James Cone: A Theology of Liberation

James H. Cone (1938-2018) is often called the founder of black theology. What Gustavo Gutierrez is to Latin America, Cone tried to become to North America. The debt that Cone owes to Gutierrez is plain from the first lines of his book, A Black Theology of Liberation. [1] Cone was born in Arkansas, educated at Shorter and Philander Smith Colleges, went to Garrett-Smith Theological Seminary, and then to Northwestern University in Chicago, where he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the theological anthropology of Karl Barth. He taught theology and religion at Philander Smith College, Adrian College, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he held the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology.

In the Tradition of Liberation Theology

Cone begins A Black Theology of Liberation with a definition of theology that cements his place in the tradition Gutierrez started. “Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ.” [2] For Cone, as for Gutierrez and others, the central Biblical event which gives rise to their theology is the liberation of the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Underlying their theological movement is a particular reading of the events of the Pentateuch.

The Importance of the Exodus Story

Cone begins his analysis by quoting Exodus:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession (Exodus 19-4-5).

His analysis of the passage is revealing of his hermeneutic. “By delivering this people from Egyptian bondage and inaugurating the covenant on the basis of that historical event, God is revealed as the God of the oppressed, involved in their history, involved in liberating them from human bondage. [3]

While others in the movement deal with the Exodus in detail, Cone jumps in at the end of the story defining the meaning of the story as the revelation of the God of Liberation. The story of how the tribes of Israel ended up in Egypt, the divine prophecy of their captivity, and the faithfulness of God to his promise to Israel, all these elements are submerged in the choice of liberation itself as the story’s central feature.

Interestingly, there is very little evidence that Israel had such a foreshortened interpretation of the story. For Israel, it was the story of God’s steadfast love for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their heirs, the story of God’s choice of Israel out of all the nations as his treasured possession, and of God’s liberation of Israel and placement of Israel in the Promised Land despite their unworthiness and disobedience.

The Practical Importance of the Exodus Narrative

This is not to say that the story of God’s liberating power is without its importance in the story itself and to Israel and other people trapped in captivity. One story from my pastoral career may help a reader understand the story’s importance to black Christians. My first pastorate was in a small southern town that was poor and mostly black. The history and consequences of racism were a present reality. A local farmer began a ministry to the High School that was very deliberately integrated. Given the fact that the community and high school were majority black, the ministry itself was as well.

One of the challenges of the ministry was engaging pastors across racial lines to become involved. The ministry was very much like any high school youth group; there was an annual retreat, a weekly meeting, and plenty of food for hungry teenagers. Generally, the farmer and his wife led the Bible study, but that was not always the case. In the community, an older back CME pastor agreed to become involved. Naturally, we became friends. One feature of his leadership in the ministry and community was his always amazing ability to preach on demand and without much notice.

Over five years, I became familiar with his preaching style. We even exchanged pulpits and did Thanksgiving services together. Of all the sermons he preached during those years, the sermons that involved the Exodus were clearly the most memorable. He used the Exodus passages to talk about captivity to sin, drugs, sexual morality, and various social and spiritual evils. He used the Exodus story to discuss racism and God’s power to change our community. He used the story as a warning not to end up down in Egypt in the first place.

Whenever he spoke from Exodus, there was a special power in his preaching, for he was speaking not just from his own experience but also from the experience of his people. Cone’s use of the Exodus story and its use by others in the same theological tradition is unsurprising. It is a deep part of the Black American experience from slavery to today.

The Existential Component

While Cone is careful to speak in Biblical Terms, on the whole, he is critical of the history of theology, which he conceives as a negative factor, and the activities of the churches, which he sees as facilitating racism. In discussing the role of the churches in eliminating slavery, he highlights how faith was used to justify slavery without giving due credit to the fact that the entire anti-slavery movement was powered by Christians who opposed slavery on religious grounds.

Most of his theological discussion is an attempt to bring traditional Christian faith, and especially the faith of oppressed minorities, into dialogue with existential theology as reflected by the so-called “theologians of crisis” Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Brunner, all of whom were impacted by Kierkegaard and Heidegger. He emphasizes revelation’s role in self-understanding, self-awareness, and self-authenticity among the oppressed and those who would help them. [4] Conversely, he is critical of Bultmann’s attempt to release the Christian faith from history. [5] On the whole, Cone wants to prevent the Christian faith from being merely an intellectual endeavor cut off from action to bring justice to society. In so doing, he wants to continue to find a place for history—the history of human liberation by the gospel.

Doing Away with the White God

Cone begins his analysis of language about God with the observation that Black Theology assumes the reality of God. That is to say, Cone’s analysis begins in faith and moves in faith to critique existing “white” theology. [6] In his view, to be certain that black theology achieves its purpose of liberating the black (and white) community from embedded racism, it is important to break with any traditional speech about God that would prevent this movement from achieving its goal. [7] What Cone is after is to remove distorted ideas about the nature of God and the purposes of God, which he believes infects traditional “white” theology.

There are parts of this endeavor with which any thinking Christian must agree. To the extent that dominant theological groups have distorted the ideas and notions concerning the person of God, it cannot be wrong to point out these distortions. Such attempts do the church a favor by cleansing it of false ideas.

On the other hand, Cone too frequently misses the fact that much of the orthodox consensus of the church was the work of persons of Middle Eastern (The Cappadocian Fathers and many others) and African heritage (Augustine). The ecumenical consensus of the past was not the work of “white Europeans.” In fact, Europe was shaped and formed by non-White, non-Europeans.

