Christ as the Liberator of the Oppressed? The Methodology, Christology, and Eschatology in the Exegesis of James H. Cone
When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let my people go;
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go;
Go down Moses, ‘way down in Egypt’s land.
Tell ole Pharaoh
Let my people go.
-An African American Spiritual
Liberation theology began as a theological discipline in the 1950s and 1960s in South America as theologians like Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, and Jon Sobrino applied Christian theological insights to the realities of widespread economic inequality. As the Civil Rights Movement led American society to more carefully consider the issue of race, some theologians began seriously addressing it as a theological issue. In his 1964 book Black Religion, Joseph R. Washington argued that segregation had left black people without formal links to European expressions of Christianity, and, therefore, without a theology. This created a vacuum that was filled by the advent of black liberation theology.
The primary figure in the first generation of black liberation theology was James H. Cone (1938-2018), an AME minister and the Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. His first two books, Black Theology and Black Power (1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (1970) were written in the spirit of the revolutionary age of the 60s and 70s. In both works, Cone is aggressively antagonistic towards the white theology of European Christianity while constructing the foundation for black liberation theology, something he would expound in later works. In 1975, he wrote God of the Oppressed, a more systematic treatment of theology through the lens of black liberation. He synthesized his theology with hymns, spirituals, folk stories, and other works produced by slaves. His final book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, came in 2011 and was a powerful reflection on how Christ’s crucifixion corresponds to the black experience of being lynched.
One of the most important facets of Cone’s work is his hermeneutic which is itself meant to be liberating for the black community. He begins with the presupposition that theology is contextual, and therefore, in modern America, must be used to explicitly address race. He recasts the category of Christology to mean that God reveals himself among oppressed communities, particularly the black community. Finally, his eschatology influences his hermeneutic by placing a radical political vision as the endpoint of his theological telos. While James Cone’s contribution to Black Liberation Theology provides a strong reminder of God’s care for the marginalized, an evaluation of his hermeneutic reveals some shortcomings in the underlying methodology, christology, and eschatology he employs.
The Methodological Underpinnings of Cone’s Hermeneutic
According to Cone, all theology is contextual, a theme developed by later writers in the liberation-theology tradition (God of the Oppressed 36). Dwight Hopkins explains that the beginning of black theology is God’s dwelling with and action for the black poor, an approach that conjoins social claims with theology in such a way that the theological is subordinated to the sociological (The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology 16). Here, the theologian does not start with transcendental theological or metaphysical principles but rather with the black social position and experience. Black theology does not speak of God without identifying God’s presence in the events of the liberation of the black community (Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 26-27). While Cone does go on to speak positively about the tradition of the Church and the orthodox faith, he does not see them as particularly pertinent precisely because they are inaccessible to the black community in America and do not directly speak to the struggle of the oppressed (A Black Theology of Liberation 34-37; God of the Oppressed 29).
To Cone, Scripture is understood through a Barthian lens in that it is a witness to the Incarnate Christ: Scripture is not the revelation itself, but a testimony to it. Not only is the Christ event the locus of divine revelation, but for it to be full divine self-exposure, it must be understood within the context of the liberation of the oppressed (A Black Theology of Liberation 31, 48). The Barthian tendency in black theology is often used to caveat their bibliology: certain stories testify to God’s liberative activity and are embraced, creating a canonem in canone. Conversely, other portions of the canon do not have to be accepted by black theologians because as a whole, Scripture is riddled with voluminous “contradictory statements” (Michael Joseph Brown, The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, 169). The norm for the black hermeneutic is set by Jesus’ missional declaration in Luke 4:18-19, which is given a place of primacy, providing the lens by which other texts should be understood, namely the backdrop of liberation. The historically and culturally situated position of the black community creates a “hermeneutical prism” which can decode texts. This also means that interpretation becomes a zero-sum game: any reading which ignores the black struggle is automatically, even if unintentionally, participating in and upholding white supremacy and anti-blackness.
The interpretive key to Cone is the black experience, Cone draws heavily not only from the historical facts of slavery and Jim Crow but also from the cultural artifacts produced by slaves during those periods. Slave hymns, sermons, folk tales, and even “secular” black music like the blues all form a corpus from which black theology can draw (A Black Theology of Liberation 27-30).In light of this, the Exodus is one of the primary Old Testament narratives utilized by Cone and other black theologians which is paradigmatic for God’s interaction with the oppressed. Not only is the Exodus account a template for the handling of subsequent divine revelation, but it must also be understood from within the black experience as a story of political emancipation and the annihilation of enemies (A Black Theology of Liberation 50). The Lucan proclamation of verses 4:18-19 and the Exodus are together placed in a feedback loop, providing the hermeneutical underpinning for the rest of Scripture and extra biblical sources.
