James Hal Cone was born August 5, 1938, in Fordyce, Arkansas. He earned a B.A. degree from Philander Smith College in 1958; a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1961; and an M.A. (1963) and a Ph.D. (1965) from Northwestern University. He also has been awarded eight honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
After completing his formal education, Cone taught theology and religion at Philander Smith College, Adrian College, and, beginning in 1970, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where in 1977 he was awarded the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology.
Ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Cone is credited most notably with founding and advancing black liberation theology, which combines tenets of Christian socialism and the Black Power movement. Rooted in Marxist philosophy, liberation theology teaches that the New Testament gospels can be understood only as calls for social activism, class struggle, and revolution aimed at overturning the existing capitalist order and installing, in its stead, a socialist utopia where today’s poor will unseat their “oppressors” and become liberated from their material — and, consequently, their spiritual — deprivations. An extension of this paradigm, black liberation theology seeks to foment a similar Marxist revolutionary fervor founded on racial, rather than class, solidarity.
Characterizing America as an irredeemably “racist society,” Cone argues that white people traditionally have exploited Christianity as an opiate of the (black) masses. He asserts that the destitute “are made and kept poor by the rich and powerful few,” and that “[n]o one can be a follower of Jesus Christ without a political commitment that expresses one’s solidarity with victims.”
Influenced by the Christian existential philosophy of Paul Tillich and the Black Power movement of Malcolm X, Cone exhorts black Christians to reject the “White Church,” which he claims has failed to support them in their struggle for equal rights.
Claiming that “black values” are superior to American values, Cone’s writings posit a black Jesus who leads African Americans as the “chosen people.” “This country was founded for whites, and everything that has happened in it has emerged from the white perspective,” he writes. “What we need is the destruction of whiteness, which is the source of human misery in the world.”
In 1969, Cone characterized white society as the Antichrist, and the white church as an institution that was racist to its core. Thus he posited “a desperate need for a black theology, a theology whose sole purpose is to apply the freeing power of the gospel to black people under white oppression.”
In his landmark 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power, Cone wrote that “negro hatred of white people” is not at all “pathological,” but rather, is a “healthy human reaction to oppression, insult, and terror.” He also wrote in that book:
- “To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people!”
- “The time has come for white America to be silent and listen to black people…. All white men are responsible for white oppression…. Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.’ … Any advice from whites to blacks on how to deal with white oppression is automatically under suspicion as a clever device to further enslavement.”
In that same 1969 volume, Cone penned the following sentiments about what he viewed as universal black goodness and its counterpart, universal white evil:
“For white people, God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ means that God has made black people a beautiful people; and if they are going to be in relationship with God, they must enter by means of their black brothers, who are a manifestation of God’s presence on earth. The assumption that one can know God without knowing blackness is the basic heresy of the white churches. They want God without blackness, Christ without obedience, love without death. What they fail to realize is that in America, God’s revelation on earth has always been black, red, or some other shocking shade, but never white. Whiteness, as revealed in the history of America, is the expression of what is wrong with man. It is a symbol of man’s depravity. God cannot be white even though white churches have portrayed him as white. When we look at what whiteness has done to the minds of men in this country, we can see clearly what the New Testament meant when it spoke of the principalities and powers. To speak of Satan and his powers becomes not just a way of speaking but a fact of reality. When we can see a people who are controlled by an ideology of whiteness, then we know what reconciliation must mean. The coming of Christ means a denial of what we thought we were. It means destroying the white devil in us. Reconciliation to God means that white people are prepared to deny themselves (whiteness), take up the cross (blackness), and follow Christ (black ghetto).”
In his 1970 book, A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone advanced the notion of a deity that sided with blacks, and against whites:
“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.”
In this same 1970 book, Cone wrote that “American white theology is a theology of the Antichrist,” and he advocated for the adoption of a new “black theology” that would spark a revolution to eradicate whiteness from every corner of society: “There will be no peace in America until whites begin to hate their whiteness, asking from the depths of their being: ‘How can we become black?'”
Rejecting the notion of a “white God,” Cone in this book claimed that “God is black” and “has nothing to do with the God worshiped in white churches.” Genuine Christianity, he said, must “[deny] whiteness as a proper form of human existence and [affirm] blackness as God’s intention for humanity.”