Jesus Christ in Black Theology

For Cone, as for most Christian theology, the character and person of Christ are at the center of theology and faith. Once again, though, Cone is not interested in Christ as an abstraction but as a reality that confronts racism and oppression in all its forms. [8] Black theology, says Cone, does not agree with the radical views of Bultmann and those who say we can know nothing about the historical Jesus. Instead, black theology wishes to ground itself in the Biblical revelation of Christ, the Oppressed One who is afflicted and oppressed and identifies himself with the afflicted and oppressed. [9] Cone observes that in this birth, in his life, and in his death, Jesus was constantly in solidarity with the oppressed—and constantly at war with their oppressors.

Since Cone believes that Black Liberation Theology demands a Black God, it will not surprise anyone that a Black Jesus is an essential element for Christology:”

Now, what does this mean for blacks in America today? How are they to interpret the christological significance of the Resurrected One in such a way that this person will be existentially relevant to their oppressed condition? The black community is an oppressed community primarily because of its blackness; hence the christological importance of Jesus, must be found in his blackness. If he is not black as we are, then the resurrection has little significance for our time. Indeed, if he cannot be what we are, we cannot be who he is. Our being with him is dependent on his being with us in the oppressed, black condition, revealing to us what is necessary for our liberation. [10]

A bit of interpretation is needed to understand his point sympathetically.

Cone rejects the view that we can know nothing about Jesus. He rejects a Christ that is not embedded and active in history. On the other hand, Cone has an existentialist view of the importance of Jesus as reflected in the concrete situation of people. For those who are oppressed, this means seeing Jesus as present with them and identifying with people in their oppression. Since it is important for oppressed people to see Christ as their liberator, for the black community, Jesus must be black. I do not think that Cone would indicate that this is a physical thing. It is a spiritual matter that Jesus us black, just as Jesus is present in all cultures.

Some years ago, I was given a series of pictures of Jesus, as various ethnic groups render him. In the Orient, Jesus is sometimes pictured as Oriental. In the Middle East, he is sometimes pictured as Middle Eastern.  In Latin America, Jesus is sometimes pictured as Latin American. From Sunday school, some of us remember a picture in which Jesus that had blue eyes and brownish blonde hair. The historical Jesus probably looked little like any of these renderings. One of the interesting features of the Gospels is that they do not give us any description of the physical Jesus. This may be quite intentional since the Gospels were missionary documents, just like the rest of the New Testament. It was the intention of Christ that he should be available to any ethnic group, for his gospel was to be preached to the entire world (Matthew 28: 16-20).

The Anthropology of Black Liberation

In addition to believing that traditional ideas about God are warped in “white theology,” Cone believes that a true picture of humanity is hidden and obscured, especially in fundamentalist and highly rigid traditionalist circles. [11] This observation leads Cone into what I think is the most suspect part of his analysis, but one that contains some degree of truth. In the context of the suffering and prejudice endured by the black community, Cone believes that this suffering is a kind of “revelation” ignored by fundamentalists, Barthians, and theological liberals alike. [12] For Cone, God in Christ Jesus meets oppressed people with a message of what they must do in order to achieve liberation from oppression. [13]

Cone is suspicious of any attempt to create an idealized humanity separate from the reality of human beings in particular. In a memorable passage, he states:

Secondly, black theology is suspicious of those who appealed to a universal, ideal humanity. Oppressors are ardent lovers of humanity. They can love all persons in general, even black persons, because intellectually they can put blacks in the category called Humanity. With this perspective, they can participate in civil rights and help blacks purely on the premise that they are part of a universal category. But when it comes to dealing with particular blacks, statistics transformed into black encounter, they are at a loss. They remind me of Dostoyevsky’s doctor, who said, “I love humanity, but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity, in general, the less I love men in particular.” [14]

Cone wants us to see is that the love of Christ is not the love of an abstract category called, Humanity. It is the love of concrete human persons whom God places in our lives. When human beings profess their love for humanity but do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed, they are not living in faith, whatever their profession, they are living self-absorbed, irresponsible lives. [15]


Cone is often critiqued for his angry language and tendency to overstate his case. Having lived in the area where Cone was born, I think it is important to remember that he was born and reached maturity long before the Civil Rights Movement made the entry of black Americans into the mainstream of society easy. He lived and experienced the raw edges of racial prejudice and segregation. I think he can be forgiven for his tendency to speak in angry and overstated ways.  His views are part of a broader tendency of late modern, post-Viet Nam critique of American society with its attraction to revolutionary tactics to change perceived unjust social realities. While not agreeing with all of his language, Cone is pleading to see beyond the religion and morals of mid-century, middle-class, white, bourgeoisie American society. His notion of a black God and a black Christ can and should be seen as an attempt to overcome any idolatry by which any racial, ethnic, or cultural group seeks to glorify itself and oppress others. At least, this is what I think Cone meant in his work.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1986, 1990).

[2] Id, at 1.

[3] Id, at 2.

[4] Id, at 53.

[5] Id, at 54.

[6] Id, at 55.

[7] Id, at 61.

[8] Id, at 110.

[9] Id, at 113.

[10] Id, at 120.

[11] Id, at 82-83.

[12] Id, at 84-85.

[13] Id.

[14] Id, at 85

[15] Id, at 95