Introductory note by Stephanie Mitchem, President of the Association for Public Religion and Intellectual Life
With the inaugural issue of The Commons, we are reprinting a classic work from the archives of our journal CrossCurrents. This is the 1977 publication of the late James H. Cone’s (1938-2018) “Black Theology and the Black Church.” The essay was first presented as a lecture for the Black Theology Project of the Theology the Americas Conference on “Black Church and Black Community: Unity and Education for Action,” August 2-7, 1977, Atlanta, GA, and subsequently published in CrossCurrents Summer 1977 (27.2): pp. 147-156.
Even though some edges show their age, like Cone’s limited use of black women’s thought (he got better later!) and Nyerere’s Ujaama doctrine that failed, the essay raises some continuing challenges, including global connections among people of color. These international links are being reconsidered today with research about blackness and greater travel among Africans of and throughout the Diaspora. The essay also prefigures the complexities that today’s movement, Black Lives Matter, raise, especially within black communities. Simply put, Cone’s essay is dense, solid research, with a sense of timeliness 43 years later, considering today’s fights for racial and social justice that are rooted in religious ethics, such as Repairers of the Breach.
“Black Theology and the Black Church” is a brief intellectual history of black social and religious thought. The essay highlights the importance of Cone as scholar for the 21st century. We miss his voice.
Black Theology and The Black Church: Where Do We Go From Here?
by James H. Cone
Since the appearance of black theology in the late 1960’s, much has been written and said about the political involvement of the black church in black people’s historical struggle for justice in North America. Black theologians and preachers have rejected the white church’s attempt to separate love from justice and religion from politics because we are proud descendants of a black religious tradition that has always interpreted its confession of faith according to the people’s commitment to the struggle for earthly freedom. Instead of turning to Reinhold Niebuhr and John Bennett for ethical guidance in those troubled times, we searched our past for insight, strength and the courage to speak and do the truth in an extreme situation of oppression. Richard Allen, James Varick, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Henry McNeal Turner and Martin Luther King, Jr. became household names as we attempted to create new theological categories that would express our historical fight for justice.
It was in this context that the “Black Power” statement was written in July 1966 by an ad hoc National Committee of Negro Churchmen.1 The cry of Black Power by Willie Ricks and its political and intellectual development by Stokely Carmichael and others challenged the black church to move beyond the models of love defined in the context of white religion and theology. The black church was thus faced with a theological dilemma: either reject Black Power as a contradiction of Christian love (and thereby join the white church in its condemnation of Black Power advocates as un-American and unchristian), or accept Black Power as a socio-political expression of the truth of the gospel. These two possibilities were the only genuine alternatives before us, and we had to decide on whose side we would take our stand.
We knew that to define Black Power as the opposite of the Christian faith was to reject the central role that the black church has played in black people’s historical struggle for freedom. Rejecting Black Power also meant that the black church would ignore its political responsibility to empower black people in their present struggle to make our children’s future more humane than intended by the rulers in this society. Faced with these unavoidable consequences, it was not possible for any self respecting church-person to desecrate the memories of our mothers and fathers in the faith by siding with white people who murdered and imprisoned black people simply because of our persistent audacity to assert our freedom. To side with white theologians and preachers who questioned the theological legitimacy of Black Power would have been similar to siding with St. George Methodist Church against Richard Allen and the Bethelites in their struggle for independence during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We knew that we could not do that, and no amount of white theological reasoning would be allowed to blur our vision of the truth.
But to accept the second alternative and thereby locate Black Power in the Christian context was not easy. First, the acceptance of Black Power would appear to separate us from Martin Luther King, Jr., and we did not want to do that. King was our model, having creatively combined religion and politics, and black preachers and theologians respected his courage to concretize the political consequences of his confession of faith. Thus we hesitated to endorse the “Black Power” movement, since it was created in the context of the James Meredith March by Carmichael and others in order to express their dissatisfaction with King’s continued emphasis on non-violence and Christian love.2 As a result of this sharp confrontation between Carmichael and King, black theologians and preachers felt themselves caught in a terrible predicament of wanting to express their continued respect for and solidarity with King, but disagreeing with this rejection of Black Power.
