This is a descriptive review of Black Theology & Black Power by James H. Cone, (New York: [Harper & Row, 1969]. It is not an attempt to politicize Cone’s arguments, but to simply explain what the book attempts to put forth. Keep in mind that according to Cone’s ideas in 1969, Black theology demands “blackness as the sole criterion for dialogue (p. 148)”. Additionally, as much as Cone would have liked his works to become the definitive explanation of Black Theology, many Black theologians dispute the fact and point out that Cone’s Black Theology is actually Black Liberation Theology.
Rev. Eugene Rivers of Azusa Christian Community in Boston described Black Liberation Theology when interviewed on Hannity & Colmes May 2, 2008.
“Black Liberation Theology is left-wing social science masquerading as theology . . . it’s warmed over defunct Marxist structuralism.”
The primary question that the book intends to answer is, “What is the theology of Black Power, and why is a theology of Black Power necessary if blacks are to regain their identity?” Two preliminary questions are: “Is it possible for men to be really black and still feel any identity with the biblical tradition “that has been interpreted by whiteness (p.33)?”, and, “Must black people be forced to deny their identity in order to embrace the Christian faith (p. 33)?”
To answer these questions, Cone first addresses the nature of the Gospel of Jesus. Because the teaching about Jesus Christ is the center of Christian theology, Cone argues that “Jesus’ work is essentially one of liberation,” because in Christ, “God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed (p. 35-36).”
Christ’s defeat of Satan means the defeat of white racism in America (p. 40-41). Freedom in Christ’s liberating work means that “liberation is directed for and by the oppressed (p. 42).”
God’s righteousness is tied to God’s justice, which means that God will protect those in bondage from the ungodly (pp. 44-45). Cone explains that “those who wish to share in this divine righteousness must become poor without any possibility of procuring right for themselves (pp. 45-46).”
If love is to exist “between men,” it must exist between equals, and it cannot be spoken of apart from justice and power (p. 53-54). It is the work of love to destroy what is against love, and “violence may be the black man’s expression . . . of Christian love to the white oppressor (pp. 54-55).”
“The Holy Spirit is the power of God at work in the world,” and, “living according to the Spirit means that one’s will becomes God’s will, one’s actions become God’s action (pp. 57-59).”
“Black Power, then, is God’s new way of acting in America (p. 61).” The White church has “enshrined” racism, which “is a denial of the Incarnation and thus of Christianity (pp. 72-73).”
Therefore, the white denominational churches are unchristian, and not of God, so renewal “seems out of the question (pp. 72-73, 115).”
The Black churches in America should proclaim the revolutionary gospel of “the black Christ (p. 114).”
Cone argues that eschatology is not centered in future expectations of a “reward” in heaven, because it is related to what “God has done, is doing, and will do for his people (p.1 26).”
White values “must be revolutionized or eliminated (p. 131).”
Cone subordinates questions of good, evil, violence and revolution, as relative to real human decisions between less and greater evil (pp. 142-143). Reconciliation cannot come about until “white people are prepared to deny themselves (whiteness), take up the cross (blackness) and follow Christ (black ghetto) (p. 150).”
Cone offers a systematic presentation of Black Theology, which expands the social gospel as a religion of protest through the works of various theologians such as that of Jòrgen Moltmann’s, “political hermeneutics of the gospel (p. 37).”
Cone’s theology is Christological in that his theology is centered in the Gospel of Jesus. Cone dialectically seeks to uncover the true nature of Christ. His conclusion is that Christ is united with the oppressed, and “God has chosen black people. (p. 151).”
Cone’s primary concern, and thesis, “is to show that the goal and message of Black Power. . . is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ (p. 48).”
The task and purpose of Black Theology is “to criticize and revise the language of the church,” and “to analyze the black man’s condition in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ with the purpose of creating a new understanding of black dignity among black people, and providing the necessary soul in that people, to destroy white racism. (pp. 31, 84, 89, 117).”
It is difficult to evaluate this book from its unwanted white perspective. The hyperbole of Cone’s language is indicative of the initial stages of the development of a militant Black Christian identity. Now that a generation has passed since its writing, and because Cone’s Black Liberation theology demands “blackness as the sole criterion for dialogue” (p. 148), the issue of reconciliation between the races can never be honestly addressed through the lens of Black Liberation Theology.