Additional noteworthy quotes from Cone’s 1970 book include the following:
- “Because white theology has consistently preserved the integrity of the community of oppressors, I conclude that it is not Christian theology at all.”
- “[I]nsofar as this country is seeking to make whiteness the dominating power throughout the world, whiteness is the symbol of the Antichrist. Whiteness characterizes the activity of deranged individuals intrigued by their own image of themselves and thus unable to see that they are what is wrong with the world. Black theology seeks to analyze the satanic nature of whiteness and by doing so, prepare all nonwhites for revolutionary action.”
- “[L]iberal whites want to be white and Christian at the same time; but they fail to realize that this approach is a contradiction in terms — Christianity and whiteness are opposites.”
- “Intrigued by their own expertise in Christian theology, white religionists think they have the moral and intellectual right to determine whether black churches are Christian. They fail to realize that their analysis of Christianity is inseparable from their oppressor mentality which shapes everything they say about God.”
- “If there is one brutal fact that the centuries of white oppression have taught blacks, it is that whites are incapable of making any valid judgements about human existence. The goal of black theology is the destruction of everything white, so that blacks can be liberated from alien gods. … If whites were really serious about their radicalism in regard to the black revolution and its theological implications in America, they would keep silent and take instructions from blacks. Only blacks can speak about God in relationship to their liberation. And those who wish to join us in this divine work must be willing to lose their white identity — indeed, destroy it.”
- “The white God is an idol created by racists, and we blacks must perform the iconoclastic task of smashing false idols. White religionists are not capable of perceiving the blackness of God, because their satanic whiteness is a denial of the very essence of divinity.”
- “With the assurance that God is on our side, we can begin to make ready for the inevitable—the decisive encounter between white and black existence. White appeals to ‘wait and talk it over’ are irrelevant when children are dying and men and women are being tortured. We will not let whitey cool this one with his pious love ethic but will seek to enhance our hostility, bringing it to its full manifestation.”
- “We have reached our limit of tolerance, and if it means death with dignity, or life with humiliation, we choose the former. And if that is the choice, we will take out some honkies with us…. The black experience is the feeling one has when attacking the enemy of black humanity by throwing a Molotov cocktail into a white-owned building and watching it go up in flames. We know, of course, that getting rid of evil takes something more than burning down buildings, but one must start somewhere.”
- “Because blacks have come to know themselves as black, and because that blackness is the cause of their own love of themselves and hatred of whiteness, the blackness of God is key to knowledge of God. The blackness of God, and everything implied by it in a racist society, is the heart of the black theology doctrine of God. There is no place in black theology for a colorless God in a society where human beings suffer precisely because of their color. 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… Because God has made the goal of blacks God’s own goal, black theology believes that it is not only appropriate but necessary to begin the doctrine of God with an insistence on God’s blackness.”
- “[T]here can be no theology of the gospel which does not arise from an oppressed community.”
- “[T]he God of the oppressed takes sides with the black community. God is not color-blind in the black-white struggle, but has made an unqualified identification with blacks.”
- “In passing, it may be worthwhile to point out that whites are in no position to question the legitimacy of black theology. Questions like ‘Do you think theology is black?’ or ‘What about others who suffer?’ are the product of minds incapable of black thinking.”
- “The revolutionary context forces black theology to shun all abstract principles dealing with what is the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ course of action. There is only one principle which guides the thinking and action of black theology: an unqualified commitment to the black community.”
- “[T]he development of black power means that the black community will define its own place, its own way of behaving in the world, regardless of the consequences to white society. We have reached our limit of tolerance, and if it means death with dignity or life with humiliation, we will choose the former. And if that is the choice, we will take some honkies with us.”
- “The black experience is catching the spirit of blackness and loving it. It is hearing black preachers speak of God’s love in spite of the filthy ghetto, and black congregations responding Amen, which means that they realize that ghetto existence is not the result of divine decree but of white inhumanity. The black experience is the feeling one has when attacking the enemy of black humanity by throwing a Molotov cocktail into a white-owned building and watching it go up in flames. We know, of course, that getting rid of evil takes something more than burning down buildings, but one must start somewhere.”
