God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1975. 300 pp)
James H. Cone is the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. Cone earned his B.A. from Philander Smith College, his M.Div. from Garrett Theological Seminary and later, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Northwestern University. Known as the founder of black liberation theology, Dr. Cone has won the American Black Achievement Award, the Martin E. Marty Award for Public Understanding of Religion, and the Eliza Garrett Distinguished Service Award. He is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church .
Isolation at Thanksgiving
Do you remember early Thanksgiving dinners at the kid’s table? The feeling of being there but not being included? The adults merrily cavort with satiated belly and strong drink. The children sit, staring at the minimally touched food, imagining a future date where such revelry applies to them.
In these instances, a stark contrast exists between groups even though everyone’s family. The child is included in the miasma, but is not part of the festivities.
As a young white male, I can’t help but feel this way about Cone’s God of the Oppressed. I don’t qualify for the theology, and my opinion on the matter doesn’t count. I can only accept what I hear and sit at the kid’s table. Anything more is exerting my power as a white male.
God of the Oppressed makes a theological case for a God of liberation. Much like the work of Gustavo Guitérrez, Cone argues for a God that sides with the poor in opposition to the powerful and rich.
“In all roles the theologian is committed to that form of existence arising from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He knows that the death of the man on the tree has radical implications for those who are enslaved, lynched, and ghettoized in the name of God and country” (9).
Historically and politically, Cone believes the narrative of Scripture aligns with the poor. The Israel of Scripture is a marginalized community. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus occur in a political setting and speak against the traditional forms of power in that era.
For this reason, Cone makes a particular connection to his context and his cultural setting. In short, the context for African American people in the United States is similar to the plight of the Jews in First Century Palestine.
“It is on the basis of the soteriological meaning of the particularity of his Jewishness that theology must affirm the Christological significance of Jesus’ present blackness. He is black because he was a Jew” (134).
Cone does not argue this point to make a literal claim that Jesus’ historical lineage derives from African roots. Instead, Cone urges us all to consider the links between the God of Scripture, the life of Jesus, and the overarching theological narrative. God never leaves the oppressed alone and caught in the snares of the powerful; God unites with the poor.
Therefore, because the African American experience is one of marginalization and disinheritance, Jesus sides with African Americans against the dominant white societal norm.
In summary, then, since the God of Scripture acts in accompaniment with the poor, downtrodden, and marginalized, African Americans possess a distinct right—a unique role—in defining theology and the role of the gospel in culture. Or in other words, black theologians need not submit to the systematic theologies of the dominant and oppressive culture.
So What of Absolutes?
As an onlooker, I can’t help but raise a few questions. Not because I believe Cone has completely missed the mark—a God of liberation is certainly a central motif in the biblical narrative—but because I think it is interesting to ponder application.
First off, what role does absolute truth play in this theological equation? Cone shapes his theology specifically through the lens of his context and his culture. Since I do not live in his context or culture, yet I believe humanity ought to live under some agreed guidelines, does Cone’s position provide these possibilities?
Cone, however, rejects this form of universalism. For Cone, any belief or theology can never escape the grounding of its positions. In fact, universalism is itself, a belief and position of the dominant culture.
“Any theology, therefore, that fails to accept the finitude of its categories, speaking instead as if it knows the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is guilty of blasphemy, that is, of an ideological distortion of divine reality” (96).
Cone believes any position attempting to cover all of humanity is guilty of overextending its reach, forcing the ideas of one person on another.
Is there a Role for Reconciliation?
Second, I wonder what role reconciliation plays in this dialogue. It’s evident that whites need to recognize the many ills inflicted on African Americans and certain reparations ought to be instituted. Even more, there ought to be constant work against the many forms of institutionalized racism that continue to place African Americans behind the eight ball in life. How can we work toward unity?
Again, Cone refuses to let white theologians set their terms. For Cone, this form of reconciliation just means black people accepting a toothless apology from white people so everything can return to the norm.
Not so fast, says Cone:
“Reconciliation is not only justification, God’s righteous deliverance of slaves from bondage; it is sanctification, the slaves’ acceptance of their new way of life, their refusal to define existence in any other way than in freedom” (233).
In other words, reconciliation needs to be more than the acceptance of an apology; it requires hard work for African Americans to earn the liberation from the oppressive systems; it means an entire reworking of what it means to live in society and white people do not get to control these terms.
In fact, Cone writes of white people willing to engage with his theories:
“But white converts, if there are any to be found, must be made to realize that they are like babies who have barely learned how to walk and talk. Thus they must be told when to speak and what to say, otherwise they will be excluded from our struggle” (242).
No Place at the Table
Just like the young ones littered around the children’s table at a Thanksgiving feast, white people need to return to a state of youthful innocence, letting people like Cone set the terms for a new theology based on liberation.
God of the Oppressed is a difficult read and can be hard to stomach. I appreciate getting to know the position of the seminal thinker in American theology. But I don’t know what else I can say—I’m not allowed at the table.
Verdict: 4 out of 5