James H Cone has been a frequent concern in many conservative white Christian circles over the past year. There are several causes for that, but one of the threads that has given rise to the discussion is that Walter Strickland, one of only a handful of Black professors at a Southern Baptist seminary, was quoted by Molly Worthen in an NYT article saying that he assigned James H Cone and found value in interacting with him. That gave rise to calls for Strickland to resign, which prompted this statement.
The controversy continued with the president of the seminary where Strickland works both defending Strickland and calling Cone a heretic and ‘almost certainly not a Christian’ on twitter. Andre Henry wrote an article about the controversy. It was this background that a friend of a friend asked to discuss Cone. Over this past weekend, I picked up the audiobook and listened to it (having previously read it when it first came out.)
I am not a Cone scholar. I have not read all of his books, although I will probably read all of them eventually (there are not that many). In my lay opinion, I think that people tend to approach Cone wrong. Many people want to jump into early constructive theology, God of the Oppressed or A Black Theology of Liberation. I think that because of his theological method, heavily drawing on his personal and cultural experience, that you need to start with one or both of his memoirs.
Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody was posthumously published. The book was completed and ready for publication when Cone passed away in 2018. His earlier My Soul Looks Back was a mid-career memoir. There is a lot over overlapping material, but they are both worth reading. If you are looking for an order, I would recommend, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Spirituals and the Blues, My Soul Looks Back, Martin & Malcolm & American and then you can move his earlier constructive theology.
I say all of this because Cone developed his theology in response to the culture of the US during the late civil rights era.
When the Detroit rebellion, also known as the “12th Street Riot,” broke out in July of 1967, the turmoil woke me out of my academic world. I could no longer continue quietly teaching white students at Adrian College (Michigan) about Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and other European theologians when black people were dying in the streets of Detroit, Newark, and the back roads of Mississippi and Alabama. I had to do something. But I wasn’t a civil rights leader, like Martin Luther King Jr., or an artist, like James Baldwin, who was spurred in his writing when he saw the searing image of a black girl, Dorothy Counts, surrounded by hateful whites as she attempted to integrate a white high school in Charlotte, North Carolina (September 1957). I was a theologian, asking: What, if anything, is theology worth in the black struggle in America?
Cone trained as a theologian at Garrett–Evangelical Theological Seminary. His dissertation was on Barth. He studied all of the European theologians of note. He eventually determined that:
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.
Cone had a response to this theology that was very similar to the response to Black Lives Matters over the past couple of years:
When I spoke of loving blackness and embracing Black Power, they heard hate toward white people. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Baldwin confronted similar reactions. Any talk about the love and beauty of blackness seemed to arouse fear and hostility in whites.
Cone viewed his work not as opposing people that have white skin, either as individuals or as a group, but opposing a system of belief that valued white skin more than black skin. In other words, Cone was not asserting the superiority of black skin over white skin in response to the historical assertion of the superiority of white skin, but both metaphorically and actually asserting that the black historical culture was more authentically Christian because it was closer to the oppressed, which is where Jesus was.
“How can I, a white [person] become black?” was the most frequent question whites asked me. “Being black in America has very little to do with skin color,” I wrote. “To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”6 To become black is like what Jesus told Nicodemus, that he must be “born again,” that is, “born of water and Spirit” (John 3), the Black Spirit of liberation. Black religion scholars would push back hard on this theological claim. Among my fiercest critics, and at the same time a devoted friend, was Gayraud Wilmore, author of the important text Black Religion and Black Radicalism (1973). But I held firm to my claim, despite his objections, because I was speaking primarily symbolically, while Wilmore was speaking primarily historically. History significantly informs what theologians say, but it’s not the final arbiter in theological matters. The Word of God, Jesus the Christ, as revealed in scripture and black experience, is the final judge. I didn’t see how anyone could be a Christian and not understand that.
One of the disconnects between Cone and traditional white theology is the role of rationality in theology. Cone is speaking metaphorically frequently. He is often read as if he is always speaking literally. His own dissertation advisor accused Cone of “All you have done is try to justify black people killing me and other whites.” An accusation which Cone says was absurd, he was trying to assert both the image of God in black bodies and the sin of oppressing them. But the disconnect is more than just that. Cone asserts that theology is ultimately non-rational.
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.
Cone’s understanding of theology as non-rational, I think, is why his writing is littered with musical (and poetic) references. The music of both the spirituals and the blues is attempting to use the imagination to understand God in a transrational way. (Willie James Jennings uses a similar type of language in his The Christain Imagination. )
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.
The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system, proclaiming that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last. Secular intellectuals find this idea absurd, but it is profoundly real in the spiritual life of black folk.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows my sorrow, Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Glory Hallelujah! As I heard it, the “trouble” is white folks, and the “Hallelujah” is a faith expression that white folks don’t have the last word about life’s ultimate meaning.
I read Cone, not because I think he is the culmination of all Black theology or even particularly representative of the Black church as a whole, but because he is writing theology that is attempting to contextualize his experience of growing up in the Jim Crow south, coming of age in the civil rights era and continuing to speak to the reality of the world in what many white people think is a ‘post-racial’ society. The reality is that Cone is far more accurately describing theological reality than many that continue to insist that racism is not real, or those that recently were trying to say that slavery was not all that theologically bad.