My Soul Looks Back by James H Cone

My Soul Looks Back by James H ConeSummary: Mid-career memoir of one of the founders of the Black Liberation Theology movement in the US.

It has been years since I have picked up one of James H Cone’s books. I think I have only read two, Black Theology of Liberation and Martin & Malcolm and America. I am pretty sure that I missed most of the content of both of those when I read them around my college or seminary years. But Martin and Malcolm and America in particular has stayed with me and I want to revisit again.

I have been intentionally reading memoirs of elder Christians in attempt to understand how they communicate their wisdom. L’Engle’s four volumes of memoirs, John Perkin’s recent book and Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child have been the most recent examples. Cone wrote My Soul Looks Back in 1985, when he was 49. He was not nearly as old, or as near the end of his career as John Stott or Eugene Peterson or Thomas Oden’s memoirs have been. But it matters that Cone’s assessment of the state of racism in the United States and the church read as if they had been written recently. (I would be fascinated to read a new memoir by Cone now that he is 81.)

I have appreciated the existence of Cone’s theology of liberation, even if I thought that I had moved past it. I think I would have dismissed it far less had I read My Soul Looks Back earlier. Liberation Theology today is often dismissed as too concerned with the political or reducing the spiritual life by focusing on the political. And by being too influenced by the discredited ideas of Marxism. Some of that critique has validity. But as I read Cone’s assessment of his own work, he dismissed Marxism as mostly irrelevant to the development of Black Liberation theology within the US.

Cone suggests in My Soul Looks Back that the Black church should revisit Marxism as a tool again, but that the history of racism within socialism as it has been experienced in the US means that Black theology was mostly unaware of Marxism as a real tool for theology. I think that has probably changed since 1985. I think that Marxism has been tried and mostly again dismissed. But his original point I think still matters.

As Cone narrates his early life (he was born in 1936 and educated initially in black institutions before going to Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northwestern), he asks the question that I have heard frequently recently, how can Christianity and racism coexist?

Cone struggled as a student in the 1950s and 60s during the Civil Rights movement. He wondered if his studies mattered when he could be marching and protesting. Especially when he was being trained to think like a white theologian, while being actively discriminated against as a black student by many of his classmates and professors. He was teaching and doing his early writing and theological writing in the mid 60s and 70s when the Black Power movement was breaking off from the earlier non-violent emphasis of King and Thurman.

Cone found his place eventually as a consciously Black Theologian. Cone was somewhat unique as an academically rigorous theologian, still strongly influenced by Barth and other White Theologians, but also strongly influenced by a life in the black church. Cone rejected the Black Nationalist calls to walk away from Christianity as a ‘White man’s religion’ while also rejecting a Black church that institutionally was also not supportive of the Civil Rights movement.

I need to do more reading about the nuances of Black Church history. I have heard reference to the splits within the Black church during the Civil Rights movement with King and others breaking away from the older leadership. Cone clearly is referencing similar things, but not with enough detail for me to fully follow the intricacies. But the broad movement was easy enough to see. Cone attempted to stay within the Christian framework because he had a real faith in Christ and attempted to center his theology around Christology. But at the same time prophetically calling the church to repentance for its role in segregation, slavery, racism and oppression.

The later chapters of My Soul Looks Back were about what he had learned and where he was moving as a mature theologian. He was in communication with the Liberation Theology moments of Asia and Central and South America and saw how much Black Liberation Theology within the United States needed the outside voices to see its own blind spots (and he identifies sexism and other of his own blind spots during this point.)

There are points where Liberation Theology has gone too far I think. But I also think I have too easily dismissed its current relevance. I need to pick up his relatively recent Cross and the Lynching Tree and some of the older books and see what I have previously missed.

Mostly unrelated:  At one point I remember being asked what my favorite publisher was and I said Orbis. Orbis was very influential to me around my seminary years (mid to late 1990s). They were publishing things that were not published by Evangelical publishers. If I had to give a favorite publisher today I would probably say Intervarsity Press. But Orbis, while not as influential to me today still is publishing things that are not published in the Evangelical press and I am thankful for them. More academically focused Christian publishers like Orbis and Fortress Press have long been important to publishing minority voices. But they have not transitioned well to the digital age. My Soul Looks Back was not horrible. I submitted about a dozen fairly minor typos that should have been previously corrected in a book that was digitally released five years ago. I read an edition of Fortress Press’  introduction to Barth’s work that was just unreadable. There were dozens of errors per page. The book publishing world is difficult, especially with academically focused Christian books. There is little financial margin. I am sure that no one wants to put out editions that are not well done. But I do appreciate IVP and some of the other publishers that are attempting to put out both important work that is not going to sell well and work that is well presented. I am in the middle of reading an introduction to Barth right now published by IVP and is so well designed for ebook. 

My Soul Looks Back by James H Cone Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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