James Hal Cone (August 5, 1938 – ) is an African-American Christian theologian in the Methodist tradition. He is one of America’s best known architects of Black theology, a form of Liberation theology. 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 and raised in Arkansas and 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.
James Cone was the first person to create a systematic Black theology. He felt that Black Christians in Northern America should not follow the “white Church”, as it had failed to support them in their struggle for equal rights. Though this theme runs throughout Cone’s work, his early books (Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation) draw heavily on mainstream white theologians like Karl Barth (on whom Cone had written his doctoral thesis) and Paul Tillich.
One particular aspect of this theology involves God’s 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)
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. Critiques by black women also led Cone to make consideration of gender issues more prominent in his later writings, thus paving the way for womanist theology. His theology has also been heavily influenced by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people!” [Black Theology and Black Power, pp. 139-140].Some of Cone’s quotes have drawn controversy, especially in the political context of the 2008 Presidential campaign, as opponents of Barack Obama, whose pastor Jeremiah Wright was inspired by Cone’s theology, put forward inflammatory excerpts of Cone’s writings.
- “It is important to make a further distinction here among black hatred, black racism, and Black Power. Black hatred is the black man’s strong aversion to white society. No black man living in white America can escape it. . .But the charge of black racism cannot be reconciled with the facts. While it is true that blacks do hate whites, black hatred is not racism. Racism, according to Webster, is ‘the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another, which is usually coupled with a belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race and its rights to dominance over others.’ Where are the examples among blacks in which they sought to assert their right to dominance over others because of a belief in black superiority?. . .Black Power is an affirmation of the humanity of blacks in spite of white racism. It says that only blacks really know the extent of white oppression, and thus only blacks are prepared to risk all to be free.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p. 14-16]
- “All white men are responsible for white oppression. It is much too easy to say, “Racism is not my fault,” or “I am not responsible for the country’s inhumanity to the black man. . .But insofar as white do-gooders tolerate and sponsor racism in their educational institutions, their political, economic and social structures, their churches, and in every other aspect of American life, they are directly responsible for racism. . .Racism is possible because whites are indifferent to suffering and patient with cruelty. Karl Jaspers’ description of metaphysical guilt is pertinent here. ‘There exists among men, because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world, and especially for crimes that are committed in his presence or of which he cannot be ignorant.’ ” [Black Theology and Black Power, p. 24]
- “For the gospel proclaims that God is with us now, actively fighting the forces which would make man captive. And it is the task of theology and the Church to know where God is at work so that we can join him in this fight against evil. In America we know where the evil is. We know that men are shot and lynched. We know that men are crammed into ghettos. . .There is a constant battle between Christ and Satan, and it is going on now. If we make this message contemporaneous with our own life situation, what does Christ’s defeat of Satan mean for us?. . .The demonic forces of racism are real for the black man. Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man “the devil.” The white structure of this American society, personified in every racist, must be at least part of what the New Testament meant by the demonic forces.” [Black Theology and Black Power, pp. 39-41]
- “Racism is a complete denial of the Incarnation and thus of Christianity. . .If there is any contemporary meaning of the Antichrist (or “the principalities and powers”), the white church seems to be a manifestation of it. It was the white “Christian” church which took the lead in establishing slavery as an institution and segregation as a pattern in society by sanctioning all-white congregations.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p. 73]
- “Black theology cannot accept a view of God which does not represent God as being for oppressed blacks and thus against white oppressors. Living in a world of white oppressors, blacks have no time for a neutral God. The brutalities are too great and the pain too severe, and this means we must know where God is and what God is doing in the revolution. There is no use for a God who loves white oppressors the same as oppressed blacks. We have had too much of white love, the love that tells blacks to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. What we need is the divine love as expressed in black power, which is the power of blacks to destroy their oppressors, here and now, by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject God’s love.” [A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 70]
Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community. . . Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.
- Black Theology and Black Power (1969, ISBN 1-57075-157-9)
- A Black Theology of Liberation (1970, ISBN 0-88344-685-5)
- The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (1972 ISBN 0-8164-2073-4)
- God of the Oppressed (1975, ISBN 1-57075-158-7)
- For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church (Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?) (1984, ISBN 0-88344-106-3)
- Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (1992, ISBN 0-88344-824-6)
- Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology (1999, ISBN 1-57075-241-9)
- Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 (1999, ISBN 0-8070-0950-4)