James Hal Cone (born August 5, 1938) is an advocate of Black liberation theology, a theology grounded in the experience of African Americans, and related to other Christian liberation theologies.
“Ministry and the Arts in the Context of the Black Religious Experience” (1979)
Bio from Wikipedia, 3/26/2012
In 1969, his book Black Theology and Black Power provided a new way to articulate the distinctiveness of theology in the black Church. Cone’s work was influential and political from the time of his first publication, and he remains so today. His work has been both utilized and critiqued inside and outside of the African American theological community.
He is currently the Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.
Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas and grew up in Bearden, Arkansas. He and his family attended Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church. He received a B.A. degree from Philander Smith College in Arkansas in 1958, a B.D. degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1961, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Northwestern University in 1963 and 1965, respectively. He taught theology and religion at Philander Smith College, Adrian College in Michigan, and beginning in 1970 at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was awarded the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology in 1977.
The hermeneutic, or interpretive lens, for James Cone’s theology starts with the experience of African Americans, and the theological questions he brings from his own life. He incorporates the powerful role of the black Church in his life, as well as racism experienced by African Americans. For Cone, the theologians he studied in graduate school did not provide meaningful answers to his questions. This disparity became more apparent when he was teaching theology at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. Cone writes, “What could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structure of their lives in a society that had defined black as non-being?”
Cone’s theology also received significant inspiration from a frustration with the Black struggle for civil rights; he felt that Black Christians in North America should not follow the “white Church”, on the grounds that it was a willing part of the system that had oppressed black people. Accordingly, his theology was heavily influenced by Malcolm X and the Black Power movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also an important influence; Cone describes King as a liberation theologian before the phrase existed.
His methodology for answering the questions raised by the African American Experience is a return to Scripture, and particularly to the liberative elements such as the Exodus-Sinai tradition and the life of Jesus. However, Scripture is not the only source which shapes his theology. In response to criticism from other black theologians (including his brother, Cecil), Cone began to make greater use of resources native to the African American Christian community for his theological work, including slave spirituals, the blues, and the writings of prominent African American thinkers like David Walker, Henry McNeal Turner, and W. E. B. Du Bois. His theology developed further in response to critiques by black women, leading Cone to consider gender issues more prominently and foster the development of womanist theology, and also in dialogue with Marxist analysis and the sociology of knowledge.
Cone’s thought, along with Paul Tillich, stresses the idea that theology is not universal, but tied to specific historical contexts; he thus critiques the Western tradition of abstract theologizing by examining its social context. Cone formulates a theology of liberation from within the context of the Black experience of oppression, interpreting the central kernel of the Gospels as Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed, the resurrection as the ultimate act of liberation.
As part of his theological analysis, Cone argues for God’s own identification with “blackness”:
The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism…. The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering…Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity. (A Black Theology of Liberation, pp. 63-64)
Despite his associations with the Black Power movement, however, Cone was not entirely focused on ethnicity: “Being black in America has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.” (Black Theology and Black Power, p. 151)
In 1977, Cone wrote, with a still more universal vision: I think the time has come for black theologians and black church people to move beyond a mere reaction to white racism in America and begin to extend our vision of a new socially constructed humanity in the whole inhabited world…For humanity is whole, and cannot be isolated into racial and national groups.
In his 1998 essay “White Theology Revisited,” however, he retains his earlier strong critique of the White church and white man for ignoring or failing to address the problem of race.