Theological Blackness

James Cone begins his book entitled A Black Theology of Liberation by stating that ‘Christian theology is a theology of liberation’ Cone argues that no theology, which does not identify unreservedly with the oppressed and abused, is Christian. He makes a case for this using scripture from the Exodus narrative, the prophets of Israel, and Jesus himself. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel begins his public ministry with these words from Isaiah 61:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Cone argues that ‘in view of the biblical emphasis on liberation, it seems not only appropriate but necessary to define Christian community as the community of the oppressed which joins Jesus Christ in his fight for the Liberation of humankind.’ Cone rightly criticizes American white theology for its failure to be involved in the black struggle for liberation, for its religious sanctioning of oppression itself, and for becoming subservient to the state. 

Cone relies heavily on the protestant existential theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich understood theology to be the discipline that related the truth to the situation of man. He argued that theology must be spoken in answer to the existential dilemma of man kind. He also believed that the content of religious language must by necessity be symbolic. He claimed that there is no way to directly describe God and that we therefore must use symbolic language and recognize theological language as symbolic. Cone used this point to make a case that ‘Blackness’ and ‘Whiteness’ have become symbols within black theology. Blackness, stands for all victims of oppression who Christ himself associates with. Whiteness, on the other hand, is a symbol of oppression and the antichrist. Using this language cone makes statements like ‘In order to be Christian theology, white theology must cease to be white theology and become black theology by denying its whiteness as an acceptable form of human existence and affirming blackness as God’s intention for humanity.’ Black theology finds its sources in black experience, black history, black culture, revelation, scripture, and tradition.

When Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor it carried with it an implication of bad news for the rich.  In a similar sense, Cone says ‘Because whiteness by its very nature is against blackness, the black prophet is a prophet of national doom. He proclaims the end of the American Way.He insists that ‘Black theologians must assume the dangerous responsibility of articulating the revolutionary mood of the black community. This means that their speech about God, in authentic prophetic tradition, will always move on the brink of treason and heresy in an oppressive society.’


  1. not sure i'm totally on board with some of the concepts. overall I understand and agree with the concept of liberation as a necessary part of Christian theology, but it goes downhill at the symbolic language section. Why MUST language about God be symbolic? The word 'eternal' in the statement "God is eternal" isn't symbolic; it refers to a claim about the true nature of God. Also I think the categories used here are unnecessarily inflammatory (maybe that's the intent of the Black prophet?) and leave room for lots of confusion. Another sticking point for me is the conclusion that good news for the poor means bad news for the rich. God clearly loves rich people as well (although following Jesus could mean bad news for how they plan to use their wealth i suppose). In general I think liberation theology tends to take something that should be a part of the overall picture and elevates it to the main idea and suffers a bit for that. I'm enjoying the posts though john - keep it up.

  2. I appreciate the critique Steve. While I don’t intend this response as a retort, I thought I might just respond with how I understand the idea of theological language as symbolic.
    A symbol is not something arbitrarily instituted to point to something else like a sign can be. A sign can be chosen, at random, to point to or represent whatever one chooses. A symbol, on the other hand, grows out of the unconscious and it opens up levels of reality that would otherwise be unavailable to us. Since the question of God is a matter of what concerns us ultimately our statements about God are symbolic in this way. ‘God is eternal’ is a statement about the deepest and truest reality for which I am grasping at and while it grows out of this depth it also points beyond what I can grasp of reality. It is a symbol because it is so much more than mere language.
    So if one was to say that “God is love” as scripture does we must recognize that is something very different than “I love pizza” or “I love my mom” or even “I love God” right? So it, in some sense, undoes what we think of in terms of our usual use of the word and it also affirms it, in that it does mean so much of what we usually mean, as well. It transcends our understanding of Love by using it to describe God. The word love here points far beyond itself and so becomes symbolic.
    God is in a very real way ineffable. And that statement too is symbolic. (-;
    Anyway, when Cone uses ‘white’ and ‘black’ and a symbol he would most likely acknowledge the fact that it is inflammatory as evidence of its truthfulness. Not sure if that makes sense but yes, it should bother you. Cone intends it to.
    If you have not read this book I do recommend it. I promise it will be the most offensive and disturbing theology book you have ever read. For me that pain was like a surgery that is killing a cancer.

  3. "Anyone who tries to describe the ineffable Light is truly a liar--not because he hates the truth, but because of the inadequacy of his description." -Gregory of Nyssa

    Knowing that our descriptions of God are poor and short-sighted, I think that I ought to give way to, or at least give space for those statements about God which come from those with whom Jesus most identified: the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, etc. And I don't often like what I hear from them.

  4. David, I loved that Gregory quote. Thank you for sharing. By the way none of us, who are not the poor and oppressed, will like what we hear from them. We actually do sometimes hate the truth.

    Oh and steve, you also said "God clearly loves rich people as well (although following Jesus could mean bad news for how they plan to use their wealth i suppose)"
    It is bad news to that very thing that makes them 'the rich'. Just like cone would say white bust become black so rich munt become poor. Jubilee is the image that Jesus is drawing on in the cited passage and it never happened throughout history because no rich people were going to allow it to.
    Like when Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor. He walks away because it it 'bad news' or just unacceptable to him but at the core Jesus was extending an offer of freedom. It is when we cling to our lives that we are bound to loose them.
    I heard once and have always remembered this quote, but cannot remember the source "Communisms object is to make the rich poor and the poor rich, Christianities object is to make the rich poor and the poor holy" Not sure this totally relates but I like it!


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