I remember the first time I heard the term Black Liberation Theology. Nationally syndicated talk show host Sean Hannity released video excerpts of Trinity United Church of Christ Pastor Jeremiah Wright, and his racially charged rhetoric as he attacked American foreign policy and excoriated the United States with his infamous “God damn America” sermon that sent shockwaves around the world. I was both puzzled as well as perplexed. As much as I wanted to buy into Reverend Wright’s viewpoint of the dark side of America’s history, I had a bit of a problem with his theology.
For the past 5 years I have researched and studied the origin and history of the Black Liberation movement. I have invested many hours and sacrificed much sleep in order to unlock the inner door which leads to the core of Black Liberation Theology. My motivation is simple. I seek to examine Black Liberation Theology’s interpretation of scripture, and match it against what the authors of scripture intended to say, as they we’re moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). Either Black Liberation Theology is correct in its explanation of scripture and we should use it as a reference, or it leads us away from truth and what God wants us to know and therefore should be abandoned. What you do with this information is up to you.
A trip in the way back machine to the roots of Black Liberation Theology lands us smack dab in the mid sixties and the civil rights movement. It was on July 31st, 1966 that 51 black pastors calling themselves the National Committee of Negro Churchmen (NCNC), bought a full page ad in the New York Times to publish their “Black Power Statement,” which proposed a more aggressive approach to combating racism using the Bible for inspiration. In the minds of these men and much of black America, Christianity had a distinct association with the evils of slavery and segregation.
In 1969 Dr. James Cone answers the cries of the black religious community with the book entitled “Black Liberation Theology and Black Power.” This is a follow up to his book, “The lynching tree and the Cross.” The title of these books in and of itself is enough to make any discerning Christian scratch his head and wonder about the intentions of the author. In the clip below Dr Cone makes it crystal clear as to his motivation for the book. We will address later if Dr Cones desire to “address his blackness” is sufficient a reason to take liberty with the intent of the bibles writers and form your own theology.
In the world of Hermeneutics (the art of biblical interpretation) there has been in existence “laws” if you will that govern the process of uncovering what was written in the bible. These laws serve a number of functions. One, to keep the reader or student focused on what was written. Two, to extract out of scripture only what the author wrote. Three, to prevent committing what is known as “eisegesis” ( to lead out) which is defined as “the process of interpreting a text or portion of text in such a way that it introduces one’s own presuppositions, agendas, and/or biases into and onto the text.” We will examine the laws that accompany honest bible interpretation later in this article.
Since Dr James Cone is a well respected and honored theologian in the black community it would do us good to see if he in fact fell victim to the allure of social activism when he constructed his views on black theology. Let’s take a look inside Dr Cone’s philosophy by conducting a critical yet biblical examination of his book, Black Liberation Theology & Black Power.
As afor mentioned concerning the title Black Liberation Theology & Black Power. As a Christian who believes that we serve a color blind God, the infusion of race into any theological discussion is a mute point in my opinion. As scripture states “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) As far as the use of “Black Power” is concerned, again how a child of God reconciles a secular empowerment movement rooted in hate and anger with their Christian confession is difficult to say the least. I don’t desire to minimize the atrocities of slavery and the civil rights movement, but I fail to see how I gain freedom by trying to compare Christ’s suffering to my own or that of the martyrs of the civil rights era. Furthermore I fail to see that seeking social justice is the message that scripture presents in its message.
As we turn the page and go into the book we see “Preface to the 1989 Edition.” Here Dr Cone explains what he set out to do in his original writings. In paragraph one, line three he says “this book was my initial attempt to identify liberation as the heart of the Christian gospel and blackness as the primary goal of God’s presence.” If Dr Cone is identifying liberation from sin and its hold on human beings and its death sentence upon us, he is correct in classifying liberation as at the heart of the Christian gospel. If in fact Cone is referring to physical, financial or social liberation as the bibles primary message than he has made the same grave mistake that every liberal theologian makes. He is using culture to interpret scripture which distorts its true meaning. Later on in this preface Dr Cone goes to say “It was the challenging and angry voice of Malcolm “X” that shook me out of my theological complacency. “Christianity is the white man’s religion,” he proclaimed, again and again, as he urged African-Americans to adopt a perspective on God that was derived from their own cultural history.
James H. Cone (2012-03-15). Black Theology and Black Power (Kindle Locations 31-32). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.
I ask why is a theology that was influenced by the racist Black Muslim leader Malcolm X and constructed as a result of his racist views even considered legitimate within theological circles and revered in the black community. How can racism and biblical values co-exist? Should it be the goal of the black Christian to exact some sort of social justice or right the social ills of society? Was it the mission of Christ to alleviate financial, racial and social inequality in the earthly realm? The answers to all of these questions is forthcoming in this article.