- “If God is not for us, if God is not against white racists, then God is a murderer, and we had better kill God. The task of black theology is to kill gods that do not belong to the black community.”
- “From this [biblical witness], however, we should not conclude that the Bible is an infallible witness. God was not the author of the Bible, nor were its writers mere secretaries. Efforts to prove verbal inspiration of the scriptures result from the failure to see the real meaning of the biblical message: human liberation! Unfortunately, emphasis on verbal infallibility leads to unimportant concerns. While churches are debating whether a whale swallowed Jonah, the state is enacting inhuman laws against the oppressed. It matters little to the oppressed who authored scripture; what is important is whether it can serve as a weapon against oppressors.”
- “God’s revelation has nothing to do with white suburban ministers admonishing their congregation to be nice to black persons. It has nothing to do with voting for open occupancy or holding a memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr. God’s revelation means a radical encounter with the structures of power which King fought against to his death. It is what happens in a black ghetto when the ghettoized decide to strike against their enemies. In a word, God’s revelation means liberation — nothing more, nothing less.”
- “In what sense are the oppressed sinners? In an attempt to speak to this question, I must point out quite clearly that oppressors are in no position to speak about this sinfulness of the oppressed. Black theology rejects categorically white comments about the sins of blacks, suggesting that we are partly responsible for out plight. Not only does such talk provide an ungodly method for easing the guilt of white oppressors, but it also suggests that whites and blacks are one community. Sin is a concept which is meaningful only within the context of a Christian community. It is community recognition that some have lost their identity for being. Inasmuch as whites and blacks do not share a common identity, whites cannot possibly know what sin is from a black perspective. Black theology does not deny that all persons are sinners. What it denies is white reflections on the sin of blacks. Only blacks can speak about sin in a black perspective and apply it to black and white persons. The white vision of reality is too distorted and renders whites incapable of talking to the oppressed about their shortcomings. According to black theology, the sin of the oppressed is not that they are responsible for their own enslavement – far from it. Their sin is that of trying to ‘understand’ enslavers, to ‘love’ them on their own terms. As the oppressed now recognize their situation in the light of God’s revelation, they know that they should have killed their oppressors instead of trying to ‘love’ them.”
- “The black prophet is a rebel with a cause, the cause of over twenty-five million black Americans and all oppressed persons everywhere. It is God’s cause because God has chosen the blacks as God’s own people. And God has chosen them not for redemptive suffering but for freedom. Blacks are not elected to be Yahweh’s suffering people. Rather we are elected because we are oppressed against our will and God’s, and God has decided to make our liberation God’s own undertaking.”
- “If there is one brutal fact that the centuries of white oppression have taught blacks, it is that whites are incapable of making any valid judgments about human existence. The goal of black theology is the destruction of everything white, so that blacks can be liberated from alien gods.”
- “[White revolutionary theologians] should know by now that, in view of white brutality against blacks and church participation in it, no white person who is halfway sensitive to black self-determination should have the audacity to speak for blacks. That is the problem! Too many whites think they know how we feel about them. If whites were really serious about their radicalism in regard to the black revolution and its theological implications in America, they would keep silent and take instructions from blacks. Only blacks can speak about God in relationship to their liberation. And those who wish to join us in this divine work must be willing to lose their white identity — indeed, destroy it.”
- “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.”
- “Jesus is not a human being for all persons; he is a human being for oppressed persons, whose identity is made known in and through their liberation.”
- “Being free in America means accepting blackness as the only possible way of existing in the world. It means defining one’s identity by the marks of oppression. It means rejecting white proposals for peace and reconciliation, saying ‘All we know is, we must have justice, not next week but this minute.’”
- “[T]here can be no knowledge of the sinful condition except in the movement of an oppressed community claiming its freedom. This means that whites, despite their self-proclaimed religiousness, are rendered incapable of making valid judgments on the character of sin.”
- “What does sin mean for blacks? Again, we must be reminded that sin is a community concept, and this means that only blacks can talk about their sin. Oppressors are not only rendered incapable of knowing their own condition, they cannot speak about it or for the oppressed. This means that whites are not permitted to speak about what blacks have done to contribute to their conditions. They cannot call blacks Uncle Toms; only members of the black community can do that. For whites, to do so is not merely insensitivity, it is blasphemy.”