Secondly, the concept of Black Power presented a problem for black theologians and preachers not only because of our loyalty to Martin Luther King, but also because many of us had been trained in white seminaries and had internalized much of white people’s definition of Christianity. While the rise and growth of independent black churches suggested that black people had a different perception of the gospel than whites, yet there was no formal theological tradition to which we could turn in order to justify our definition of Black Power as an expression of the Christian gospel. Our intellectual ideas of God, Jesus, and the Church were derived from white European theologians and their textbooks. When we speak of Christianity in theological categories, using such terms as revelation, incarnation and reconciliation, we naturally turn to people like Barth, Tillich and Bultmann for guidance and direction. But these Europeans did not shape their ideas in the social context of white racism and thus could not help us out of our dilemma. But if we intended to fight on a theological and intellectual level as a way of empowering our historical and political struggle for justice, we had to create a new theological movement, one that was derived from and thus accountable to our people’s fight for justice. To accept Black Power as Christian required that we thrust ourselves into our history in order to search for new ways to think and be black in this world. We felt the need to explain ourselves and to be understood from our own vantage point and not from the perspective and experiences of whites. When white liberals questioned this approach to theology, our response was very similar to the bluesman in Mississippi when told he was not singing his song correctly: “Look-a-heah, man, dis yere mah song, en I’ll sing it howsoevah I pleases.”3
Thus we sang our Black Power songs, knowing that the white church establishment would not smile upon our endeavors to define Christianity independently of their own definitions of the gospel. For the power of definition is a prerogative that oppressors never want to give up. Furthermore, to say that love is compatible with Black Power is one thing, but
to demonstrate this compatibility in theology and the praxis of life is another. If the reality of a thing was no more than its verbalization in a written document, the black church since 1966 would be a model of the creative integration of theology and life, faith and the struggle for justice. But we know that the meaning of reality is found only in its historical embodiment in people as structured in societal arrangements. Love’s meaning is not found in sermons or theological textbooks but rather in the creation of social structures that are not dehumanizing and oppressive. This insight impressed itself on our religious consciousness, and we were deeply troubled by the inadequacy of our historical obedience when measured by our faith claims. From 1966 to the present, black theologians and preachers, both in the church and on the streets, have been searching for new ways to confess and to live our faith in God so that the black church would not make religion the opiate of our people.
The term “Black Theology” was created in this social and religious context. It was initially understood as the theological arm of Black Power, and it enabled us to express our theological imagination in the struggle of freedom independently of white theologians. It was the one term that white ministers and theologians did not like, because, like Black Power in politics, black theology located the theological starting point in the black experience and not the particularity of the western theological tradition. We did not feel ourselves accountable to Aquinas, Luther or Calvin but to David Walker, Daniel Payne and W.E.B. DuBois. The depth and passion in which we express our solidarity with the black experience over against the western tradition led some black scholars in religion to reject theology itself as alien to the black culture.4 Others, while not rejecting theology entirely, contended that black theologians should turn primarily to African religious and philosophy in order to develop a black theology consistent with and accountable to our historical roots.5 But all of us agreed that we were living at the beginning of a new historical moment, and this required the development of a black frame of reference that many called “black theology.”
The consequence of our affirmation of a black theology led to the creation of black caucuses in white churches, a permanent ecumenical church body under the title of the National Conference of Black Church men, and the endorsement of James Forman’s “Black Manifesto.” In June 1969 at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and under the aegis of NCBC’s Theological Commission, a group of black theologians met to write a policy statement on black theology. This statement, influenced by my book, Black Theology and Black Power, which had appeared two months earlier, defined black theology as a “theology of black liberation.”6
Black theology, then, was not created in a vacuum and neither was it simply the intellectual enterprise of black professional theologians. Like our sermons and songs, black theology was born in the context of the black community as black people were attempting to make sense out of their struggle for freedom. In one sense, black theology is as old as when the first African refused to accept slavery as consistent with religion and as recent as when a black person intuitively recognizes that the confession of the Christian faith receives its meaning only in relation to political justice. Although black theology may be considered to have formally appeared only when the first book was published on it in 1969, informally, the reality that made the book possible was already present in the black experience and was found in our songs, prayers, and sermons. In these outpourings are expressed the black visions of truth, pre-eminently the certainty that we were created not for slavery but for freedom. Without this dream of freedom, so vividly expressed in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus, Malcolm, and Martin, there would be no black theology, and we would have no reason to be assembled in this place. We have come here today to plan our future and to map our strategy because we have a dream that has not been realized.
