We Need The Revolutionary Black God That James Cone Saw

Theologian James Cone
Theologian James Cone

In the fires of a burning city, James Cone saw the face of God. He was a young theologian transfixed by newsreels of the 1967 Detroit uprising. For five days, Black people fought soldiers as buildings burned in the night. Two years later, his Black Theology & Black Power hit bookstores; God, he said was on the side of the protesters.

Cone died last month. Although mourned by many, his legacy is in question.  Millennials have left behind the church in the internet age. What role does Cone’s theology have now? What can we do with a faith that once linked us to our ancestors?

Black Theology

“I heard the voices of black blood crying out,” Cone said in a 2017 speech at Yale University. “All the anger I had suppressed about white supremacy … burst forth out of me like an erupting volcano.”

Born in 1936 Arkansas, Cone’s rage began early. He lived in a segregated South. He went to “colored” schools, drank from “colored” water fountains, sat in “colored” waiting areas and heard of lynchings. He picked cotton for $2 a day and 2 cents a pound. In order to live, he hid that rage.

What can we do with a faith that once linked us to our ancestors?

It caught up to him in the quietest of places. As a seminary student in the 1960s, Cone faced white Christian theologians, who prized Plato and Hegel as Black people were killed, beaten and arrested for protesting. Seeing the Detroit uprisings in 1967, he poured his bottled-up rage into the Bible and burned away the irrelevances until he found a pure truth. God is Black and has always been Black.

In 1969, his first book, Black Power and Black Theology was published. A year later came his A Black Theology of Liberation, and his fifth title, 1975′s God of the Oppressed, established Cone as a fiery, activist intellectual who nearly singlehandedly shifted the terms of American Protestant theology into a radical mode.

Cone’s Black liberation theology is a method of Biblical interpretation that highlights God’s covenant with the oppressed, in which liberation of the poor is the ultimate meaning of Scripture. He wrote in A Black Theory of Liberation: “God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience.” In his reading, Jesus was God on earth who touched the poor. Jesus fed the hungry. Jesus welcomed the homeless, lame and crippled and told the rich to give up their wealth.

Cone went on to write 11 books over five decades. He spoke, gave interviews and wrote essays. Prolific and committed, Cone influenced generations of pastors. When the revolutionary tide of the civil rights and Black power movements ebbed, he held out and tended the spark of Black liberation theology. He did so in the face of a rising materialism in the Black church, where pastors sported gold and tailored suits and preached in stadium megachurches a new gospel of prosperity. 

Wealth cannot stop a bullet. Wealth cannot even stop a racist insult.

The Prosperity Gospel

“When you pay your tithe,” Pastor Eddie Long told his parishioners, “you are giving God your faith!” In the clip from the documentary “Black Church Inc.,” Long wears a sharp suit and holds a thick brick of bills.

Pay for salvation. Pay for God’s grace. Pay for blessing. Men of the cloth, using religion to shake down desperate people is nothing new in the Black community. In the 1940s, Prophet Jones, a faith healer, told his flock that God spoke to him directly. He lived a lavish life. He had gold-crusted mansions and a personal staff. In 1970s New York, Reverend Ike, an evangelist, exhorted followers to send money for his “Blessing Plan.” The more they sent, the greater the “blessing.” Both men were early luminaries but also outliers of the Black church. In the decades that came, their gospel would take center stage.

When racial barriers in neighborhoods and employment somewhat fell after the civil rights movement, a class divide deepened in Black America. The middle and upper classes integrated the white mainstream or made enclaves of color while the poor languished in rural poverty, Section 8 housing or run-down suburbs. Prosperity gospel answered the psychological need of a divided people. It sanitized the new wealth of the upwardly mobile as a sign of God’s approval. For the poor, it gave a false hope that their lives can change if they just prayed hard enough.

Wealth, however, cannot stop a bullet. Wealth cannot even stop a racist insult. Whether it is Oprah, who was refused service in a store, or Michael Brown, who was fatally shot in Ferguson, racism rained upon us. Outrage pushes Black youth to rise up, and when they march, they did not reach for the Bible but for cellphones.

The Revolution Will Not Be Evangelized

“The blood of Black people is crying out to God from the ground,” Cone said his Yale speech. “Sandra Bland in Texas, Tamir Rice in Ohio and Eric Garner in New York, the millions gone on the auction block and during the Middle Passage; Black blood is crying out to God.”

He drew up from his body the long, deep lived history of being Black in America and told them that no one can understand the crucified Christ without seeing him “through the experience of the crucified peoples today.”

Activists gather during a Black Lives Matter rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on Aug. 20.
Activists gather during a Black Lives Matter rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on Aug. 20.

How can the new generation see his teaching today? Although still religious, Black youth, like America in general, increasingly go to church less and read Scripture less. When they gather, plan and start protests, it is online or, if in person, more often at a college or community center. They use memes, not Bible verses. They are queer or queer allies. They do not use a top-down command structure, but are decentralized.

And yet, Black liberation theology is still relevant today. Religion is a mirror of our deepest selves. Nineteenth century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, who connected Hegel to Marx, wrote in The Essence of Christianity, “God is nothing else than man, he is the outward projection of man’s inner nature.” It is why the face of God always changes, and the divine is remolded by each new generation.

What if you do not believe in Jesus? That’s fine; I don’t either. The only thing real about God is our need to be in communion through, as Feuerbach would say, “an outward projection.” It is that need, not the image, which is real. It is that need, not the image, which makes authentic religion ultimately revolutionary. The parts of ourselves that are alienated, whether as sin or shame, can be brought back to our bodies.

James Cone recuperated his blackness through the image of a Black God. Today, black millennials have in Cone an inheritance they have not yet opened.  If we open his work, we can take the first practical step of publicly stripping conservative evangelicals of their false piety. We can call out pastors and churches that give a veneer of sanctity to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant, law-and-order bigotry.

James Cone recuperated his blackness through the image of a Black God.

If we open his work, we can reconnect with Black churchgoers caught in the prosperity gospel and invite them into social movements. We can show them how Black Lives Matter and other movements represent the core of their faith and our history. We can show those clinging to fundamentalist homophobia that the queer activists who sacrificed for everyone’s freedom are the true believers in Black holiness and worth.  

If we open Cone’s work, we can show that religion is deeper than the language it’s written in or face of God it imagines or arcane rules it uses to define purity. God is what unites us across differences, which is why we begin with those whose difference is used as an excuse for their suffering. We say God is a woman. God is poor. God is gay. God is a refugee. God is us.

Nicholas Powers is a poet and associate professor of literature at SUNY Old Westbury. He is the author of 2014’s The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans to Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street, from Upset Press.