Liberation — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Ways of Knowing

Thursday, February 13, 2020

James Cone (1938–2018) is one of the greatest American theologians of this past century, yet sadly many Christians have never heard of him. His work laid the foundation for a liberation theology that spoke directly to the injustice, oppression, and violence faced by the Black community in the United States. Jesus made it clear that he came to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), showing that if we liberated the people on the margins, the good news would float upwards—in the opposite direction of the “trickle down” economic model, which is largely an illusion. Jesus’ teaching empowered Rev. Dr. Cone to write, “Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.” [1] Cone reflects: 

Like white American theology, black thought on Christianity has been influenced by its social context. But unlike white theologians, who spoke to and for the culture of the ruling class, black people’s religious ideas were shaped by the cultural and political existence of the victims in North America. Unlike Europeans who immigrated to this land to escape from tyranny, Africans came in chains to serve a nation of tyrants. It was the slave experience that shaped our idea of this land. And this difference in social existence between Europeans and Africans must be recognized, if we are to understand correctly the contrast in the form and content of black and white theology.

What then is the form and content of black religious thought when viewed in the light of black people’s social situation? Briefly, the form of black religious thought is expressed in the style of story and its content is liberation. Black Theology, then, is the story of black people’s struggle for liberation in an extreme situation of oppression. Consequently, there is no sharp distinction between thought and practice, worship and theology, because black theological reflections about God occurred in the black struggle of freedom.

White theologians built logical systems; black folks told tales. Whites debated the validity of infant baptism or the issue of predestination and free will; blacks recited biblical stories about God leading the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, Joshua and the battle of Jericho, and the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace. White theologians argued about the general status of religious assertions in view of the development of science generally and Darwin’s Origin of Species in particular; blacks were more concerned about their status in American society and its relation to the biblical claim that Jesus came to set the captives free. White thought on the Christian view of salvation was largely “spiritual” and sometimes “rational,” but usually separated from the concrete struggle of freedom in this world. Black thought was largely eschatological [focused on the ultimate destiny of humanity] and never abstract, but usually related to blacks’ struggle against earthly oppression. [2]

[1] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Orbis Books: 2010), ix.

[2] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Orbis Books: 1997), 49-50.

Image credit: Anna Washington Derry (detail), Laura Wheeler Waring, 1927, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, Washington, DC.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: One of my images of God is that of Grandmother, the wise . . . woman with gray hair and eyes as ancient as the Earth. — Steven Charleston
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