In so doing, Cone raises a valid point: the Christian faith must speak to the reality of human suffering. In the Lucan proclamation as well as in Exodus, material suffering is clearly a concern of God. However, there are problems with Cone’s proposal because he reduces theology to materiality and relies too heavily on experience.
The first problem is that Cone reduces theology to materiality. While he acknowledges that God is transcendent, his focus on contextual theology leads him to ultimately deny the possibility of transcultural theological claims (A Black Theology of Liberation 81). In a sense, Cone is correct: one’s identity inevitably impacts their understanding of Scripture and theology. He refuses to claim pure objectivity in interpretation, thereby rejecting scientism’s impact on modern biblical studies and theology (Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology, 7). However, because Cone’s work is so ensconced in cultural particularity, he cannot see the larger applicability of Scripture to the human condition. Slavery, racism, and oppression can be accounted for in traditional theological schemes without lapsing into extreme revisionism. For Cone, the Gospel becomes reduced to a tool for the political liberation of the oppressed—and thereby stripped of its transcendent dimensions.
Another problem with Cone’s perspective is that he is too reliant on experience. Because he precludes the real possibility of a transcendent perspective, attempts to understand the experience of another are rendered functionally unintelligible. This catch-22 situation robs his political critique of much of its force: While Cone rightly contends that oppression is wrong, he can offer little actual evidence to prove it—theologically speaking—except for a culturally-contextualized reading of the Exodus and Christ’s Lucan proclamation. Yet, Cone’s hermeneutical prism is arbitrarily particular. This is especially true considering the fact that, in many ways, Cone homogenizes the black experience (Anthony Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America, 107). While anti-blackness and white supremacy are certainly facets of culture which must be deconstructed, Cone presumes to speak definitively about a collective black experience—an approach difficult to reconcile with his claim that one can speak only from their individual experience. By relying too much on experience disconnected from universality and homogenizing the black experience, he creates a theology that ties itself into knots, ultimately becoming arbitrary.
As mentioned above, Cone’s Christology is thoroughly Barthian, meaning that he sees Christ as the pinnacle of all divine revelation. To Cone, this means that God is only knowable through human liberation that occurs in history (A Black Theology of Liberation 23, 30). This is why black theology judges some Scriptural texts as of lesser importance due to the prima facie judgment that they do not match the particular concern for material liberation advocated by Cone and others. The key to the Christology as it pertains to black theology’s hermeneutic is that the cross-resurrection event “reveals that Jesus’ ministry to the poor and wretched was God effecting the divine will to liberate the oppressed” because in so doing “God becomes the victim in their place and this transforms the condition of slavery into the battleground for the struggle of freedom” (God of the Oppressed 73). So in Cone’s hermeneutic, the cross is central insofar as it reveals that God, in Christ, is black.
One positive feature of Cone’s Christology is its preservation of a genius subversion: black slaves appropriated the Christ story that was given to them by white masters. As Cone details, slave masters deployed Christianity to perpetuate the institution of slavery and make slaves more docile, often citing Ephesians 6:5 and editing Bibles to remove stories like the Exodus which might arouse insurgence. The hermeneutic of white masters focused on dehumanizing slaves in an ad hoc way, invoking the curse of Canaan (Gen 9:18-29) to argue that slavery was simply an extension of God’s righteous judgment being meted out on the descendants of Ham. Nevertheless, slaves intuitively recognized something wrong with those skewed pictures of Christianity and re-envisioned Christ as black, someone who understood their suffering and stood in solidarity with them. Black poet Langston Hughes continued this slave tradition during the Jim Crow era, particularly in his poem, “Christ in Alabama”:
Christ is a Nigger,
Beaten and black—
O, bare your back.
Mary is His Mother—
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.
God’s His Father—
White Master above,
Grant us your love.
Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth:
On the cross of the South.
