Micah Wimmer

Executive Editor | Social Media Manager at Christianity Now
Micah Wimmer is a writer whose work has appeared on Oakley & Allen, Nieman Storyboard, and the Shocker. A recent graduate of Claremont School of Theology, and an avid NBA fan, he lives in Akron, Ohio, with his two cats.
  • James Cone Introduction

Christianity Now Guide to James Cone

When James Cone, a young professor, sat down to write his first book in the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 assassination, he unwittingly became the father of Black Liberation Theology, a theology that speaks acutely and passionately about the relevance of the Christian message to black persons who suffer under the tendrils of white supremacy. He wrote in the hopes that his “own existence will be clarified,” but by doing so, helped to clarify the existence of many others, inspiring many followers to carry the torch, writing theology about the intersection of faith and oppression alongside the hope for liberation. On the second page of his first book, Cone wrote that “If the Church is to remain faithful to its Lord, it must make a decisive break with the structure of this society by launching a vehement attack on the evils of racism in all its forms. It must become prophetic, demanding a radical change in the interlocking structures of this society.” In the nearly five decades since this book’s appearance, Cone has continued to teach and write while his influence, and relevance, have failed to wane. With white supremacy remaining firmly entrenched in the structures of American society, merely changing its face and form, Cone’s work remains as important as ever.

Who He Is

Introduction to James Cone

James Cone was born in 1936, in the midst of the Jim Crow South, growing up in Bearden, Arkansas. While in Bearden, being raised in the Macedonia AME Church, two things happened that shaped his future: he “encountered the harsh realities of white injustice that was inflicted daily upon the black community” and “was given a faith that sustained my personhood and dignity in spite of white people’s brutality.” While his father had only a sixth grade education, he refused to work at the factories surrounding Bearden because he believed that a black person could not keep their dignity while working for white people. For the same reason, Cone’s mother never worked as a domestic even when money was tight. It was at Macedonia that he came to see religion as “the source, not only of identity and survival, but of the sociopolitical struggle for liberation.” After graduating high school, Cone did his undergraduate work at Shorter College and Philander Smith College, where he received his BA. After studying at Garrett-Evangelical Theology Seminary and Northwestern University, where he earned his BD, MA, and Ph.D., he returned to Philander Smith where he briefly taught before moving to Adrian College in Michigan. In 1970, soon after his first book was published, Cone began to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City where he has now taught for nearly a half century. Yet the legacy of Bearden and Macedonia AME Church have always stayed with Cone, as he wrote in 1986, “It is as if the people of Bearden are present, around my desk as I think and write. Their voices are clear and insistent: ‘All right, James Hal, speak for your people.’”

Why He Matters

James Cone is one of the fathers of Liberation Theology, as his Black Theology and Black Power came out two years before Gustavo Gutierrez’s watershed work, A Theology of Liberation. Cone’s work marked a decisive shift within theological circles as no longer could one do theology and consider it an objective pursuit, cloistered in academia, for Cone called all those who reflected upon God and the world to think of promoting the liberation of the oppressed as the primary task of theology. While there were certainly Black Christians before Cone, and black persons who reflected upon their faith – as he himself shows in The Spirituals and the Blues – none had done it as forcefully and incisively from within an academic setting, devising a theological response to the uniqueness of the Black situation. Cone’s work helped to show that all theology is inherently political, implicitly condemning all who wanted to hide behind the veil of apolitical objectivity. To call Cone one of the most important, influential, and relevant theologians of the twentieth century is accurate, but nevertheless seems to sell him and his work short. As he began to teach he asked himself, “What did Barth, Tillich, and Brunner have to do with young black girls and boys coming from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi seeking to make a new future for themselves? This was the major question for me.” Cone was one of the first theologians to ever ask such a question, but it was not just the asking that makes him such a vital figure, for he has compellingly answered it time and time again throughout his public life.

Major Ideas

The Black Christ:

Cone unapologetically argues that Jesus takes sides: “Jesus was not for and against the poor, for and against the rich. He was for the poor and against the rich, of the weak and against the strong. Who can read the New testament and fail to see that Jesus took sides and accepted freely the possibility of being misunderstood?” For Cone, the complete identification of Jesus with the poor and marginalized means that for us, Christ is Black. The validity of calling Christ black is not contingent upon its objective validity, but depends on whether in a concrete time, “it points to God’s universal will to liberate particular oppressed people from inhumanity.” It is not a statement about Jesus’ historical skin color, but is an affirmation of God’s unwillingness to ever leave “the oppressed alone in struggle.” In addition to Jesus’ siding with the poor in his life, the resurrection affirms that Jesus “has not left us alone but is with us in the struggle of freedom.” For a Christian to fail to fight for justice is to deny the freedom granted and proclaimed by the resurrection. Cone writes that “to be a disciple of the black Christ is to become black with him.” On the surface, this is as immediately mystifying and nonsensical as Jesus telling Nicodemus that he must be “born again,” but what Cone means is not that one must literally become black, but that one must identify with the oppressed and marginalized, fighting alongside them in the pursuit of justice, honoring the freedom proclaimed by Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.