Dr Cone continues laying the foundation for his book by stating “Christianity . . . is Black Power.”James H. Cone (2012-03-15). Black Theology and Black Power (Kindle Locations 45-46). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition. Again this causes a problem for the Christian who is compelled to live his/her life according to biblical principles. The term “Black Power” describes the tumultuous social movement that fought racism against the black community during the 60’s and 70’s. Christianity is a lifestyle based on the principles taught in the Old and New Testament writings of the bible of which the gospel of Jesus Christ is the center. While “Black Power” sought to cast off the chains of oppression through social activism, Christianity offers freedom from the oppression of sin through Jesus Christ the son of God. In my estimation the two are two very diametrically opposed means with two completely different goals. To claim that Christianity can be genetically spliced with black activism is akin to creating a Frankenstein theology.
We have not yet made it through Dr Cone’s preface yet we find more evidence of his tendency to interpret the bible through the lens of socialism, Marxism, civil rights oppression and hatred of America. He states, “If I had listened more carefully to Malcolm X and Martin King, I might have avoided that error (failure to connect the black struggle with the third world struggle). Both made it unquestionably clear, especially in their speeches against the U.S. government’s involvement in the Congo and Vietnam, that there can be no freedom for African-Americans from racism in this country unless it is tied to the liberation of Third world nations from U.S. imperialism.” James H. Cone (2012-03-15). Black Theology and Black Power (Kindle Locations 104-107). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.
Let’s move a little deeper into Dr Cone’s book. In chapter one Cone defines Black Power as he sees it. “It means complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary. The methods may include selective buying, boycotting, marching, or even rebellion. Black Power means black freedom, black self-determination, wherein black people no longer view themselves as without human dignity but as men, human beings with the ability to carve out their own destiny. In short, as Stokely Carmichael would say, Black Power means T.C.B., Take Care of Business—black folk taking care of black folks’ business, not on the terms of the oppressor, but on those of the oppressed.”James H. Cone (2012-03-15). Black Theology and Black Power (Kindle Locations 207-211). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition. So here my confusion is further fueled with Doctor Cone’s directive for black America to separate from white America. Does that include white Christians? Am I to love them as scripture commands or trust in the angry beckoning of a social activist? My plight continues.
The deeper I go into Doctor Cone’s book the more I realize that he clearly understands the rules of sound biblical exposition. Throughout his treatise he makes statements that clearly demonstrate his knowledge of the scriptures, which tells me that his deviation from solid hermeneutics is a deliberate action.
Throughout his book he makes a continuous effort to educate the reader on the term “Black Power.” Where I find this strange is this attempt to build power and pride in the black identity is in fact devise as well as a violation of biblical principles. For instance Cone states “This is Black Power, the power of the black man to say Yes to his own “black being,” and to make the other (white men) accept him or be prepared for struggle.” James H. Cone (2012-03-15). Black Theology and Black Power (Kindle Location 246). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition. Albeit a great challenge we are commanded as Christians and followers of God to be at peace even with those we consider adversaries. (Luke 6:27, Exodus 23:5, Acts 7: 60, Ephesians 4:32, Mark 11:25)
The idea of peace with enemies and brothers alike is a basic teaching in scripture, yet Doctor Cone routinely violates the ideas of Unity, peace and brotherly Love amongst God’s people in order to construct a Theology that is rooted not in the basic doctrines of the bible (Doctrine of Man, Doctrine of God, Doctrine of Salvation etc.) rather he begins in the plight of racism against the black race. He states “Though the doctrine of God must logically precede the doctrine of man, Black Theology knows that can view God only through black eyes that behold the brutalities of white racism. To ask then to assume a “higher” identity by denying their blackness is to require them to accept a false identity and reject reality as they know it to be.” James H. Cone (2012-03-15). Black Theology and Black Power (Kindle Location 1865). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition. Doctor Cone has consciously and deliberately constructed a Theology with racism at the center rather than God at the center. With this type of thought process one can never come to the true interpretation of scripture to understand what was intended by the original authors as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21.)
Doctor Cone also has chosen some strange literary bedfellows to help bolster his case for creating his new Theology. He consistently quotes the works of Karl Barth, Deitrich Bonhoffer and Jurgen Moltmann as support for his liberation mindset. At first glance these religious figures appear to be solid and seem to hold a more orthodox point of view in regard to scripture and what it teaches. But a closer look reveals what is truly at the heart of their Theology.
Jurgen Moltmann, the German theologian fuses the social and political issues of man with God to form “The Trinity.” He states “The point of the crucified Christ was to present an alternative to human suffering.” This is at best a shot in the dark in regards to the true purpose of Christ. Oddly enough Moltmann disagrees with Cone in regard to the suffering of Christ when he states “The sufferings of the poor should not be seen as equal to or a representation of the sufferings of Jesus.” This puts Cone at odds with Moltmann on the one of the central tenants of his entire Theology.
