A Note about the Theology of James Cone

 

(The following is a brief reflection I wrote in seminary.)

1.  Sociohistorical Context

The late James H. Cone was an African American theologian in the United States.  He wrote a variety of works in the area of political theology, seeking particularly to explore the difficult issue of the state of African American theology in the midst of a culture with widespread white supremacy.  The vast majority of his work sought to continue the legacies of such activists as W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr.

2.  Question

Is it true that “there can be no true understanding of the Christian faith in America without confronting head-on white supremacy”?[1]

3.  Response by Author

Cone believed there could not be a right understanding or practice of Christianity without confronting the issue of white supremacy head-on.  In his work he sought to explore the problem of race and provides three challenges: speaking, listening, and dismantling white supremacy.  Cone argued that the first step to confronting white supremacy is to speak about it and acknowledge that it actually exists.  One of the major problems, he said, is that both blacks and whites simply ignore the problem altogether for fear of offending or upsetting the other.  Learning how to listen is also a key tactic in confronting white supremacy.  Groups are not particularly good at learning to listen to different groups who might have different experiences and values than their own.  This means that intentionally cultivating a spirit of willingness to listen is crucial in coming to an empathetic understanding of the black plight today.  Finally, all this speech and listening must culminate in effective action toward the end of eliminating white supremacy.  The first two solutions are in vain if they do not produce faith-fueled action.  Blacks and whites must work together to eliminate the remaining tentacles of the monster of white supremacy.

4.  Assessment

Much of Cone’s presentation should be commended.  White supremacy is a wicked and evil form of idolatry in which the white self is elevated to the place of God and worshipped above all other beings and races.  Cone is right to point out that it should be eliminated.  Moreover, even Cone’s three solutions are genuine attempts to remedy the problem and therefore should be considered helpful options for anyone who wishes to engage in this work of eliminating white supremacy in America.

Yet when the Bible speaks of those who are in Christ, it refers to them as “neither Jew nor Greek…neither slave nor free…no male and female, for [they] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The point of this is not that these distinctions are totally or absolutely disregarded (i.e., when a male becomes a Christian he still remains a male).  Rather, the point of this text is to say that the primary identity of the Christian is not race, social status, or gender.  Those who are in Christ are fundamentally Christians, not Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, male or female.  The distinctions are not obliterated, but the force of this text is to point out that what formerly identified someone no longer functions as their ultimate identity once they are in Christ.

5.  Implications for Christian Theology            

This has profound implications for how one should think about Cone’s theological reflections.  Virtually everywhere, Cone refers to “blacks” and “whites” as if both groups are entirely monolithic.  For example, he says, “race is such an explosive and sensitive topic that whites hardly know what they can say that will not inflame black people.”[2]  The assumption is that all blacks are the same and have the same experience, and all whites are the same and have the same experience.  But this is categorically false.  No one’s experience is identical to anyone else’s regardless of how many similarities are present.

But I think there is another, even more fundamental, problem with Cone’s presentation.  He presupposes that there remains an absolute distinction between blacks and whites who are in Christ, and that this distinction must continue.  The problem is that Cone does not conceive of the Christian identity as the fundamental identity for either blacks or whites, but rather conceives race as the fundamental point of identification for both groups.  For all his good work, Cone’s assumption here is misguided and is perhaps the most significant reason why his reflections fail to meet the mark.  Cone considers the issues primarily in racial categories rather than on Christian terms, and in this way the issues will never find their genuine solution: in the power of the gospel to change the hearts of men and women to love their neighbors as themselves.


Endnotes

[1] James H. Cone, “The Challenge of Race,” 78.

[2] Ibid.


Thanks for reading.  Have any additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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