The Blackness of God: Hearing Dr. James H. Cone

[I have watched in horror over the past couple weeks at the continued violence against the black community in the United States and in Canada. In the interest of amplifying black voices, over the next week I’ll be promoting black theology past and present, with as little commentary from me as possible. May we all hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church through these powerful voices of faith.]

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s made significant legislative progress for black Americans, desegregating schools and public spaces, ensuring voting rights, and legalizing interracial marriages. But, legislation does not change hearts and minds; nor does legislation undo centuries of damage overnight. Racism, both personal and systemic, persisted. In many ways, the Civil Rights era proved both the efficacy and the limitations of non-violent direct action. This was the reality faced by the generation of black theologians that followed.

The theologian I’d like to listen to today is Dr. James H. Cone. We might say that Cone held King in one hand and the more extreme Black Power leader Malcolm X in the other. In so doing, he developed his own Black Theology of Liberation, which involved both a blistering attack on white Christianity and a strong doctrine of God’s identification with blackness.

“As a people,” he wrote in Black Theology and Black Power, “America has never intended for blacks to be free. To this day, in the eyes of most white Americans, the black man remains subhuman.” The white church, inasmuch as it has taught, promoted, and defended racist views and valued law-and-order and stability over justice, was for Cone an embodiment of evil — the very Devil himself — in the world, a devil which black Americans needed to resist in any way possible.

As such, he argues:

Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism. … The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering. … Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity (A Black Theology of Liberation, 67).

While Cone is insistent that God can only been understood through the experience of blackness, he recognizes that this experience is only tangentially related to skin color: “Being black in America has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are” (Black Theology and Black Power, 151).

Later in his career, Cone crystallized his thought — both his critique of white Christianity and his belief in God’s solidarity with the black experience — through the lens of the relationship between the Crucifixion and lynching.

By way of context, one of the ways white society maintained its domination over African Americans after emancipation was through the domestic terrorism of lynching. In the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act, thousands of black men and women were attacked by violent mobs of whites, beaten, humiliated, and publicly tortured and executed. Lynchings were often justified as a kind of crowd-sourced justice mechanism, but in truth not only did they skirt the rule of law and due process, but the mobs rarely cared if an actual crime had been committed or if they lynched the right man. Lynchings were public spectacles, with entire communities gathering around the hanging corpse to celebrate, feast, take photos, and praise God. And, lynchings often happened with the support – whether outright or winking – of the white church.

Cone came to understand this horrific phenomenon in reference to the cross:

Jesus was the “first lynchee”…He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. … When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross. … As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the reenactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. Thus, the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering — to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Before the spectacle of this cross we are called to more than contemplation and adoration. We are faced with a clear challenge: …“to take the crucified down from the cross” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree).

But, as he also reminds his readers, the lynching tree is not the last word:

The final word about black life is not death on a lynching tree but redemption in the cross – a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows. This faith empowered blacks to wrestle with trouble as Jacob wrestled with his divine opponent till daybreak, refusing to let go until he was ‘blessed’ with meaning and purpose (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 23).

Dr. James H. Cone’s theology is some of the most challenging out there, particularly to the dominant — i.e., white — expressions of Christianity in North America. He insisted that we all not only be willing to look at the church’s history in perpetuating anti-black violence, but that we do so unflinchingly and without prevarication: The white church has crucified its Lord over and over again in black bodies, and failed to see its God in the face of the marginalized and oppressed.

Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

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