Cone also cites Karl Barth another German born Theologian who did not believe that scripture is inerrant. Barth also believed in the Catholic doctrine of Mary as the “Mother of God” which is obviously heresy. Another departure from sound doctrine is Barth’s assertion that eternal salvation for everyone, even those that reject God. This Universalist position was taught by Origen (185-254 A.D.) but was declared heresy by the Council of Constantinople in 543 A.D. It became popular again in the 19th century and is gaining traction in many Christian circles today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is also one of Cones favorite theologians to quote in his book. Bonhoeffer, another German bible scholar (strange given Cone’s indifference to ALL white people) was more atheistic and humanistic in his views than he was Christian. Bonhoeffer readily acknowledged “the debt he owes to liberal theology.” He declared that it was impossible to know the objective truth about Christ’s real nature and essence. He is perhaps most known for his proclamation that “God is dead.” His writings reveal that he denied many of the essential tenants of the Christian faith including Christ’s deity, the Virgin birth, the sinlessness of Christ and the (physical) resurrection of Christ. The fact that Professor Cone chose these three abysmal theologians to make his case for his liberation theology speaks volumes about the stability and viability of his work.
First Thessalonians 5:21 says “Prove (test) all things: hold fast to that which is good.” When we to Doctor Cone’s Black Liberation Theology, it fails the test miserably. On the social aspect it fails the test based on Cone’s advancement of a racist agenda. His continual attack on the “white church” as well as white people in general rises to a violent level.
As far as his doctrine is concerned Black Liberation Theology fails on the fact in order to make its claims valid orthodox, traditional tried and true rules of bible interpretation must be violated.
In short Dr. Cone’s book kicks off a campaign to persuade black people to read and understand the bible through the lens of racism. In an attempt to make this case Cone states “I am not suggesting that the New Testament language and its theological interpretation in the history of western Christianity are no longer useful for black people in America. Rather I am saying that there is a real need for a radical approach which takes the suffering of black people seriously. Without this new way of doing theology from the perspective of black enslavement, there will always be a barrier between Black Power and Christian love.” James H. Cone (2012-03-15). Black Theology and Black Power (Kindle Location 857). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition. This statement cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged lest hundreds of years of precise interpretation of scripture would suddenly become suspect. No one no matter how learned or accomplished is allowed to rewrite scripture to suit their need or situation.
The biblical concepts of Christian unity, love and reconciliation minimized or ignored altogether in Dr. Cone’s new theology. In fact Dr. Cone calls for black people to forsake the hope of racial cohesiveness within the church if not reached according to his twisted theology. God’s positon on unity among his followers is expressed in the prayer of Jesus in the book of John. Christ says “ Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” (John 17:20-23 KJV)
Professor Cone says “Black Theology must counsel blacks to be suspicious of all whites who want to be “friends” of black people.” James H. Cone (2012-03-15). Black Theology and Black Power (Kindle Location 2275). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.
To the issue of reconciliation Cones’ theology encourages a difficult route to arrive at that reconciliation to say the least. First off biblical reconciliation is the act of God restoring sinful man back to right standing through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Cone tries to make racial reconciliation and biblical reconciliation one in the same. This is one of many theological errors committed by Cone throughout his book.
Dr. Cone’s suggestions are in stark contrast to what scripture states and commands. For instance Professor Cone writes “The problem of reconciliation is the oppressor’s problem.” James H. Cone (2012-03-15). Black Theology and Black Power (Kindle Location 2277). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition. Scripture commands “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal.6:10) Also Dr. Cone says,” Reconciliation to God means that white people are prepared to deny themselves (whiteness) take up the cross (blackness) and follow Christ. (black Ghetto) It is simply an exercise in futility to try to square Cones’ theology with what scripture affirms. It is obvious that Dr. Cone/s theological construct and sound biblical doctrine are diametrically opposed to each other.
I believe that Professor Cone was inspired by both his influence as a theologian and his concern about racism against blacks in America. Although Dr. Cone possess the skills, knowledge and training to correctly interpret scripture as is demonstrated throughout his book, it is unfortunate that he chose to create an exegetical system that changes the rules of biblical interpretation that imposes a purely social meaning on scripture. In short it is plainly and simply a social gospel.
For decades Professor Cone has been one of the leading theological authorities for the black community in America. His book was welcome in the 60’s during peak of the civil rights movement, and is considered an authority still today. His message has and always will be compelling for blacks who want God and the bible to identify and address their struggle. The video of Cone speaking on how he constructed Black Liberation Theology (earlier in this article) confirms his personal desire to create a theology to “address his blackness.” By doing so he abandoned his training as a bible teacher to construct a theology to fit an agenda. THIS IS JUST WRONG!
Black Liberation Theology forces God, whites and blacks to bow a knee at the foot of racism. Anyone with even a shred of theological integrity or intellectual honesty cannot in the least consider Dr. Cone’s book “Black Liberation Theology & Black Power” a valid way of comprehending scripture. Not only does it make a wholesale retreat form orthodox theology, it incites racism, anger and even violence ALL white people and calls for blacks to live with a revolutionary tone with the bible as their justification for their hatred.
As a black Christian I cannot and will not endorse ANY theological system that ignores direct commands from scripture for all Christians everywhere to be unified in Christ. We are clearly instructed that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal.3:28 KJV) Black Liberation Theology & Black Power falls down like a house of cards when place under the microscope of true biblical exposition.