Alongside Gustavo Gutiérrez, James Cone is one of the fathers of liberation theology. The publication of Black Theology and Black Power in 1969 marked the founding of a theological movement in the United States. Honorifics such as these point to the work that has had an impact on so many and for such good reason.
Cone’s work affected the ways we understand US American Christianity and write theology in this context. His impact was so profound that we cannot un-see what his pulling back of the curtain has revealed. To engage in such an un-seeing is an act of willful ignorance; it is dishonesty dressed up as objectivity. Reflecting on this phenomenon in the introduction to the 1997 edition of God of the Oppressed (1975), Cone discussed the different social locations from which he and his White colleagues came, which, in turn, influenced the way they interpreted Scripture and wrote theology. He wrote,
“We both read selectively—they from a liberal white dominant viewpoint and I from a radical black perspective of the marginalized. I was willing to acknowledge the hermeneutical difference and suggested that my view was closer to [that of Martin Luther] King and the Bible than theirs. But white theologians argued that my reading was subjective and ideological and theirs was objective and correct.”
Cone’s recognition of this difference and consequent indictment of such willful ignorance and intellectual dishonesty is particularly prescient in our contemporary US American context, when many among us draw moral equivalence between racist attitudes and practices on the one hand and anti-racist attitudes and practices on the other. Cone’s work places the experiences of our Black brothers and sisters at the center of theological construction. Reading it invites us to join Cone in his condemnation of the structural sins so evident in 45’s America, structural sins that endeavor to prevent people of color and their children from living into the fullness of human flourishing in the churches and in the world. Grappling with his writing urges us to consider the nature of our own responses to these injustices, in word, in prayer, and in deed.
Although I never studied with Professor Cone, I consider him my teacher. His work shapes the way I see. It flouts the alleged authority of anemic claims to “objectivity” of White theologians like those he mentions above.
Rise in power, Professor Cone. Rest among those on whose shoulders you stood. May we work with the tools you have fashioned toward a more just future.