To be sure, we have talked and written about this dream. Indeed, every Sunday morning black people gather in our churches, to find out where we are in relation to the actualization of our dream. The black church community really believes that where there is no vision the people perish. If people have no dreams they will accept the world as it is and will not seek to change it. Τo dream is to know what is ain’t suppose to be. No one in our time expressed this eschatological note more clearly than Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “March on Washington” address in 1963 he said: “I have a dream that one day my four children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And the night before his death in 1968, he reiterated his eschatological vision: “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
What visions do we have for the people in 1977? Do we still believe with Martin King that “we as a people will get to the promised land”? If so, how will we get there? Will we get there simply by preaching sermons and singing songs about it? What is the black church doing in order to actualize the dreams that it talks about? These are hard questions, and they are not intended as a put-down of the black church. I was born in the black church in Bearden, Arkansas, and began my ministry in that church at the early age of sixteen. Everything I am as well as what I know that I ought to be was shaped in the context of the black church. Indeed, it is because I love the church that I am required, as one of its theologians and preachers, to ask: When does the black church’s actions deny its faith? What are the activities in our churches that should not only be rejected as unchristian but also exposed as demonic? What are the evils in our church and community that we should commit ourselves to destroy?” Bishops, pastors, and church executives do not like to disclose the wrong-doings of their respective denominations. They are like doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who seem bound to keep silent, because to speak the truth is to guarantee one’s exclusion from the inner dynamics of power in the profession. But I contend that the faith of the black church lays a claim upon all church people that transcends the social mores of a given profession. Therefore, to cover-up and to minimize the sins of the church is to guarantee its destruction as a community of faith, committed to the liberation of the oppressed. If we want the black church to live beyond our brief histories and thus to serve as the “Old Ship of Zion” that will carry the people home to freedom, then we had better examine the direction in which the ship is going. Who is the Captain of the Ship, and what are his economic and political interests? This question should not only be applied to bishops, but to pastors and theologians, deacons and stewards. Unless we are willing to apply the most severe scientific analysis to our church communities in terms of economics and politics and are willing to confess and repent of our sins in the struggle for liberation, then the black church, as we talk about it, will remain a relic of history and nothing more. God will have to raise up new instruments of freedom so that his faithfulness to liberate the poor and weak can be realized in history. We must not forget that God’s Spirit will use us as her instrument only insofar as we remain agents of liberation by using our resources for the empowerment of the poor and weak. But if we, like Israel in the Old Testament, forget about our Exodus experience and the political responsibility it lays upon us to be the historical embodiment of freedom, then, again like Israel, we will become objects of God’s judgment. It is very easy for us to expose the demonic and oppressive character of the white church, and I have done my share of that. But such exposures of the sins of the white church, without applying the same criticism to ourselves, is hypocritical and serves as a camouflage of our own shortcomings and sins. Either we mean what we say about liberation or we do not. If we mean it, the time has come for an inventory in terms of the authenticity of our faith as defined by the historical commitment of the black denominational churches toward liberation.
I have lectured and preached about the black church’s involvement in our liberation struggle all over North America. I have told the stories of Richard Allen and James Varick, Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King. I have talked about the double-meaning in the Spirituals, the passion of the sermon and prayer, the ecstasy of the shout and conversion experience in terms of an eschatological happening in the lives of people, empowering them to fight for earthly freedom. Black theology, I have contended, is a theology of liberation, because it has emerged out of and is accountable to a black church that has always been involved in our historical fight for justice. When black preachers and laypeople hear this message, they respond enthusiastically and with a sense of pride that they belong to a radical and creative tradition. But when I speak to young blacks in colleges and universities, most are surprised that such a radical black church tradition really exists. After hearing about David Walker’s “Appeal” in 1829, Henry H. Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves” in 1843, and Henry M. Turner’s affirmation that “God is a Negro” in 1898, these young blacks are shocked. Invariably they ask, “Whatever happened to the black churches of today?” “Why don’t we have the same radical spirit in our preachers and churches?” Young blacks contend that the black churches of today, with very few exceptions, are not involved in liberation but primarily concerned about how much money they raise for a new church building or the preacher’s anniversary.
This critique of the black church is not limited to the young college students. Many black people view the church as a hindrance to black liberation, because black preachers and church members appear to be more concerned about their own institutional survival than the freedom of poor people in their communities. “Historically,” many radical blacks say, “the black church was involved in the struggle but today it is not.” They often turn the question back upon me, saying: “All right, granted what you say about the historical black church, but where is an institutional black church denomination that still embodies the vision that brought it into existence? Are you saying that the present day ΑΜΕ Church or ΑΜΕ Zion Church has the same historical commitment for justice that it had under the leadership of Allen and Payne or Rush and Varick?” Sensing that they have a point difficult to refute, these radicals then say that it is not only impossible to find a black church denomination committed to black liberation but also difficult to find a local congregation that defines its ministry in terms of the needs of the oppressed and their liberation.