In the poem, the italicized lines represent mocking from a white racist interlocutor. The third stanza is troubling insofar as it seems to associate the Father with the white master, making a statement about the family structure on most slave plantations. This association most likely works to highlight the forsakenness of Christ on the Cross who cried out to the Father with no answer. Similarly, slaves may have cried out to appeal to the humanity of their masters and only received the lash in reply. While it might appear problematic to a view of God which emphasizes his impassibility, it is important to remember that these theological categories would not have been readily at hand to slaves but the imagery of the crucified and forsaken God-Man would have been powerful for them. The tradition of black theology tends to articulate the astutely recognized fact that the Jesus of Scripture is different than the one propagated to them by their masters (God of the Oppressed 28). Therefore, in Cone’s Christology, Jesus becomes a very real symbol of God for the oppressed, a key by which the rest of Scripture and all reality is interpreted.
Such a view of Christ makes Cone a theologian of the Cross. According to theses 20 and 21 in Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, “A theologian rather would look at the visible backside of God as seen through suffering and the cross” and “A theologian of glory calls a bad thing good and a good thing bad. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.” This is because “God can only be found in suffering and the cross.” This is true of Cone’s work. In the suffering of black bodies, Cone argues that God’s self-revelation is made clear because they are participating in the same suffering as Christ.
As the interpretive key, Christ plays a prominent role in Cone’s hermeneutic. For Cone, Scripture must be read through a black cruciform lens. Because he forecloses the possibility of transcendence, however, his Christology falters insofar as it traps Christ in a particular social location. What is lost is the cosmic Christ of Colossians 1, who “is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” through whom all things are reconciled (1:15-20). This kind of universalism is not only rejected but labeled as a tool of the oppressor: “God did not become a universal human being but an oppressed Jew, thereby disclosing to us that both human nature and divine nature are inseparable from oppression and liberation…Jesus is not a human being for all persons; he is a human being for oppressed persons” (A Black Theology of Liberation 90-91). The problem is further compounded by an adoptionist tendency in his Christology where he argues that Christ really became the Son of God at his Baptism (God of the Oppressed 67). In reducing Christ to the realm of pure immanence, Cone loses sight of a more robust Chalcedonian Christology which affords access to the transcendent, something Cone seems to long for at times. As E.L. Mascall observes in commenting on this “immanentist” temptation in historically informed Christological thinking:
We are not to hold that Jesus’ human particularity as a first-century Palestinian Jew so insulates him from all other times, places, and cultures that his human nature has no affinity with ours and that his relation to us as the universal redeemer resides solely where it originates, in his divine person. By assuming human nature into union with his person, the divine Word imparted to it not only concrete existence but also his own universality, without depriving it of its own particularity. Indeed, his own universality and its own particularity are communicated to it together by the single act through which it is created and assumed. And, since ab esse ad posse valet consecutio, not only must humanity be assumable by God but also particularity must be assumable by universality. And therefore, Jesus as man is both particular and universal. (Whatever Happened to the Human Mind? Essays in Christian Orthodoxy 39)
In effect, there is no Incarnate Christ who is only particularized. By emphasizing particularity only, Cone undercuts the very aspect of Christ that he seeks to emphasize. While Cone is right to celebrate the slaves’ subversion of the warped version of Christianity given to them by their masters and place the cross at the center of this theology, he falls short insofar as he emphasizes the particular at the expense of the universal—a choice which is, as Mascall points out, a false dilemma.
In the background of every biblical hermeneutic is an eschatology. In the eschatological, the endpoint towards which readers strive is fixed. The terminal point informs the present and pulls the reader towards itself. If Cone’s methodology and Christology are preoccupied with materiality, it follows that his eschatology will be focused on the same. He remarks that “The hermeneutical principle for an exegesis of the Scriptures is the revelation of God in Christ as the Liberator of the oppressed from social oppression and to political struggle wherein the poor recognize that their fight against poverty and injustice is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ” (God of the Oppressed 74). Eschatology, for Cone, can be summarized as a two-fold movement: the killing of the white god and the assertion of black power (God of the Oppressed 62, 117). Killing the white god is an iconoclastic act where the oppressive idol produced by white theology is deconstructed. Black power entails freedom to self-determination and is based heavily on the existentialist presupposition that existence precedes essence (A Black Theology of Liberation 89).
The eschatological dimension of black theology makes clear that political praxis and theology are viewed as synonymous. There can be no understanding of the Kingdom of God that is “other worldly” because the Kingdom must be defined in terms of a “new creation where the hungry are fed, the sick healed, and the oppressed liberated” (A Black Theology of Liberation 97). To Cone, new creation is a radical utopian political project more than it is a supernatural reality.
