Was James Cone a Prophet? Some Thoughts about “Black Theology”
A few years ago I had the privilege of meeting James Cone, arguably the most influential modern black theologian. It was a brief meeting and I expressed to him my appreciation for his courage as shown in his rather radical expressions of what has come to be called “Black Theology.” (Some prefer the term “African-American Theology,” but “Black Theology” has stuck and Cone himself did not abandon it.)
Cone died at age 79 this month (April, 2018). He was a titled professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York until his retirement a few years ago. He was a prolific author and speaker. There are many Youtube videos of interviews with him and of him speaking at various academic and other venues. Without doubt Cone was one of the most influential and highly regarded, if somewhat controversial, American Christian theologians of the second half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century. (I don’t know how well-known he was in other countries, so I am speaking here primarily about his role in American theology and Christianity.)
Cone came to prominence with two early books in particular and they remain classic statements of militant, “in your face,” prophetic and even revolutionary Black Theology: A Black Theology of Liberation and God of the Oppressed. In one interview that can be seen on Youtube he takes personal credit for beginning “Black Theology.” Of course there were precursors, but without doubt he gets the credit for bringing Black Theology of liberation (liberationist Black Theology) into public awareness and discussion.
Cone was little known outside of academic circles and black Christian circles before Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ (then presidential candidate Obama’s home church) preached his famous sermon in which he said “God damn America.” Of course, some conservative news outlets took that out of context; as Wright himself later explained he meant “God damn America’s government” insofar as it does not repent and change—from its institutionalized racism. Wright’s influence by Cone was brought out by several news outlets and some journalists then put the spotlight on Cone as the inspiration behind Wright’s seemingly militant version of Black Theology.
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I have taught and written about Cone and his theology for many years—as the most influential version of Black Theology. However, I have also taught and written about some other black theologians and encouraged both African-American and other students to read some of them and not to view Cone as the only black theologian or as one who spoke for all black theologians. Among others I suggest reading: Deotis Roberts (whom I have also met), Major Jones, Gayraud Wilmore, James Evans and, more recently, Willie Jennings.
What do all the classical black theologians have in common besides being African-American? They all “do theology” from within a specialized perspective of oppression by white racism in America. And they all regard African-American experience as a source for theology. They all regard racism in America as institutionalized, not merely a fault of some people. “White privilege” is exposed as a form of racism that is contrary to true, authentic Christianity. They all call for African-Americans to embrace their racial, ethnic, historical, ancestral, religious heritage and take pride in it and integrate it with their Christianity.
Some other black theologians criticized Cone for his militant tone—much of it borrowed from or influenced by Malcolm X—and for rejecting any talk about reconciliation between whites and blacks (until after liberation).
Was Cone a prophet? Well, everything depends on what one means by “prophet.” Yes, he was a prophet in the sense of calling for repentance and change—away from sin and toward repentance. Yes, he was a prophet in the sense of exposing the virulent evil of white racism in America and the systematic-institutionalized nature of the oppression of African-Americans.
With some other (than Cone) black theologians, however, I have concerns about Cone’s admiration for and influence by Malcolm X. And with them I have some concerns about Cone’s lumping of all white people together as racist just for being white in America. I think corporate or collective guilt based on any race or gender or class is a mistake. In fact, I think it has the unintended consequence of minimizing the evil of racism, sexism, classism, because it spreads it too thinly. If all whites in America are racist solely by virtue of being white, then we need another term for that particular evil of hatred of African-Americans that so many Caucasians (and others) are guilty of.
I do encourage students to read Cone, but I encourage them to read him critically. (But I do that with regard to all theologians I encourage students to read!) Especially in his early writings, which are still in print and widely read and discussed, Cone’s black rage, justified as it was, can have the effect of “turning people off” to Black Theology in general. So I encourage students and others to read both Cone and Roberts or both Cone and Jones, etc. Roberts and Jones have the same basic themes as Cone without the militancy or rage. I strongly encourage people interested in Black Theology but turned off by Cone’s militancy to read Major Jones, The Color of God (Abingdon Press) which is still in print and constitutes a mini-systematic theology from a black theological perspective.
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