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James Cone on Identity Crisis

From the landmark book, “A Black Theology of Liberation,” I’m pulling out a passage where James Cone is discussing the need for Black theology to address the identity crisis in the Black community. My point is not necessarily to sell you wholesale into black liberation theology, however, the reason I bring this here is merely the question of how theology and ethnic identity are related.

Now, I understand many people may have a problem with liberation theology, and I certainly don’t understand as it as the only theology to be made normative, but I’m learning that the lens of liberation theology is important, even essential, to my understanding of God and perhaps more to the point, God’s understanding of me, particularly as someone who is a minority.

For starters, the notion of identity must mean something theologically, not everything, but if we take the doctrine of incarnation seriously, we have to account for the idea that God created different people for a reason, purpose, and possibly calling. The notion of identity then is rooted in re-membering (putting back together) what gifts and callings I inherit as a particular person of color. I’m still trying to find language to put around this notion and Cone has been very helpful.

A couple of things to keep in mind as you read the following passage from his book. It was written in the late 1960s, following the deaths of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. So you can imagine how grave Cone felt the situation was at the time. One last note, this book was written for Black Americans as a plea, exhortation to BE themselves. At times, the language can be very inflammatory and offensive if you are not Black, but in any case, it’s important to remember this is from “behind the veil”. I’ve added my emphasis in bold, but otherwise, please feel free to read on as I think Cone makes a strong connection between identity, theology and community.

There is more at stake in the struggle for survival than mere physical existence. You have to be Black, with a knowledge of the history of this country, to know what America means to Black persons. You also have to know what it means to be a nonperson, a nothing, a person with no past, to know what Black power is all about. Survival as a person means not only food and shelter, but also belonging to a community that remembers and understands the meaning of its past. Black consciousness is an attempt to recover a past deliberately destroyed by slave masters, an attempt to revive old survival symbols and create new ones.

Herbert Aptheker has written:
History’s potency is might. The oppressed need it for identity and inspiration; oppressors for justification, rationalization and legitimacy. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the history writing on the American Negro people.

White Americans try to convince themselves that they have been innocent onlookers of that history, but Black Americans evaluate the history of this country differently. For them, white Americans have pursued two principal courses of action with regard to Blacks. First, they decreed that Blacks were outside the realm of humanity, that Blacks were animals and that their enslavement was best both fro them and for society as a whole. And as long as Black labor was needed, slavery was regarded as the only appropriate”solution” to the “Black problem.” But when Black labor was no longer needed, Blacks were issued their “freedom,” the freedom to live in a society which attempted to destroy them physically and spiritually. There is no indication before or after the Civil War that this society recognized the humanity of Black persons.

The second course of action that whites have taken is to try to “integrate” Blacks into white society. Before the Supreme Court decision in 1954, whites sought to destroy black identity by segregating blacks from the mainstream of society, decreeing that this world is not for Blacks. Then, under the banner of liberalism (compounded of white guilt and Black naivety), “integration became the watchword. The implications of the term are now all too clear: the destruction of Black identity through assimilation. Whites wanted to integrate blacks into white society – straight hair, neckties, deodorant, the whole package – as if Blacks had no existence apart from whiteness.

In such a situation, there is only one course of action for the Black community, and that is to destroy the oppressor’s definition of Blackness by unraveling new meanings in old tales so that the past may emerge as an instrument of Black liberation. If the oppressed are to preserve their personhood, they must create a new way of looking at history independent of the perspective of the oppressor.

Black theology is survival theology because it seeks to provide the theological dimensions of the struggle for black identity. It seeks to reorder religious language, to show that all forces supporting white oppression are anti-Christian in their essence. The essence of the gospel of Christ stands or falls on the question of Black humanity, and there is no way that a church or institution can be related to the gospel of Christ if it sponsors or tolerates racism in any form. To speak of a “racist Christian” or a “segregated church of Christ” is blasphemy and the antithesis of the Christian gospel.

In another connection, Paul Tillich wrote:
Man discovers himself when he discovers God; he discovers something that is identical with himself although it transcends him infinitely, something from which he is estranged, but from which he never has been and never can be separated.

Despite the pantheistic implications, there is some truth here that can be applied to the black identity crisis. The search for black identity is the search for God, because God’s identity is revealed in the black struggle for freedom. For black theology, this is not pantheism; it is the convection that the transcendent God who became immanent in Israelite history and incarnate in the man Jesus is also involved in black history, bringing about liberation from white oppressors. This is what black theology means for black persons who are in search of new ways of talking about God, ways that will enhance their understanding of themselves.