Whatever we might think about the unfairness of this severe indictment, we would be foolish to ignore it. For connected with this black critique is our international image. In the African context, not to mention Asia and Latin America, the black church experiences a similar credibility problem. There is little in our theological expressions and church practice that rejects American capitalism or recognizes its oppressive character in Third World countries. The time has come for us to move beyond institutional survival in a capitalistic and racist society and begin to take more seriously our dreams about a new heaven and a new earth. Does this dream include capitalism or is it a radically new way of life more consistent with African socialism as expressed in the Arusha Declaration in Tanzania?
Black theologians and church people must now move beyond a mere reaction to white racism in America and begin to extend our vision of a new socially constructed humanity for the whole inhabited world. We must be concerned with the quality of human life not only in the ghettoes of American cities but also in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Since humanity is one, and cannot be isolated into racial and national groups, there will be no freedom for anyone until there is freedom for all. This means that we must enlarge our vision by connecting it with that of other oppressed peoples so that together all the victims of the world might take charge of their history for the creation of a new humanity. As Frantz Fanon taught us: if we wish to live up to our people’s expectations, we must look beyond European and American capitalism. Indeed, “we must invent and we must make discoveries. . . . For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new [humanity].”8
New times require new concepts and methods. To dream is not enough. We must come down from the mountain top and experience the hurts and pain of the people in the valley. Our dreams need to be socially analyzed, for without scientific analysis they will vanish into the night. Furthermore, social analysis will test the nature of our commitment to the dreams we preach and sing about. This is one of the important principles we learned from Martin King and many black preachers who worked with him. Real substantial change in societal structures requires scientific analysis. King’s commitment to social analysis not only characterized his involvement in the civil rights movement but also led him to take a radical stand against the war in Vietnam. Through scientific analysis, King saw the connection between the oppression of blacks in the U.S.A. and America’s involvement in Vietnam. It is to his credit that he never allowed a pietistic faith in the other world to become a substitute for good judgment in this. He not only preached sermons about the promised land but concretized his vision with a political attempt to actualize his hope.
I realize, with Merleau-Ponty, that “one does not become a revolutionary through science but through indignation.”9 Every revolution needs its Rosa Parks. This point has often been overlooked by Marxists and other sociologists who seem to think that all answers are found in scientific analysis. Mao Tse-tung responded to such an attitude with this comment: “There are people who think that Marxism is a kind of magic truth with which one can cure any disease. We should tell them that dogmas are more useless than cow dung. Dung can be used as fertilizer.”10
But these comments do not disprove the truth of the Marxists’ social analysis which focuses on economics and class and is intended as empowerment for the oppressed to radically change human social arrangements. Such an analysis will help us to understand the relation between economics and oppression not only in North America but throughout the world. Liberation is not a process limited to black-white relations in the United States; it is also something to be applied to the relations between rich and poor nations. If we are an African people, as some of the names of our churches suggest, in what way are we to understand the political meaning of that identity? In what way does the economic investment of our church resources reflect our commitment to Africa and other oppressed people in the world? For if an economic analysis of our material resources does not reveal our commitment to the process of liberation, how can we claim that the black church and its theology are concerned about the freedom of oppressed peoples? As an Argentine peasant poet said:
They say that God cares for the poor
Well this may be true or not,
But I know for a fact
That he dines with the mine-owner.11
Because the Christian church has supported the capitalists, many Marxists contend that “all revolutions have clashed with Christianity because historically Christianity has been structurally counter-revolutionary.”12 We may rightly question this assertion and appeal to the revolutionary expressions of Christianity in the black religious tradition, from Nat Turner to Martin Luther King. My concern, however, is not to debate the fine points of what constitutes revolution, but to open up the reality of the black church experience and its revolutionary potential to a world con text. This means that we can learn from people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and they can learn from us. Learning from others involves listening to creative criticism; to exclude such criticism is to isolate ourselves from world politics, and this exclusion makes our faith nothing but a reflection of our economic interests. If Jesus Christ is more than a religious expression of our economic and sexist interests, then there is no reason to resist the truth of the Marxist and feminist analyses.
I contend that black theology is not afraid of truth from any quarter. We simply reject the attempt of others to tell us what truth is without our participation in its definition. That is why dogmatic Marxists seldom succeed in the black community, especially when the dogma is filtered through a brand of white racism not unlike that of the capitalists. If our long history of struggle has taught us anything, it is that if we are to be free, we black people will have to do it. Freedom is not a gift but is a risk that must be taken. No one can tell us what liberation is and how we ought to struggle for it, as if liberation can be found in words. Liberation is a process to be located and understood only in an oppressed community struggling for freedom. If there are people in and outside our community who want to talk to us about this liberation process in global terms and from Marxist and other perspectives, we should be ready to talk. But only if they are prepared to listen to us and we to them will genuine dialog take place. For I will not listen to anybody who refuses to take racism seriously, especially when they themselves have not been victims of it. And they should listen to us only if we are prepared to listen to them in terms of the particularity of oppression in their historical context.
