In honor of the Rev. James Cone, this is the perfect time to rediscover Black liberation theology—unfiltered, through his own words. Cone, the scholar who founded and framed the interpretation of theology rooted in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement died on Saturday at age 79.
“To say his death leaves a void is a staggering understatement. His prophetic voice, deep kindness, and fierce commitment to black liberation embodied not just the very best of our seminary, but of the theological field as a whole and of American prophetic thought and action,” said Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary where Cone was a faculty member since 1969.
Cone authored several stunning revolutionary works: Black Theology And Black Power (1969), A Black Theology of Liberation (1970) and God of the Oppressed (1975). Drawing inspiration from civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Cone challenged the dominant White theological paradigm. He argued that God identified with African Americans, and in general with the poor and weak in society.
“It is ironic that America, with its history of injustice to the poor, especially the black man and the Indian, prides itself on being a Christian nation,” he wrote in Black Theology and Black Power, reflecting on the Black experience in the United States.
That critical view of America continued in his later works.
“The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. Both are symbols of the death of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation, and terror. They both also reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning and demonstrate that God can transform ugliness into beauty, into God’s liberating presence,” Cone wrote in his 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
Here’s how Cone explained Black liberation theology:
In 1971, he spoke at a seminar on Black theology and Black power.
Here, he appears at the 38th Trinity Institute National Theological Conference.
And in April 2017, Cone spoke at Yale Divinity School about Black theology and Black power.
His ideas inspired other Black theologians. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, President Barack Obama’s former minister, is a proponent of Black liberation theology. Wright ignited a national debate when his 2003 sermon surfaced during Obama’s first presidential campaign. Wright blamed continued racism in America for the problems that Black people face. “No, no, no, not God bless America! God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people,” he said to thunderous applause.