About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

5 responses to “James Cone on Identity Crisis

  1. nick ⋅

    It’s unfortunate that black theology/liberation theology has become the bogeyman it is in evangelical circles. Some people who have come through seminary might know the name James Cone, but they don’t know what he’s actually said because they haven’t read him (or what they know of him is colored by excerpts from his older, more polemical writings — excerpts that were deployed in such a way as to discredit the objectives of black theologians or cast aspersion on race-conscious black churches). He’s simply dismissed as a black radical rather than someone who’s saying something really important that the church needs to hear. To them, I say this: critique him if you want, but at least be patient enough to fruitfully engage with his work and hear the real experiences that undergird his theology! Preemptively silencing voices like his reinforces the problem they’re describing. And there have been some helpful correctives to Cone’s work in the past couple decades, much of which he has received quite graciously–most recently, Kameron Carter’s new book, Race: A Theological Account. There’s much that we Asian-American Christians have to learn about ourselves from the Black Church (not that Cone is representative of all African-American churches). I don’t think we can honestly make theological sense of our complex racial existence in America until we’re willing to listen.

  2. right on, nick. i agree with you. i think cone is an absolutely necessary voice in the mix. his language has a bit of poison that needs to be diluted a bit, but his core idea is critical to multi-ethnic churches and racial reconciliation having true reach and vitality. i wish more of us would be able to do the hard work of sifting through it without simply attacking it with as much vitriol as cone had for the dominant majority. in essence, when we take that posture, i think we only prove cone more correct.

    i have seen the “race: a theological account” book but haven’t had a chance to read it. it sounds like you would recommend it though…?

    thanks for the comment.

  3. Charles

    right on.

    although, i would push back on your comment about his language as poison. to me, as i’ve read through his works, i’ve found that the language is perhaps the most peculiar insight into how he has compositionally framed his work. it seems like he’s turning the idea of language on its head. for example, for centuries, the western intellectual tradition has used a sort of coded language that inherently establishes a hierarchy of what is the “correct” language for discourse. and because language is inextricably tied to culture, you can view it as a form of intellectual colonialism… the “civilizing” of people groups and cultures deemed barbarous by the powerful.

    but with cone… his language, at first glance, sounds demeaning. and surely, the tone is to a certain extent. but on the broader level, it is essentially the same form of language white society has used to demean people of color. except, the difference is that cone is pushing against that sort of dehumanization aimed at oppressed groups. so it’s a sort of play on language… a subversive move of sorts. if he juxtaposes the need of liberation of black folk with the denunciation of white supremicism… his language is ultimately one of empowerment. and the liberation of those on the bottom… is the liberation of society from the ills of social hierarchy.

    in essence, i feel that his language is positing a question of disposition. it’s like listening to the harmonic expressions and swinging rhythms of jazz… you have to be in a sort of porture to understand why it’s so full of dissonance. i feel it’s the same with cone’s book. its language is divisive and cutting for sure… but it’s also a way of subverting intellectual power and the language that is tied with it.

    anyways… as you can probably tell… i have a sort of love affair with his work. i felt a lot of freedom reading malcolm x’s biography… and cone did a similar thing for me… but on a specifically christian, theological level. have you read “the spirituals and the blues” by him? that’s my favorite.

  4. i have the book, but haven’t had a chance to read it charles.
    i like how you frame Cone’s language the way you did. and this is where i think the vitriolic language is constructive for those on the inside, and demonized by the outside. so, while i agree with you that it is subversive, it’s also intentionally exclusionary in order to gain the proper space for formation of identity.

    but obviously, the current politically correct climate doesn’t appreciate this type of language, so in that sense, they cast off Cone because his language is knowingly offensive. but i think Cone does so to establish the “far side”. just as malcolm did for martin in making king seem palatable, i think Cone works very hard to make a more moderate position plausible. however, that does make him appear to be the angry and crazy one sometimes. but to be honest, i would kill for someone like him in AA circles. most AA theologians are pansies. 🙂

  5. elderj

    Well David, I preached on culture and identity in Christ Sunday… tackled the beast that is the question of how our culture intersects our faith and practice. I haven’t yet been crucified and some have said they were blessed.

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