Responding to the Claim that James Cone Didn’t Know Christ

In case you hadn’t heard yet, James Cone died today. He was known for his groundbreaking work in the area of what has come to be called Black Liberation Theology. There has been a lot of critique of BLT from conservative evangelical and Reformed Christians with the guilt by association fallacy that simply because Liberation Theology (with its genesis in Latin America) developed through the appeal to a neo-Marxist mode, that this in and of itself makes it a heretical theological development. The reality is that Liberation Theology just as any other theology—yes even the type that funds most conservative evangelical reformed theology; i.e. Aristotelian philosophy—it attempts to reify neo-Marxist categories under the pressure of the Gospel categories themselves. Apparently conservative evangelical types only think this kind of evangelistic process can be done with Aristotle and Plato but not with German or other continentally sourced philosophies. And so these types want to label people like James Cone a heretic, and condemn him to hell. Indeed, there is a growing fear among conservative evangelical reformed minds that their whole movement is being hood-winked into Black Liberation Theology; the fear was given fuel recently by The Gospel Coalition’s MLK50 conference and in particular Russell Moore’s talk that these folks believe gives way too much credit to the work that Black Liberation Theology has been doing for these past many years.

So just today, just as Cone has died, a black Reformed Canadian blogger named Samuel Sey posted the following (with all that I just mentioned in mind). You can see the gist of exactly what I just described in his Tweet.

This is unwarranted, to say the least! Are there aspects of Cone’s theology that I don’t agree with? I’m sure there is; indeed I know there is. But can I recognize how he has been used of the Lord to motivate a theological movement that elevates concerns that actually are grounded in the scandalous Gospel of Jesus Christ? Yes. But what is really concerning is that Samuel somehow has come to the conclusion that James Cone didn’t know Jesus; thus condemning Cone to hell, just as James Cone has died no less. How does Samuel know if Cone knew Christ or not? Cone did all of his work precisely in relation to and from Jesus Christ; from the reality that God’s wisdom and power are located in Jesus’ identification with the weak and powerless of this world. How does this indicate to someone that Cone did not personally have a relationship with Jesus Christ? To me it indicates just the opposite! Again, does Cone have some things in his theology that I might even consider aberrant? Probably. Does he have something like Rahner’s anonymous Christian present in his understanding of salvation? I think he might (I need to pursue that line further; it has been years since I’ve read Cone). But even so; even if he does have some aberrant ideas in his theology, does this necessarily mean he didn’t know Jesus Christ? Of course not! I’d venture to say that when we come to the eschaton we will realize that we all had some aberrant ideas in our various theologies. What I consider to be aberrant in this whole thing, in regard to Samuel’s tweet, is that he has concluded that James Cone didn’t know Jesus. This is aberrant because in order to ultimately or absolutely conclude something like that you would have to be God with access to someone’s heart; that seems quite aberrant to me; it even seems like Samuel has displaced God’s place with his own, as if he has a God’s eye view. That seems dangerous and imprudent to me.

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‘Liberating Black Theology,’ Black Lives Matter, and other Miscellanies

I have recently been involved in some on-line debate about the relationship between the Gospel, the church, and the movement Black Lives Matter. Ever since high school, when my dad took a pastorate in North Long Beach, CA (bordering Compton, CA) I have been intrigued by black culture, black-church and how the Gospel itself looks from within said milieu. As I have matured, and martinlutherkingbeen educated I became aware of Black theology, and more pointedly Black Liberation Theology. I came to realize that there was a whole world of scholarship dedicated to thinking through the relationship between the Gospel and Black lives in a predominately White world, and Christian experience within the North American experiment. This piqued my interest even further; especially after being involved in my dad’s ministry at the church in North Long Beach at Calvary Baptist Church. We lived through the Los Angeles riots, during that time, and I saw firsthand how significant race was; and that the Gospel itself, while the power of God, could become enculturated in ways that were both good and bad.

I have since read some of the theological work of Black theologian par excellence, James Cone, and more recently the book by up and coming Black theologian J. Kameron Carter entitled Race: A Theological Account. But before that I had stumbled upon the work of Bruce Fields, and his book on the subject entitled: Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church. All of these thinkers have helped contribute to my understanding of Black Theology and how it looks from both black and white perspectives. And all of these thinkers and what they have written helped inform the categories I was thinking through as I had this recent online debate in regard to Black Lives Matter (BLM). The folks I was debating with, by and large, were white upwardly mobile evangelical Christians who are members of a predominately White church in Portland, OR; a church known for its desire to be involved in culturally activist causes for the sake of the Gospel. Every person I interacted with in that debate hotly disagreed with my persistent point that the movement Black Lives Matter compromises the reality of the Gospel; that it is informed by a hermeneutic at odds with the Gospel (i.e. neo-Marxist Liberation theology); and that the Gospel itself is incompatible with the principles that give BLM its shape and trajectory as a movement, even if those principles (the one’s articulated by BLM) have a superficial and apparent connection, ethically, to the implications of the Gospel itself (I argued that the relationship between BLM’s principles and the Gospel was equivocal).