- “If Jesus Christ is to have any meaning for us, he must leave the security of the suburbs by joining blacks in their condition. What need have we for a white Jesus when we are not white but black? If Jesus Christ is white and not black, he is an oppressor, and we must kill him. The appearance of black theology means that the black community is now ready to do something about the white Jesus, so that he cannot get in the way of our revolution.”
- “Unfortunately, the post-Civil War black church fell into the white trick of interpreting salvation in terms similar to those of white oppressors. Salvation because white: an objective act of Christ in which God ‘washes’ away our sins in order to prepare us for a new life in heaven. The resurgence of the black church in civil rights and the creation of a black theology represent an attempt of the black community to see salvation in the light of its own earthly liberation.”
- “To participate in God’s salvation is to cooperate with the black Christ as he liberates his people from bondage. Salvation, then, primarily has to do with earthly reality and the unjustice inflicted on those who are helpless and poor. To see the salvation of God si to see this people rise up against is oppressors, demanding that justice become a reality now, not tomorrow.”
- “If the white and black churches do not represent Christ’s redemptive work in the world, where then is Christ’s church to be found? As always, his church is where wounds are being healed and chains are being struck off. It does not matter in the least whether the community of liberators designate their work as Christ’s own work. What is important is that the oppressed are being liberated.”
- “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 hatred is the black man’s strong aversion to white society. No black man living in white America can escape it.”
In a 2004 essay, Cone expressed his belief that white racism in America had not diminished at all since the publication of his aforementioned books three-and-a-half decades earlier: “Black suffering is getting worse, not better…. White supremacy is so clever and evasive that we can hardly name it. It claims not to exist, even though black people are dying daily from its poison.”
Also among Cone’s more notable statements regarding race are the following:
- “Blackness … must, without qualification, refer to black-skinned people who bear the scars of oppression; and whiteness must refer to the people responsible for that oppression…. [T]here can be no universal understanding of blackness without the particular experience of blackness.” (2015)
- “[Racism is] in — it’s in American culture. As you say, it’s in the DNA. It’s our — it’s white America’s original sin and it’s deep.” (2007)
- “Yeah, it’s ugly. Black [lynched] bodies hanging on trees [in the post-slavery era]…. People don’t like to talk about stuff that’s really deep and ugly.… And if America could understand itself as not being innocent, it might be able to play a more creative role in the world today.”(2007)
- “The lynching tree is a metaphor for race in America, a symbol of America’s crucifixion of black people. See, whites feel a little uncomfortable because they are part of the history of the people who did the lynching. I would much rather be a part of the history of the lynching victims than a part of the history of the one who did it. And that’s the kind of transcendent perspective that empowers people to resist.” (2007)
- “Crucifixion and lynchings are symbols … of the power of domination. They are symbols of the destruction of people’s humanity. With black people being 12 percent of the US population and nearly 50 percent of the prison population, that’s lynching. It’s a legal lynching. So, there are a lot of ways to lynch a people than just hanging ’em on the tree. A lynching is trying to control the population. It is striking terror in the population so as to control it. That’s what the ghetto does. It crams people into living spaces where they will self destruct, kill each other, fight each other, shoot each other because they have no place to breathe, no place for recreation, no place for an articulation and expression of their humanity. So, it becomes a way, a metaphor for lynching, if lynching is understood and as one group forcing a kind of inhumanity upon another group.” (2007)
Cone came to the forefront of public consciousness in 2007 when Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s controversial pastor, named Cone as the preeminent influence on his own (Wright’s) theology.
Over the course of his professional career, Cone authored 12 books. In addition to the previously referenced titles, he published such volumes as The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (1972); God of the Oppressed (1975); For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church (1984); Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (1991); Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology (1999); The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2012); and Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody (2018).
Cone received numerous honors including the Paul Robeson Award (from the Mother AME Zion Church); the American Black Achievement Award in the category of Religion (given by Ebony magazine); the Theological Scholarship and Research Award (from the Association of Theological Schools); the Fund for Theological Education Award (given by the American Academy of Religion); and the Julius C. Hope Champion of Social Justice Award (from the NAACP).
Cone died on April 28, 2018.