Marxism is often described as a desupernaturalized Christian eschatology. In Marxism, it is an inevitable fact of history that the oppressed proletariat will seize the means of production through revolution, ushering in a utopian age. Cone’s eschatology is a derivative of Marxism, shifting the primary lens of analysis from class to race, though not to the exclusion of economic, gendered, and other forms of oppression. This is evident in Cone’s call for black theologians to:
begin to think of a radical and total reconstruction of this society from its material, economic base. This reconstruction must include political freedom, racial and sexual equality, in short, the opportunity for all to become what we are meant to be. We must ask whether it is possible to end racism in a capitalistic society, whether a society based on the maximization of profit for a few corporate rich while the majority are dependent on wage-labor for survival can ever create freedom for black people? It is time for us to consider a radically new social arrangement…To believe in God is to know that our hope is grounded in Jesus Christ, the crucified Lord whose resurrected presence creates a new hope for a better world. Why not think that the ‘not yet’ is possible? Why not think of a completely new society and begin to devise ways to realize it on earth? For if our heavenly visions have no earthy realizations, then they can only serve as a sedative that eases the pain of an unbearable present. (The Black Church and Marxism: What Do They Have to Say to Each Other? 9-10)
The Marxist underpinnings are evident here. The end becomes the removal of economic and racial barriers that prevent human flourishing (God of the Oppressed 38). Further, unless religion is singularly focused on a realized eschatology, it merely functions as a sedative to lull the oppressed into submission to the bourgeois status quo. Cone’s eschatology is a permutation of Marxism and the desupernaturalized language of Christianity, refocusing primarily on race.
Cone’s eschatology raises the question: what is the role of the Church? Before it is sociological, the Church is a theological entity which is a part of God’s salvific action because it is the Body of Christ, a point Cone cannot fully appreciate because of his overly narrow Christology; the underlying Marxist eschatology makes the Church virtually unintelligible. William T. Cavanaugh offers a critique of this tendency in liberation theology, arguing, “the church has now become part of the world’s story. The world has absorbed the church into itself. This signals both the final destruction of a church practice of the political and the abandonment of specifically Christian discourse in favor of a social scientific reading of reality” (Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 180). By utilizing Marxist social analysis at the expense of the received tradition of the Church, liberation theology places Christianity under the academic social sciences rather than apostolic kerygma. While Cone is not always antithetical to the Christian tradition, he sees it as a malleable tool, as evidenced by his willingness to redefine terms and dramatically reinterpret texts. Merging the Church into the polis severs the connection between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Christian faith.
In Revelation 21, the Heavenly Jerusalem descends from the new heaven onto the new earth. This vision is a reminder that purely horizontal accounts of human history are insufficient and that there must be something vertical and transcendent in the way Christians account for human experience. Contrary to Cone’s tendency, Christian theology must begin with the fact that the universal is accessible and makes the horizontal intelligible. When one sees with the eyes of faith, they see the world as it truly is. This is why when one begins with heavenly contemplation, faithful praxis follows (Boersma, “No Heaven, No Scripture,” lecture, Nashotah House Theological Seminary, January 24, 2020). This means that even though Cone shines a spotlight onto the concrete problems of human suffering, his approach lacks solvency because it is entrenched only in particularities and loses its bearings.
Cone is an important catalyst in the area of black liberation theology. His work should be appreciated because it reminds Christians of their obligation to care for the marginalized and those who have been adversely impacted by social structures. However, his mode of exegesis suffers from several deficiencies. The first major issue is with his methodological presuppositions. All that can be known and all that can be true in Cone’s view begins with the particular experience of the American slave. While the insights of the slave community should be valued, Cone’s determinations are too focused on materiality and experience. Another problem with Cone’s argument is his Christology. While he can be described as a theologian of the cross for emphasizing the crucified Christ, his emphasis on particularity leaves him unable to access the cosmic Christ of Scripture and even runs the risk of adoptionism. Finally, the eschatology that guides his interpretation is a desupernaturalized Christian eschatology based on Marxist presuppositions. Given that Cone’s concerns are almost completely material, he locks Christian thinking into a horizontal mode that cannot access the universal or vertical, precluding the possibility of heavenly contemplation that can be an indispensable aid in guiding one’s earthly actions. James Cone was a controversial figure, a fact that makes sense given his all or nothing approach to theology. While he was certainly prophetic in bringing the problems of white supremacy and anti-blackness to the attention of the larger Church, his constructive theology, particularly his exegesis, could have benefited from more robust engagement with the classical Christian tradition.