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.
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.