Therefore, I reject dogmatic Marxism that reduces every contradiction to class analysis and thus ignores racism as a legitimate point of departure in the process of liberation. There are racist Marxists as there are racist capitalists, and we must struggle against both. But we must be careful not to reject the Marxist’s social analysis simply because we do not like the vessels that the message comes in. If we do that, then it is hard to explain how we can remain Christians in view of the white vessels in which the gospel was first introduced to black people.
The world is small. Both politically and economically, our freedom is connected with the struggles of oppressed peoples throughout the world. This is the truth of Pan-Africanism as represented in the life and thought of W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore, and C.L.R. James. Liberation knows no color bar; the very nature of the gospel is universalism, i.e., a liberation that embraces the whole of humanity.
The need for a global perspective, which takes seriously the struggles of oppressed peoples in other parts of the world, has already been recognized in black theology, and small beginnings have been made with conferences on African and black theologies in Tanzania, New York, and Ghana. Another example of the recognition of this need is reflected in the dialogue between black theology in South Africa and North America. From the very beginning black theology has been influenced by a world perspective as defined by Henry M. Turner, Marcus Garvey, and the Pan-Africanism inaugurated in the life and work of W.E.B. DuBois. The importance of this Pan-African perspective in black religion and theology has been cogently defended in Gayraud Wilmore’s Black Religion and Black Radicalism. Our active involvement in the “Theology in the Americas,” under whose aegis this conference is held, is an attempt to enlarge our perspective in relation to Africa, Asia, and Latin America as well as to express our solidarity with other oppressed minorities in the U.S.
This global perspective in black theology enlarges our vision regarding the process of liberation. What does black theology have to say about the fact that two-thirds of humanity is poor and that this poverty arises from the exploitation of the poor nations by rich nations? The people of the U.S. A. compose 6% of the world’s population, but we consume 40% of the world resources. What, then, is the implication of the black demand for justice in the U.S. when related to justice for all the world’s victims? Of the dependent status we experience in relation to white people, and the experience of Third World countries in relation to the U.S.? Thus, in our attempt to liberate ourselves from white America in the U.S., it is important to be sensitive to the complexity of the world situation and the oppressive role of the U.S. in it. African, Latin American, and Asian theologians, sociologists and political scientists can aid us in the analysis of this complexity. In this analysis, our starting point in terms of racism is not negated but enhanced when connected with imperialism and sexism.
We must create a global vision of human liberation and include in it the distinctive contribution of the black experience. We have been struggling for nearly 400 years! What has that experience taught us that would be useful in the creation of a new historical future for all oppressed peoples? And what can others teach us from their historical experience in the struggle for justice? This is the issue that black theology needs to address. “Theology in the Americas” provides a framework in which to address it. I hope that we will not back off from this important task but face it with courage, knowing that the future of humanity is in the hands of oppressed peoples, because God has said: “Those that hope in me shall not be put to shame” (Is. 49:23).
- This statement first appeared in the New York Times, July 31, 1966 and is reprinted in Warner Traynham’s Christian Faith in Black and White (Wakefield, Mass.: Parameter, 1973).
- For an account of the rise of the concept of Black Power in the Civil Rights Movement, see Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Black Liberation (New York: Random House). For Martin King’s viewpoint, see his “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
- Cited in Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 207.
- This is especially true of Charles Long who has been a provocative discussant about black theology. Unfortunately, he has not written much about this viewpoint. The only article I know on this subject is his “Perspectives for a Study of Afro-American Religion in the United States,” History of Religions, Vol. 11, #1, August 1971.
- The representatives of this perspective include Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism (New York: Doubleday, 1972), and my brother, Cecil W. Cone, Identity Crisis in Black Theology (Nashville: AMEC 1976).
- This statement was issued on June 13, 1969 and is also reprinted in Warner Traynham, op. cit..
- See Julius Nyerere, Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (Dar es salaam: Oxford University Press, 1968).
- Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1966), p. 256.
- Cited in Jose Miguez Bonino, Christians and Marxists (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 76.
- Cited in George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism (New York: Anchor Books, 1972), p. 323.
- Cited in Bonino, Christians and Marxists, p. 71.
- A quotation from Giulio Girardi, cited in Bonino, Christians and Marxists, p. 71.
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