Summary: Context to the why of Black Liberation Theology.
A few months ago I generally stopped referring to my posts as reviews. I am not really reviewing these books, I am trying to respond to them, give some thoughts and talk about what I have learned. That is especially true for a book like Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian by James H Cone. Almost exactly a year ago I read Cone’s 1985 memoir, My Soul Looks Back. That memoir was a mid-career memoir. And of course there are some overlapping memories and reflections, but it is interesting to me how different they are. The passing of more than 40 years does matter.
I could make this a post of just quotes from Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. I have 20 that you can read on my Goodreads review. But the important part of reading a memoir like this is that it gives context for his other writing. I read his The Cross and the Lynching Tree (which he says was his favorite book) this summer. And I have previously read a couple of his other books. Many reduce Cone to just a ‘liberal theologian’ as if he has nothing to say to most of us. But Cone has much to say to us and reading his story I think matters to how we receive the rest of his work.
Cone was an academic theologian. His dissertation was on Barth. He was strongly influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr. As a Black theologian, he felt he had to respond to the civil rights movement, especially after the death of MLK and the rise of urban riots in the US. His question, “What, if anything, is theology worth in the black struggle in America?”, mattered not just in 1967 but also today.
Where many will disagree with Cone is his adoption of Malcom X’s statement, “We are black first and everything else second” and that discussion has continue today. But Cone was not rejecting finding his identity in Christ or was he implicitly condemning Whites and others by embracing his created Blackness. He was, in a not dissimilar way, embracing the concept of Black Lives Matters 50 years early.
Cone was frustrated by his theological training (and I still hear this from many minority theology students today).
The real historical Jesus, whom scholars have been seeking since the eighteenth century, was not white. That much I knew. When it became clear to me that Jesus was not biologically white and that white scholars actually lied by not telling people who he really was, I stopped trusting anything they said. It was ideologically tainted. I began to trust my own black experience as a better source for knowledge about God and Jesus. The black religious experience was less ideologically tainted because blacks were powerless and could not impose their view of Jesus on anybody. (Kindle Location 378)
Many Whites especially want to reject Black Liberation theology as going too far in separation. But similar to the reasons that Black Churches exist (because Blacks were pushed out of the White church, not because Blacks wanted to be separatist as a primary value), Cone was responding to the sin white supremacy. “…White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message. Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology but a theology of the Antichrist.” (Kindle Location 397)
That feels too strong to many, but Cone says what he is doing is, ‘…defin(ing) Black Power as black people asserting the humanity that white supremacy denied” (Kindle Location 652).
Part of how Cone writes is embracing theology as opposed to philosophy.
Theology is not philosophy; it is not primarily rational language and thus cannot answer the question of theodicy, which philosophers have wrestled with for centuries. Theology is symbolic language, language about the imagination, which seeks to comprehend what is beyond comprehension. Theology is not antirational but it is nonrational, transcending the world of rational discourse and pointing to a realm of reality that can only be grasped by means of the imagination. That was why Reinhold Niebuhr said, “One should not talk about ultimate reality without imagination,” and why the poet Wallace Stevens said, “God and the imagination are one.” Black liberation theology strives to open a world in which black people’s dignity is recognized (Kindle Location 1361)
I wasn’t writing for rational reasons based on library research; I was writing out of my experience, speaking for the dignity of black people in a white supremacist world. I was on a mission to transform self-loathing Negro Christians into black-loving revolutionary disciples of the Black Christ. (Kindle Location 1378)
Any good memoir of an author makes you want to read more of the writing of the author. That is certainly true here. But I was struck by the importance of music for Cone. He has a book directly addressing music, The Spirituals and the Blues, but all of his books reference music. I have not found one yet, but if I do not find one, my plan is to make a playlist of music in Cone’s books soon.
In addition to the music, I was struck here by how much James Baldwin influenced Cone. That is not the only influence mentioned here, but it again it affirms the continued importance of Baldwin. (Cone has an entire chapter on Baldwin here.)
Reading white theology, I thought of the words of the African artist Chinua Achebe: “just another piece of deodorized dog shit.” Reflecting on the European idea of “art for art’s sake,” he had noted: “Literature is not a luxury for us. It is a life and death affair because we are fashioning a new [humanity].” That’s what black theology was for me, and I embraced Baldwin as my theological mentor. (Kindle Location 2169)
Two final notes. I am struck by Cone’s focus in Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody on what he learned from critics. That does mean that Cone does not respond vigorously to debate, but that he really is open to hearing from critics and pointed to many areas where he adjusted or changed his theology based on critique.
The second point is that the end of Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody is an interesting extended discussion about Christian hope and the problem of suffering. I know that many that will reject Cone’s theology will not even pick up a book like this, but I do think that Cone has something to say about the role of Christian hope and how it responds to suffering in a way that few others really can.