A look at James Cone and black theology

By Dr. Marvin A. McMickle

I began my studies at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, in September 1970. My first class was Systematic Theology taught by Dr. James H. Cone. That class was heavy on Karl Barth, the person whose own theology had been the basis of Cone’s Ph.D. dissertation completed at Northwestern University in 1965.[1] However, even then, the roots of Black Liberation Theology were being planted in our minds.

Cone’s first book, “Black Theology and Black Power,” had been released the year before (1969), and the global theological community was wrestling with this new concept of a “black theology.”[2] The faculty at Union and Columbia, including the African-American faculty at that time were not exempt from doubt that such a thing as a black theology had any biblical or historical foundation.

The intervening years have proven how wrong they all were as Black Liberation Theology set in motion a global reconsideration of theological reflection that continues to this day. Cone and black theology sparked other theological traditions that look at other forms of oppression. They include the Latin American focus on poverty in Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology that examines the role of women in the life of the church, and Womanist Theology that looks at the intersection of race, gender and class. More recently, Post-Colonial Theology and even Queer Theology have emerged as methods for doing theological reflection.

Black Liberation Theology argues that God, as revealed in scripture, identifies with the oppressed. It begins in Exodus 3 with the Hebrew slaves that God delivers from 430 years of Egyptian bondage. It continues in Matthew and Luke with Jesus’ birth into the marginalized Jewish community under the oppressive systems of Roman occupation. In both instances, God was working to set the captives free. That was the message of Jesus in Luke 4:16–21, when the Lord quoted from Isaiah 61:1ff and talked about “preaching good news to the poor,” “proclaiming freedom for the captives” and “releasing the captives.”

Cone was not the first person to point to this connection between Jesus and the oppressed. Howard Thurman had made the point forcefully back in 1949 with his book “Jesus and the Disinherited.”[3] However, historical circumstances of the mid-1960s demanded that the connection between Jesus, the Christian faith and black communities in the United States be reexamined.

Cone was writing about black theology at a time when the prevailing question was whether it was possible to be both black and Christian. Most white Christians, including pastors and theologians, had remained silent about the racism and racialized violence being exposed by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The Civil Rights Movement was, itself, suffering major internal strife, as younger leaders like Stokely Carmichael were calling for Black Power in both economic and political terms.[4] Groups like the Black Panther Party were rejecting the nonviolent, passive resistance offered by Martin Luther King Jr.

At the same time, most black clergy in the 1960s were not active in the Civil Rights Movement. They did not openly support King, and they were not preaching a message of freedom and liberation. Many black preachers were still pushing a message of gradualism, as far as political freedom was concerned. In addition, rather than urging social and political activism, many black preachers were still engaged in what Benjamin Mays called “compensatory religion,” in which personal salvation was the primary goal, with freedom and happiness coming “by and by” in heaven after one’s death.[5]

The silence on matters of race and racial violence by many black preachers during the first half of the 20th century helped create the context in which Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam advanced the notion that Christianity was the “white man’s religion” and that Islam was the true religion for the black man.[6] All of these concerns led to the question that demanded an answer in the 1960s: “Can you be both black and Christian?”

It was Cone, often working in tandem with Gayraud Wilmore[7] and in creative tension with J. Deotis Roberts,[8] who answered that question with a resounding “yes.” He began working with the National Committee of Black Churchmen[9] and continued with an astounding body of groundbreaking theological reflection of his own to provide the answer to that question.[10] The answer was a resounding “yes.” Standing on the shoulders of Henry McNeal Turner — who announced in the 1880s that “God is a Negro”[11] — Cone made the case that, while one can be black and Christian, one cannot be a racist or a white supremacist and a Christian. God is working for the liberation of the oppressed, and God’s people must assume that same position.

Cone argued that, unlike European-based forms of theology and biblical studies, black theology drew from a different set of norms and sources that emerged from the experience of being black in America. Cone gave as much value to spirituals and the blues,[12] to the music of John Coltrane and James Brown, and to the historic liberation efforts of black slaves in the 18th and 19th century[13] as he did to the white theologians he had studied at Garrett and Northwestern. He confronted the contrasting messages of King and Malcolm X in his groundbreaking study “Martin and Malcolm and America.”[14] Cone spoke about his understanding of the two prophets when he said, “You might say we took our Christian identity from Martin and our emphasis on blackness from Malcolm.”[15]

His last book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,”[16] may have been his most provocative, for there he insisted on the correlation between the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans and the lynching of black people by white mobs in the United States. In that same book, Cone essentially dismantles Reinhold Niebuhr, making him the object lesson of white theologians who managed never to say a word about racism, lynching or white supremacy during the very years when those issues stood at the center of U.S. social and political upheaval.

Over the last 50 years, Cone established himself as the dominant theological voice of his generation. Thankfully, through his writings and through all the students and teachers who were shaped by his ideas, the message of James Cone will continue to be heard: God is on the side of the oppressed, no matter what form that oppression may take!

Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y.

[1] James Cone, The Doctrine of Man in the Theology of Karl Barth, Northwestern University Ph.D. dissertation 1965.
[2] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, New York: Seabury Press, 1969.
[3] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.
[4] Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Vintage Books, 1967.
[5] Benjamin E. Mays, The Negro’s God, New York: Atheneum Press, 1938, p. 245.
[6] Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Black Man in America, Chicago: Muhammad Mosque of Islam #2, 1965.
[7] Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Books, 1972.
[8] J. Deotis Roberts, Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,
[9]Statement by the National Committee of Black Churchmen, in Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966–1979,
edited by Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979
[10] James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, A Black Theology of Liberation, God of the Oppressed, My Soul
Looks Back and Wonders, Speaking the Truth.
[11] Stephen Ward Angell, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South, Knoxville, TN:
University of Tennessee Press, 1992, p. 253 and 261.
[12] James Cone, The Spiritual and the Blues, New York: Seabury, 1972
[13] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1970.
[14] James Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.
[15] Michael Powell, “A Fiery Theology Under Fire,” TheNewYorkTimes.com, May 4, 2008.
[16] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.