- Founder of black liberation theology
- Professor of Systematic Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City
- Views America as an irredeemably racist nation
- “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.” — James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
- “This country was founded for whites and everything that has happened in it has emerged from the white perspective. What we need is the destruction of whiteness, which is the source of human misery in the world.” — James Cone
Ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, James Hal Cone is a theologian credited most notably with founding and advancing black liberation theology, which combines tenets of Christian socialism and the Black Power movement. He came into the forefront of public consciousness when Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s controversial pastor, named him in 2007 as the preeminent influence on his on theology.
Working from a strong Marxist base, 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.
James Cone was born in 1938 and was raised in 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 M.A. (1963) and Ph.D. (1965) degrees from Northwestern University. He also has been awarded eight honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
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:
“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 volume, Cone penned these sentiments about universal black goodness and 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).”
Other excerpts from Black Theology and Black Power include these:
- “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.”
- “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?'”
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 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.”
- “[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.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “All white men are responsible for white oppression. It is much too easy to say, ‘Racism is not my fault,’ … Racism is possible because whites are indifferent to suffering and patient with cruelty.”
- “To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people!”
- “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 hatred is the black man’s strong aversion to white society. No black man living in white America can escape it.”
In addition to the previously referenced titles, Cone has authored such books 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? (1992), and Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology (1999).
Cone has taught theology at Philander Smith College in Arkansas, Adrian College in Michigan, and since 1970 at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he is currently the Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology.
Over the years, Cone has received such honors as 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).