This weekend the world experienced the transition of one of the great theologians of the 20th century. James. H. Cone was the father of Black Liberation Theology and a major influence on all subsequent liberation theologies. While all liberation theology engages a hermeneutic of suspicion, the work of James Cone taught us a hermeneutic of hunger. A hermeneutic of suspicion begins by suspecting every text, every tradition, in terms of its legitimizing role in promoting the domination of the particular tradition. The hermeneutic of hunger suggests that the Bible is read as the answer to what oppression, illness, lack of education, and apathy inflict on human beings (Soelle 2001). The experience of being oppressed by gender, race, or poverty does not limit the theology that emerges to women, people of color, or the poor. Rather, the particular experience of oppression(s) brings into sharper focus what one asserts the heart of the gospel truly to be for one’s own time (McFague 1987). All liberation theology belongs to a branch of religious thought that claims that theology should be done from the purview of the poor and oppressed (Perez 2007). Dr. Cone not only taught us that the Gospel is Universal, but that it is also particular and those particularities matter.
Black Liberation Theology analyzes the condition of Blackness in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ both to create a new understanding of Black dignity among Black people and to provide the necessary soul in that people to destroy racism (Cone 1997). Black theology recognizes that God, through Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, works with the poor as they learn to love themselves enough to practice their total freedom and create full humanity on earth as it is in heaven (Hopkins 1999). In the larger history of Christian theological reflection, Black Liberation theology has endeavored to give substance and systemic expression to a theological perspective that sees the work of salvation in the broadest of terms (Warnock 2014). Built largely on the Hebrew scriptures narrative of the Exodus and the Gospel’s account of the person and work of Jesus, Black Liberation theology establishes a theological foundation for the complete emancipation of Black people from white oppression by whatever means Black people deem necessary (Cone 1997).
An ethic of liberation arises out of love for ourselves and for humanity. This is the essential ingredient of liberation without which the struggle turns into a denial of what Divine liberation means (Williams 1993). For the Black Liberation theologian, the fundamental act of God, the doing and ethics of God, is Divine liberation for all humanity. Earthly emancipation for those in bondage, both spiritual and material bondage, must operate in a co-constitutive fashion (Kornegay 2013).
While Cone’s work lifts the Exodus motif in ways I personally find troubling, without a doubt his contribution to the world brings a fuller understanding to the nature of the Divine, and the person and work of Jesus. As a constructive theologian with a liberative lens I see the contemporary moment as calling us to move beyond the Exodus motif to the Exile motif. The exodus motif brings with it the idea of a chosen people. This is problematic in that for Black people in America that would mean one group is chosen over another. For white America that means God leaves them for the Black slave community. The chosen people narrative has failed this nation miserably. The exile motif, on the other hand, promises a God who is with and gives Black people the freedom to claim and name God differently than the Eurocentric God given during the ravages of slavery. God’s response to the Hagar story in the Hebrew scriptures is not liberation. God participates in Hagar’s and her child’s survival (Williams 1993). The exile motif demands that both the robes of academe and the pulpit work together to frame a theology that accounts for the identity of all the Kindom (intentionally used, as per womanist terminology) of God.
What will your theological voice call for in this moment? As we consider this moment when the baton is passing and one of our luminaries has joined the great cloud of witnesses, what will be your contribution to this generation? Have you said anything that will help light the path of those around you or behind you?
The task of theology is to critique and revise the language of the church. This includes not only the language of uttered speech but also the language of radical involvement in the world (Cone 1997).
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Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Cone, James. 1997. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Hopkins, Dwight N. 1999. Introducing Black theology of Liberaton . Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Kornegay, El. 2013. A Queering of Black Theology: James Baldwin’s Blues Project and Gospel Prose. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
McFague, Sallie. 1987. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Perez, Joe. 2007. Soulfully Gay: How Harvard, Sex, Drugs, and Integral Philosophy Drove Me Crazy and Brought Me Back to God. Boston & London: Integral Books.
Soelle, Dorothee. 2001. The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Warnock, Raphael G. 2014. The Divided Mind of the Black Church:Theology, Piety, and Public Witness. New York: New York University Press.
Williams, Delores S. 1993. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God- Talk. MaryKnoll: Orbis Books.