Since then (which were only talking like around a week ago) I have come across Anthony Bradley’s book Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America, and I have started reading it. Like Fields’ book, the one I mentioned earlier, Bradley is offering a critique of the type of Black theology forwarded by James Cone, J. Kameron Carter (who himself is critical of Cone at points, even more so of another Black theologian Cornell West), and of the type that funds the movement Black Lives Matter. My contention in that on-line debate, as I have noted, was that the Gospel itself is incompatible with the noble aims idealized by Black Liberation theology in general, and Black Lives Matter in particular; and as such, should be repudiated for an alternative hermeneutic that not only acknowledges the unique way that the Gospel is received within the context of “Black Lives,” but that also comports with an orthodox understanding of the Christian Gospel that liberates not only black lives, but all lives to flourish in a way that reflects the telos of God’s Kingdom in Christ. To this end, Bradley’s book, right from the get go critiques the kind of neo-Marxist hermeneutic of Liberation theology appropriated by much of Black theology in North America. At the core he notes that at an anthropological and psychological level Liberation theology, Black Liberation theology starts from a premise of victimization, a negative premise that does not cohere with the Good News and positive anthropology of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; in other words a premise that will not ultimately achieve the goals that Black Liberation theology is actually hoping to achieve for not only black people, but white people and all people: i.e. the liberation to be fully human in the way that God has intended in Christ.

To close this post, let me quote Bradley who is summarizing the work of John McWhorter, and the thoughts McWhorter has contributed towards identifying the problems presented by the ‘victimization’ mind-set that premises much of Black Theology in North America today. Bradley writes:

McWhorter articulates three main objections to victimology: (1) Victimology condones weakness in failure. It tacitly stamps approval on failure, lack of effort, and criminality. Behaviors and patterns that are self-destructive are often approved of as cultural or are presented as unpreventable consequences from previous systemic patterns. (2) Victimology hampers progress because, from the outset, it focuses attention on obstacles. For example, in black theology the focus is on the impediment to black freedom because of the Goliath of white racism. (3) Victimology keeps racism alive because many whites are constantly painted as racist with no evidence provided. These charges may create a context for backlash and resentment, which may fuel attitudes in the white community not previously held or articulated.

Perhaps the most significant tragedy of a victimologist’s approach, in McWhorter’s view, is that it creates separatism. Separatism is a suspension of moral judgment in the name of racial solidarity that is an integral part of being culturally black in America today. The black experience is the starting point and the final authority for interpreting moral prescriptions, both personally and structurally. Separatist morality is not a deliberate strategy for accruing power; rather, it is a cultural thought—a tacit conviction that has imbued the culturally black psyche. Separatism is a direct result of victimology because whites are viewed in eternal opposition to the black experience; black America construes itself (albeit in many cases unintentionally) as a sovereign, cultural authority.

Separatism generates a restriction of cultural authority, a narrowing of intellectual inquiry, and the dilution of moral judgment. Mainstream American culture, when refracted through the lens of victimology, renders even the most ubiquitous cultural products and ideas “white.” For example, Manning Marable, a professor at Columbia University, has explicitly exhorted black scholars to focus exclusively on “black issues.” In doing so, he squelches intellectual curiosity (a basic good) outside the purview of the black American agenda. Separatism is the sense that to be truly black, one must restrict his allegiance to black-oriented culture and assent to different rules of argumentation and morality. Few blacks, however, would admit that this is true. The truth, writes McWhorter, is that “the culturally black person is from birth subtly inculcated with the idea that the black person—any black person—is not to be judged cold, but considered in light of the acknowledgment that black people have suffered.” In the victimologist’s worldview, black suffering is the proper lens through which all else is to be evaluated.

Ultimately, McWhorter warns against separatism. Separatism has, in the name of self-protection, encouraged generations of blacks to set low goals. Blacks have settled for less, not just in respect to racial integration, but also in respect to being human persons.

What James Cone and those who followed him came to develop is not only a theology predicated on the autonomous black person as a nearly permanent victim of white aggression but also a separatist theological system, all in the name of contextualization. This newly developed theology, based on victimology, not only jettisons orthodox Christianity but also impedes opportunities for ecclesial reconciliation.[1]

‘Victimization,’ ‘Separatism,’ and the negativism that these concepts connote, I would argue do not comport with the Gospel of Jesus Christ; as such, I would contend that Christians whether Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Red would do well to find a way, a hermeneutic that actually starts from a positive vantage point. A vantage point that actually sets Black people, and all people up in a way that allows them to flourish as fully actualized and liberated people who find their sustenance and identity at a first order level in and from the life of God in Christ, in the particular man from Nazareth.

Conclusion

Race will always remain a contentious issue, especially in our cultural climate today; a climate that is bedded down in the negative type of victimization, separatist mindset that McWhorter and Bradley alert us to. It is not racist to attempt to identify fundamental problems with movements that claim to be doing the work of race liberation and reconciliation (on the more Christian side of things); instead I would content it is prudent. Even at a cursory level we can see that straightaway there are issues underlying Black theology, Black Liberation theology, Liberation theology in general that do not cohere with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If this is so Christians ought to abandon said hermeneutic and seek ways forward that actually work from Gospel premises of ‘liberation’ (cf. II Cor. 3.17), and not rush head-long into the first popular movement that comes along that sounds like it is working from premises that are compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we are not prudent in this way, then all we are doing is placing  everyone involved into a new bondage, under new terms, which only make it ‘appear’ as if we are accomplishing something that we are not; i.e. liberation. Liberation only truly comes from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and so as Christians we need to be involved in movements that genuinely work from Gospel principles and not principles that appear as light, that in the end only lead to more darkness and bondage.

 

 

 

 

[1] Anthony B. Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2010), 21 Scribd version.