Book Review: A Black Theology of Liberation

A Black Theology of Liberation

by James H. Cone

Orbis Books

About two years ago, our pastor said in a sermon that he had started to read theological/spiritual/religious books by black, women and queer authors exclusively. Part of his rationale was that he had only been exposed to authors who were white and male. As he raised up several examples of books he was reading, I began a mental inventory of my meager library collected over 40 years of education and professional ministry. I could only visualize 1 book in my theological library that was written by a person of color: A Theology of Liberation, by Gustavo Gutiérrez. It was assigned to me in my undergraduate studies at Westmont College.

I am not going to “review” this book. I am going to make some comments as to why I was never asked to read this book by the institutions and colleagues and environments within which I surrounded myself. From this cloister of opinion and viewpoint and entitlement I never read/nor was challenged to read a perspective that called me across the divide to listen, see, and feel what others experience and live. It is hard to make a case against my latent and unchallenged racism when I can’t even list a book I have read from a person with a different background that myself. My experience is not unique to me, but part of our system. I am not going to review this book because I really am not qualified to speak about Cone’s experience or perspective. AT this stage I should be in a learner’s posture.

I have three responses to my narrow education:

My first reaction was anger.

How was I not ever once asked to read and reflect on this man’s experience and thoughtful (albeit harsh) presentation of theology? I know the answer. James Cone didn’t fit in with my circle. He didn’t teach the stock theological positions of my tradition and race. He challenged the accepted and acceptable theological framework. The most common dismissal of Cone by whites is that he is in fact the “racist” and that his book is some sort of reverse racism. This critique reveals two things. First, the book was not read to understand Cone it was proof-texted to dismiss him. Second, we don’t understand racism.

My second reaction was regret.

Why didn’t I choose a broader platform from which to form my own theological framework? Why did I choose to go to a school that chose to close ranks and value indoctrination and dogma more highly than open discourse and the engagement of contrary viewpoints?

The third reaction was and is sadness.

The message of James Cone, (and a multiplicity of others) is that black voices and lives have been and continue to be minimized and worse than minimized. White people, and especially in the context of this books subject matter, white theologians have sided with “Rome.”

My eschatology is built on two broad principles. The image of God in humanity as a revelatory and teleological foundation, and the universal nature of the kingdom based in the promise to Abraham and the picture painted for John in Revelation 7:9-10.

Our Jesus is white and our kingdom is ruled by whites. 1

This isn’t really debatable – look at historical & contemporary white religious art; gauge our reaction to art that depicts Jesus as black (other than white). This is Cone’s point. We have made Jesus white and those depictions don’t bother us even though the portrait is inaccurate. Jesus wasn’t white. We only make that argument when someone paints Jesus as a black person, or an Hispanic person. The Vatican posted a picture on Twitter of Michelangelo’s Pieta with a black version of Jesus and received the kind of backlash that could only be seen as proof of this point.

We aren’t interested in the Abrahamic promise or the Johannine imagery, it is too diverse. We are only comfortable with the picture if it is made “whiter.”

My guess is that if you are a white person and you choose to read this book, you will have one of three reactions. First, you will put the book down in anger after the first chapter. Second, you will get defensive and plow through the book only to make a list of all the “mistakes” that Cone is making in his theology. Third, you will feel assuaged about your racism and talk about how this book is a must read but either “goes too far” or even worse say “we are making progress.”

My suggestion is that you just read it “uncritically” and let it sit with you for a time. Then read it for a second time after you have let it, maybe, force you to look at the world from a different perspective. Then read MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech and see if you/we really have made enough “progress.”

If you choose to read this book heed this warning from the foreward:

It will be evident, therefore, that this book is written primarily for the black community, not for whites. Whites may read it and to some degree render an intellectual analysis of it, but an authentic understanding is dependent on the blackness of their existence in the world. 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?” I hope that if enough whites begin to ask this question, this country will no longer be divided on the basis of color. But until then, it is the task of the Christian theologian to do theology in the light of the concreteness of human oppression as expressed in color, and to interpret for the oppressed the meaning of God’s liberation in their community.

To understand that paragraph we must understand that the black community feels that they have been asked for centuries to “hate their blackness, forcing them in order to survive to ask: “How can you become white?” and only accepting them when they conform to white theology, and white culture.

  1. I wanted to rewrite this sentence but it demonstrates my point. I simply wrote “our” and in my mind that works somehow. I still view “our” as a white audience and see blacks as “other.” That truly is the point of the book – there is such a thing as white theology and by extension a presumption of supremacy.

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