling block. It is impossible to forget, for example, that during the campaign season for the United States presidential election in 2008, conservative commentators tried to depict Obama as a black radical because of his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and to depict Wright, in turn, as a black radical because of his association with Cone. The sheer fact of Cone’s work is a stumbling block. Cone’s work, because its purpose is to address race, is ignored or dismissed and sometimes even disagreed with without a hearing. While there are certainly real challenges to his work that must be raised, too often his critics show that they have not so much read Cone as read at him, cherry-picking statements that, divorced from context, are easily deconstructed strawmen. In so doing, such critics have failed to identify the substantive issues that are worthy of critique, and so, because these issues are only apparent from within the context of appreciative reading, they failed to discover the riches of Cone’s work.

What is Cone’s contribution to theology? Why should someone who is disinclined to read Cone give him a chance? I shall venture an answer. Cone’s work can be divided somewhat neatly into two major phases: the doctrinal phase (1969-81) and the historical phase (1982-2013). In both of these phases, Cone made several significant theological achievements; I will identify just one achievement in each phase.

Cone made the claim that racism — he would soon come to prefer the more precise phrase “white supremacy” — is not just moral, but theological. White supremacy expresses a christological heresy, a basic denial of what the Church must say about the person and nature of Christ. And the specific heresy? Docetism, the belief that God only seemed to take on flesh, but in fact remained abstractly unconnected to the messy, particular reality of human life.

Cone observed that in Scripture, idolatry seems always to be joined by oppression. Wherever there is the worship of false gods, social life is perverted so that the powerful lord over the powerless. With this observation, Cone interrogated the very notion of race. White supremacy, Cone argued, is the idolatrous worship of an abstract god without any particular identity: a god in general of no people in particular. Whiteness, Cone observed, is the social attempt to escape human particularity, to be the universal people in general of a god in general, freed of the burden of being this or that particular people, and oppressing those particular people in the process. The inferior others are particular, colored; but white people? To be white is just to be a stock human, the default model. And when this belief meets Christianity, what we end up with is a white Jesus: a spiritualized Christ whose particular humanity is of no real value, a Christ who only seems to have the particular flesh of a first-century Jew but is in fact just the revelation of the same old god in general of no people in particular. In other words, a Docetic Christ, a god who only seemed to take on flesh.

What God does to destroy idolatry, and so to liberate his human creatures from oppression, is to reveal himself. Throughout Scripture, Cone observes, God reveals himself, and he thereby rids his people of idols, lifting up the lowly and casting down the mighty from their thrones. God reveals himself as the particular one, the Lord, the God of Israel, who tolerates no other gods. And it is this particular God of Israel who comes to us in the particular Jewish flesh of Jesus, in the particular circumstances of Jewish poverty under Roman occupation. And it is by this particular Jewish flesh of Jesus that God redeems the world, makes us into new creatures. This Jewish Jesus, said Cone, is not confined to the first century, but is alive and active. This Jewish Jesus frees us today, transforming the self-hatred of oppressed Negroes into the self-love of liberated black women and men, renewed by God’s special creation, beautiful blackness. By the particularity of his Jewish flesh, Jesus does blackness, so identifying with the oppressed that he transforms the meaning of dark skin from oppression into freedom. Jesus is black!

Cone was able to show that the struggle against white supremacy calls Christians to a more, not less fully orthodox articulation of the gospel message. Christ invites us to meet him in his particularity so that we may be freed to receive our own particularity as God’s creation, as God’s gift, and in so receiving ourselves, we are freed to receive others in their particularity. For black people, this means coming to love their blackness, and for whites, it means undergoing the painful liberation from the delusion of whiteness.

In his turn to history, Cone took up the question of social change. The black struggle for freedom in America has vacillated between the optimism of integrationism and the pessimism of black nationalism, based on historical experience. When blacks have been able to see themselves as fully Americans, they have been drawn to efforts at a racially integrated America; but when social experience has made it difficult for black people to see themselves as fully American, they have tended to seek independence and autonomy. Cone identified these two tendencies with the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And while Cone argued that these two men became more and more sympathetic to one another during their ministries, he concluded that neither integrationism nor nationalism achieved the desired goal: freedom. Cone understood his work and that of black liberation theology more generally as an effort to find a third way. It was clear to Cone that black nationalism was finally a delusion, that nobody was going back to Africa and that black people had to find a way to live with white people. Yet it was equally clear to him that integrationism is fatally flawed, undermined by its efforts to call on black people to assimilate into the very culture that had oppressed them. What was needed, Cone insisted, was a revolution of American society by black people.

The work of black theology, and a church transformed by it, is to be this revolution. Cone’s description of this third way may be understood as an attempt at a more radical interpretation of Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies. In the case of the culturally mainstream image of Martin Luther King Jr., to love one’s enemy is finally to deny that one has an enemy at all, to assume that the enemy is only an enemy because of some misunderstanding. Integrationism finally calls black people to see white society not as an enemy but as an estranged friend. Alternatively, the words of Malcolm X speak for themselves; he thought the idea of loving one’s enemy was ludicrous, and that blacks needed to love and care for one another. Black nationalism finally abandons white culture to wallow in its delusions and self-destructive hatred. And then there is Cone’s understanding of black liberation. Cone’s rhetoric, which has sometimes been an impediment to his white audiences, is in fact central to his revolutionary work. Cone insisted on seeing white culture as a real enemy — as Antichrist, as he called it early on — and to love white people anyway, not denying their status as enemies, nor abandoning them to enmity. Cone has sometimes been criticized for minimizing the role of forgiveness or reconciliation in his theology. These criticisms fail to understand him. The gesture of confrontation, of speaking those truths which none want to say and even fewer want to hear, is the gesture that means I forgive you. Enter into a new future with me. The work of black theology, in its most radical form, is a work intended to liberate white people from their oppression, which they cannot see and do not understand.

Cone’s theology was not without its problems. The one that stands out most prominently is the autonomy given to the concept of liberation, which becomes an issue in his works published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In Cone’s earliest understanding, liberation was a logical and necessary result of God’s self-disclosure as the particular God of Israel who comes to us in the man Jesus; however, by 1982, Cone had come to say that wherever there was liberation, God was there revealed, even if such liberation was unrelated to the God of Scripture. Human freedom, which Cone once believed was synonymous with knowing God in Jesus, came to be a self-standing, self-evident concept, without any need for theological content. It is no surprise, then, that Cone stopped writing Christian doctrine altogether after 1982, and in 1997 finally admitted that he no longer believed in the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s sole revelation to humanity.

Cone’s theology, which was one of the first theologies of identity, focused on addressing a political issue, and was a catalyst and forerunner for a multiplicity of similar theologies of varying quality — too many of which were more dedicated to liberation than to Christian theology. I suspect that the shift in Cone’s attention over the years, away from doctrine and toward history, is attributable to these changes in his thinking.

Despite these changes, I remain convinced of the immense significance and worthiness of Cone’s theology. His work changed my life as a person, a theologian, and a priest. Cone taught me how to be a black man, and so taught me how to be a more faithful and more orthodox Christian.

The Rev. Matthew Burdette is a curate at Church of the Good Shepherd in Dallas and serves as associate director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.


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