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James H. Cone: Midwife of Black Theology

Black Theology is a Christian response to the persistent sin of racism that has stamped—and continues to stamp—American culture. Black Theology is more than a response to racism, however. It is also an invitation and model to see how the Gospel is always concrete, practical and prophetic.

The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, which forced the integration of public schools in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Little Rock, Ark., and beyond, opened the floodgates of hope and despair across the country. Within a decade of the Brown decision, the civil rights movement had hit its stride and the first rumblings of a Black Power movement were being heard.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
James H. Cone turned out to be midwife who assisted at the birth of Black Theology. He continues to be the most constant voice and influence among those who have nurtured Black Theology. His story mirrors the context out of which Black Theology arose and gained acceptance along with other political theologies of the 20th century.
“Political theology” results from reading the Gospel in light of current social contexts, with the explicit goal of transforming society on the basis of the Gospel. Perhaps more than any other theological development in the United States, Black Theology illustrates what happens when the Gospel is actively directed toward social change.
In 1938, the state of Arkansas was in the clutches of “separate but equal” public education that epitomized a segregated culture in the United States. Cone was born that year in a small town not far from Little Rock. He grew up in a society divided by race, and he matured in the midst of painful attempts to address and correct those injustices through appeals to the Gospel.
At 16, he was ordained in the A.M.E. Zion Church and began a life of ministry. Cone graduated from high school only two years after the pivotal Brown decision, and he was a student at Philander Smith College in Little Rock during Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to prominence as a movement leader.
By 1963, Cone had completed his basic seminary training at Garrett Theological Seminary near Chicago, and had begun work on a doctorate at Northwestern University.
He returned to his alma mater in Little Rock to teach theology. In the classroom, Cone was confronted by a wide gap between theology as mere ideas and theology as a foundation for life. Reflecting upon that confrontation in his 1975 book, God of the Oppressed, Cone wrote, “I encountered head-on the contradictions of my seminary education as I attempted to inform black students about the significance of theological discourse.”
Three years later Cone took an appointment at Adrian College, a small college near Detroit, where he saw firsthand the devastating effects of the race riots that swept Detroit, Newark and Watts. It was a turning point for Cone and a launching pad for Black Theology.
Cone gathered up his Arkansas experience, which gave him confidence in the Gospel, and began seeking to apply the hope of the Gospel to a society coming apart at the seams. Cone was deeply impressed by King’s nonviolence, but he could not shake the results of the Black Power movement.
In 1968 Cone published the first of many books laying out the principles of Black Theology. Black Theology and Black Power boldly confronted the hopes of the Gospel (following the influences of King) and the effectiveness of the more aggressive and political work of the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. The tensions between King’s nonviolence and the more aggressive influence of Malcolm X have shaped Black Theology for more than 30 years.
The content of Cone’s work makes it Christian. Without fail over the years he has explored the heart of the Gospel as “setting at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk 4:18) and challenged others to do the same. The context of Cone’s work makes it political. To hear the Gospel call of liberation is, for Cone, a summons to bear the literal good news to those who have been systematically oppressed because of the color of their skin.
The summons is also for those who have contributed to the oppression by refusing to hear the cries of the oppressed, or by remaining silent in the face of the continued sin of racism. To set free the oppressed is also to set free those who oppress.
Black Theology is a Christian response to the persistent sin of racism that has stamped—and continues to stamp—American culture. Black Theology is more than a response to racism, however. It is also an invitation and model to see how the Gospel is always concrete, practical and prophetic.
Rick Wilson is the Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity in Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts in Macon, Ga.
 Buy Wilson’s books now from Amazon.com!
 Mercer Commentary on the Bible
 Rhythms: Sermons for a Community of Faith and Learning