A different James Cone quote

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Though some have requested I do so, I do not think trying to unpack the nuances of black theology or black liberation theology on a blog would be constructive at this time in history – not when people browse the internet for quotes that will verify the presuppositions that they have already made. As I mentioned before, serious engagement with this material is needed before one should have the right to bring critique – as many have and should.

What is missing from quotes like this blog post has of James Cone’s book “A Black Theology of Liberation”, is not accuracy, but context. Not just the context of the larger text (with first edition published in 1970 – RUMC readers may want to especially note the forward by C. Eric Lincoln as this book came out in the “The C. Eric Lincoln Series in Black Religion”) – but also the context of the times in which such theological reflection was forged. To go a step further, any theologian worth their salt also knows that every figure in theology also has development of their thought, so that one often speaks of the “early” Luther or the “late” Wesley. Reading quotes in a vacuum that is void of all of this only perpetuates half truths, which is another word for a lie.

Please understand me. I am not one who takes any theological perspective in uncritically, and liberation theology as well as black liberation theology is not without its problems. But the larger problem is that the public square now engaging this subject matter is not prone to do so in depth and with patience. To make matters worse, white America tries to take the high road so quickly that one wonders if many have forgotten that it was whites who first aligned religion and Christianity with race – and not Africans nor African Americans. Getting angry at people of color who do so is the “pot calling the kettle …” – well, you get my point. And please don’t let me hear any more predominately white churches say “this stuff is over with” – it’s not in Durham, NC – and having dialoged extensively with clergy, students, and laity here and in other places across the nation – it is not “over with” in most other places either.

As an interesting aside – who in any of today’s historic white churches don’t associate Jesus with one of Warner Sallman’s depictions? Anyone have an idea of when these pictures replaced (or at least dwarfed in size) the crosses on the back walls of many sanctuaries? I was in one church recently that had a Sunday School wall of around 35 pictures of Jesus – all white, Anglo-Saxon depictions – nothing like a middle Eastern or Palestinian man of dark complexion. So why all the fuss about people who suggest Jesus is black? No one may know for sure the exact pigmentation of Jesus of Nazareth, but black has got to be closer than anything I grew up looking at on the wall of MOST churches.

As for James Cone and black liberation theology, this stuff is not over, and people who fear diversity of race and culture usually also fear diversity of opinion and perspective. But I would issue a word of caution to whites who take quick and easy pot-shots at black theology. Jesus’ words about logs and specks seems to apply.

And just in case someone is googling words like – black theology- James Cone – theology of liberation – black Jesus – or racist theology – here is a James Cone quote from one of my text books from Divinity School that probably won’t get nearly as much play as some of his others:

As Americans we (black, whites, Latinos, Asians, and Indians) should create a society which contributes to the well-being of all citizens, not just to the well-being of some. … Martin King was right: “The hour is late” and the “clock of destiny is ticking out.” We must declare where we stand on the great issues of our time. Racism is one of them. Poverty is another. Sexism is another. Class exploitation is another. Imperialism is another. We must break the cycle of violence in America and around the world. Human beings are meant for life and not death. They are meant for freedom and not slavery. They were created for each other and not against each other. We must, therefore, break down the barriers that separate people from one another. For Malcom and Martin, for America and the world, and for all who have given their lives in the struggle for justice, let us direct our fight toward one goal – the beloved community of humankind.
James Cone – “Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare,” p. 318)


  1. >I agree that the majority of people who hear the Cone quote mentioned in my post will not look for the context. But it’s not just laziness; it’s not obvious where to find it. That’s why I think Obama should have been a little more proactive. Fair or not, leaving it unaddressed now leaves him more vulnerable later.

  2. I am currently working on an art exhibition trying to help people understand the basics of American history that Cone and Malcolm X were responding to…I really enjoyed your post. It is rare that you see light/white skinned people who understand what is actually being said and why. I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to shed some light on the topic.

    If you would like to see some of my current work…here it is.
    http://feliciafollum.blogspot.com/search/label/African%20Americans – my blog and artworks
    https://www.facebook.com/FeliciaFollumDesign – My art Facebook page.

  3. Felicia,
    Thanks for your comment and the links. I enjoyed seeing the work you do. I haven’t had a chance to blog much these days, but hope to get back to it soon.

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