Theology Is Inherently Political:

Cone, in his writing, seems repeatedly annoyed by the idea that he is doing something at all new by writing theology with a political bent because, for him, all theology contains a political viewpoint – he is just being explicit about it. This comes out in his diatribes against what he labels “White Theology,” meaning theology which claims neutrality, but by doing so, merely offers support for the status quo, a status quo, contingent on whiteness, that is racist and oppressive to persons of color. Cone sees racism as being “so deeply embedded in American history and culture that we cannot get rid of this cancer simply by ignoring it,” meaning that white supremacy becomes the “‘natural’ way of viewing the world.” Moreover, all theologians who do not speak out against racism and confront it in their writings “are a part of the problem and must be exposed as the enemy of justice.” In Cone’s view, when confronted by social sins such as racism, theologians cannot be “neutral or silent” without tacitly endorsing it.

The Significance of Culture for Theological Reflection:

From the beginning of his career, Cone realized that academic theologians could not be the only, or even primary, sources for theological reflection. Accordingly, perhaps his two biggest influences as a theologian have been Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., neither of whom is thought of as a theologian in the conventional sense, although Malcolm was a passionate Muslim while Dr. King earned a doctorate in systematic theology. Cone mined the writings of Black authors and the reflections of ordinary folk in constructing his theology. While this is most apparent in The Spirituals and the Bluesa book devoted to teasing out the theological themes implicit within slave spirituals and the blues music of the early twentieth century – it is something he does throughout all his work. This emphasis on the importance of experience and the history of an oppressed group is a further testament to his unwillingness to see theology as a neutral, objective enterprise.

Black Theology and Black Power:
James Cone’s first book is one of the most impassioned and original works to arise from the Black Freedom Struggle, regardless of topic. It is also one of the best. While this small book is ostensibly dedicated to showing the relevance of Black Power for theologians, it does much more than that by analyzing the history and legacy of the role the church has played in both black and white lives, considering the significance of Jesus in light of the Black Power movement, and writing insightfully on the questions of revolution, violence, and reconciliation raised by Black Power advocates. Already though, at this early date, Cone had a clear idea of what he wanted to inspire with his work and the need for the Church to attack racism in all forms, “demanding a radical change in the interlocking structures of this society” if it desired to stay faithful to the God it claims. The aggressive rhetoric of this book may scare off some first time readers, but it is meant to confront the reader, forcing them to take stock of themselves and their place in the fight for freedom. While fifty years have passed since this book’s initial publication, none of its power or relevance has been lost.

A Black Theology of Liberation:
The follow up to Black Theology and Black Power, A Black Theology of Liberation is Cone’s first attempt at a systematic theology of sorts. In this book, Cone attempts to constructively elucidate how the concepts of God, humanity, Jesus, and eschatology may be reinterpreted by theologians in the service of black liberation. A fitting development of many of the questions posed in his previous book.

Risks of Faith:
A collection of twelve of James Cone’s essays covering three decades worth of his writing. Its three sections – Black Theology and Black Power, Martin and Malcolm, and Going Forward – are reflective of his primary concerns as a theologian as he reflects on the foundations of his work, the two men who influenced it most, along with tentative hopes and appraisals regarding the future of Black Theology. The breadth of the topics considered here makes this both an excellent introduction as well as a valuable review of Cone’s essential ideas.

Next Steps

God of the Oppressed:
This work, his second attempt at a systematic theology following A Black Theology of Liberation, is his best and most quintessential work. Here, Cone goes in much greater depth about his sources and methodologies than before while also addressing critiques of his first few books in a way that is persuasive and impossible to dismiss. This is the work that it seems likely he will most be remembered for, and deservedly so.

Where Not to Start

Martin and Malcolm and America:
While this book is a tremendous dual biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and is worth reading for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement or the roots of Cone’s work, its relevance to Cone’s theology is perhaps most apparent after reading several of his own works first.

My Soul Looks Back:
My Soul Looks Back is, predictably enough, a reflective title by Cone, his most transparently personal work. The first chapter is an autobiographical reflection on the life experiences growing up in Bearden, Arkansas, that led him to academia and the development of a theology explicitly meant to liberate the victims of racial oppression. This book was written nearly two decades after his first published writings and he also chooses to reflect on the still-growing legacy of Black Liberation Theology and its relationship to the Black Church, liberation theologies arising from the global south, feminism, and Marxism. Particularly useful is the chapter on Black Theology and feminism where he considers the Womanist critiques of his earlier work. It is an important and useful work, but one that would be most appreciated by those already familiar with Cone’s work.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree:
Cone’s most recent work analyzes the relationship between Jesus’ execution on a cross and the deaths of those who were lynched. It is an often sobering work, that weaves from these personal reflections to considerations of the theology of Martin Luther King, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, along with the Womanist school that has emerged from the failures of Black and feminist theology to address the specific concerns of black women. I do not hesitate to recommend this book sooner due to its quality, but because, as Cone’s presumably final book, it has the tone of, and tendency to feel like, a summation of his long career as a theologian more than anything else.