James Cone and #BlackLivesMatter

I recently read James Cone’s God of the Oppressed for a course I am doing with Pilgrim Theological College. Through that process I continued to be struck by the how Cone’s work remains incisively relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement, and how, 40 years ago, Cone was already having to deal with that most frustratingly oblivious retort, “all lives matter”.

During my reading I also came across a blog from Daniel Jose Camacho who wrote about his experience of taking to the streets as part of a Black Lives Matter protest carrying a sign saying, “James Cone was right”. What struck me was that Camacho was out in the streets for much the same reason that Cone wrote his most influential work: the continued perpetration of (and silence in response to) the violent oppression of Black Americans. However, to say “James Cone was right” is not solely limited to Cone’s identification of problems facing the political and theological landscape. Within the claim there is the identification of a connection between much of the Black Lives Matter movement and Cone’s theological enterprise. This is a connection with Cone, who criticised “White theologians” for their unwillingness to address the oppression of Black Americans, and built a dialectic theology between the Black experience and “the revelation of God in Christ as the Liberator of the oppressed from social oppression and to political struggle, wherein the poor recognise that their fight against poverty and injustice is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ”(74,75).

This connection is most apparent within a particular criticism of Black Theology addressed by Cone in 1975, which mirrors and speaks to the contemporary “all lives matter” criticism leveled at the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the chapter The Meaning of Liberation, Cone writes about being accused of undervaluing the internal struggles and existential crises that afflict both the oppressed and oppressors alike. Where do those who received a cancer diagnosis, battle alcoholism, or are weighed down by clinical depression fit in the liberative work of God? I do not doubt that Cone’s theology could be extended to talk about these struggles, which are in their own way a kind of oppression. So why is this not the focus of Cone’s work? Why does Cone continually return to a God revealed in the struggle for liberation from concrete structures of oppression? (35) Cone has his reasons. First, he is determined to correct the imbalance in Western (white) theology, which has mostly ignored the concrete, socio-political structural oppression faced by Black Americans in preference for dealing with internal, individual sin (42-49, 72). Second, Cone discusses that whilst it is true that “all are oppressed” it is inaccurate to equate “suburban loneliness” with “physical oppression derived from unjust social structures” (136, 137). By doing so, the theologian, if white (and lets face it, then and now, most are… a sorry fact that my continued study doesn’t help), may well be trying to justify the comfort of the status quo and ignore the implications of a God on the side of those oppressed by racism and violence. The phrase “all are oppressed” can only be understood from the “perspective of the poor” and thus it is with the poor and oppressed that a universal theology must begin (137).

And so we come back to the connection between Cone and Black Lives Matter. Cone’s work grants a new perspective on those who criticise “Black Lives Matter”, insisting on the adoption of the ‘universal’, “All Lives Matter”. Cone (dealing with this before we had #’s) counters, that yes, all lives do matter, just as all are oppressed, but when the person contending that is not a member of the oppressed it becomes another way to silence those crying for liberation.

Cone is determined to construct theology through the lens of the Black experience struggling for liberation because it is immediate, ignored, the essential to see the truth (136). Cone demonstrates that the biblical witness places God on the side of those physically oppressed, who therefore become the locus for God’s revelation and salvation (74,75). Indeed, it is through the liberation of the oppressed that the oppressors will find their own liberation (137,138). The experience of the oppressed must therefore be the starting point of all theological work, as it must be the beginning of the political work, because this is not just a theological issue, it is an ethical imperative. “To speak of God’s politics in universal terms (all lives matter) without specificity of words and deeds of the victims in the struggle of freedom (Black Lives Matter), is to distort the theological enterprise and ethical dynamics of God’s presence in the world” (189). The reason we must listen to those who insist on specifying, “Black Lives Matter”, is because they are the ones most acutely affected by the systems of injustice and “the ethical behaviour of Christians… is defined in and by the oppressed community” (189). Therefore, just as it is right to locate the true meaning of liberation in the liberation of the physically oppressed from the structures that hold them down, so too is it right to prioritise the work of justice around those in greatest and most urgent need, therefore, “Black Lives Matter”. Or, to put it another way, James Cone was right.   

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I could go on and on. Because there is so much that could be said about Cone’s groundbreaking, earth-shaking, woke-inducing work. It is a beautiful, emotive, profound, and constructive presentation of a faith worth holding, a Christ worth following, and a God worth believing. He models, intentionally, how to write a theology responsible to the oppressed of the world and the construction of his argument is eye opening and convincing. It benefits from his earlier work, basing many chapters around criticisms and questions he had received. His grounding in the Black experience and use of the spirituals and the blues fascinates and motivates. And, outside of everything else, it contains a clear exploration of the use of the experience of Jesus Christ, present in the community of believers, as a source of theology. It’s just great, really, really great, so why not check it out.