Liberation Theology as Black as Malcolm X: The Uncompromising Vision of James Cone

“If the church is to remain faithful to its Lord, it must make a decisive break with the structure of this society by launching a vehement attack on the evils of racism in all forms. It must become prophetic, demanding a radical change in the interlocking structures of this society.” So begins what is one of the most controversial and consequential works of theology in the history of the United States. Black Theology and Black Power stands as a work of theological passion that sought to break the stronghold of white supremacy that lies at the foundation of the ivory towers of Christian thought. From this theological torrent would emerge an entire new canon of theological interpretation of the Christian message in the modern world.

A work wrought against the backdrop of Black rebellions across America in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. King, Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power gave theological voice and justification for the rage that marked the Black liberation movement at that time. A new testament from one of our own.  Who never denied us. Who never betrayed us to his last breath. As King himself said, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” Cone’s tome was a wake-up call that was received by a slumbering Christian church as a slap in the face. Cone channeled every ounce of anger and communal pain experienced by Black America and called for atonement on the part of a white Church establishment whose theology justified slavery, made peace with segregation and rendered Black people an aberration of God’s creation. His challenge was clear. His charge unequivocal. Cone dared declare that “in twentieth-century America, Christ means Black Power.”

As one would suspect, Dr. King loomed large in Cone’s theology. But for Cone, it was Malcolm that made his theology Black. And Cone further stated that it was Malcolm’s “angry voice that shook [him] out of theological complacency.” And like Malcolm, Cone had little patience for Black apologists for white liberal appeals for reconciliation. According to Cone, “black people cannot talk about the possibilities of reconciliation until full emancipation has become a reality for all black people.” But Cone didn’t stop there. He went on to offer a radical reinterpretation of reconciliation as an experience of Black people being reconciled to an acceptance of our Blackness as made in the image of God and a shedding of the shame that has been imposed on us by a racist society that would address us as “some grease-painted form of white humanity.”

Cone’s first articulation of Black theology was not without its holes, gaps and outright contradictions. But, unlike, the white theologians he challenged, Cone was open and receptive to the challenges of his peers and students as they helped him hone his theological outlook into one that would come to move beyond the strict confines of a Black nationalism that was male dominant, homophobic, classist and US-centered. The debates that followed would usher forth a host of Black and Third World theologies that, together, would be united in two volumes of works Cone co-edited with his long-time friend and comrade Gayraud Wilmore.

One of the most critical and prophetic essays collected within those pages that would aid in the development of Black Feminist and Womanist theologies was Jacequlyn Grant’s “Black Theology and the Black Woman.” She targeted the issue squarely, “In examining Black Theology it is necessary to make one of two assumptions: (1) either Black women have no place in the enterprise, or (2) Black men are capable of speaking for us. Both of these assumptions are false and need to be discarded.” Later, she concluded, “The failure of the Black Church and Black Theology to proclaim explicitly the liberation of Black women indicates that they cannot claim to be agents of divine liberation. If the theology, like the church, has no word for Black women, its conception of liberation is inauthentic.”

Cone came to terms with this prophetic indictment when, writing in the Preface to the 1989 Edition of the book, he confessed:

“An example of the weakness of the 1960s black freedom movement, as defined by Black Theology and Black Power, was its complete blindness to the problem of sexism, especially in the black church community. When I read the book today, I am embarrassed by its sexist language and patriarchal perspective. There is not even one reference to a woman in the whole book! With black women playing such a dominant role in the African American liberation struggle, past and present, how could I have been so blind?”

He went on to discuss his temptation to rid the 1989 edition of the book of its sexist language and add references to women that are missing in the original edit. He would leave it as it was stating that, “It is easy to change the language of oppression without changing the sociopolitical situation of its victims. I know existentially what this means from the vantage point of racism.”

Cone’s desire to change the sociopolitical situation was evident in his sustained commitment to being in conversation with other Black theologians invested in the project of developing a Black Theology that spoke to the aspirations of all Black people to be free, not only from white supremacy, but from the oppressions that plagued the Black community from within as well.

In addition to Black Feminist and Womanist theologies, Black queer theologies would also emerge during this period as a criticism of the entrenched forms of homophobia that remain embedded in many Black churches and Black communities. Speaking about the radical inclusivity of an “in-the-life” theology of liberation in the second volume of Black Theology: A Documented History, Elias Faraje-Jones clarifies that “an in-the-life theology of liberation would be one that grows out of the experiences, lives, and struggles against oppression and dehumanization of those in-the-life. It understands our struggle for liberation as being inextricably bound with those of oppressed peoples throughout the world, as we all struggle against racism, classism, imperialism, sexism, ableism, and all other forms of oppression. Such a theology also offers to other theologies a liberation from the strictures of homophobia/biphobia, as well as liberation from heterosexism which creates the climate for homophobia/biphobia with its assumption that the world is and must be heterosexual, and by its display of power and privilege.”

These Black theologies are, in themselves, an expression of the undying will of Black people to be free by any means necessary. The very expression “Black Lives Matter” that has captured the imagination of organized Black struggle all over the world is – in itself – a theological statement that is as poignant and prophetic as any text written since Cone first penned Black Theology and Black Power. Written on the bodies of Black people marching in the streets, it is stating unequivocally that Black existence is sacred and complete and whole without need for apology or compromise in the face of a white supremacist assault that continues with renewed vigor and violence. It is the fundamental theological text written on the dark-hued faces of unarmed Black youth staring into the blue wall of violence. They come untutored in the Testaments. Yet, no Bible required to show what must be done. Here Cone’s Black Theology is born anew in their defiance to injustice; their self-love and love for the living and the dead. With arms outstretched in a show of surrender. But not to the authority of this land. They walk in the valleys of death, fearing no evil. Unintimidated. Undaunted. Undeterred. As Gospel as it gets.

The promise of Black Liberation Theology lies in its potential to awaken churched Black people in the same way that Malcolm’s rhetoric shook Cone out of his slumber to an awareness of the need for revolutionary struggle against the forces of white supremacy.  The promise of Black Theology uncompromised by a Black church operating within the dogmatic confines of middle class aspirations or stuck within the ideological blinders of a Black intellectual class more concerned with dissertations and divinity degrees is the development of a theology that presents itself as a challenge to the very foundations of the system of capitalism that is profiting from and predicated upon the exploitation of Black people worldwide. If Black Liberation Theology is to have a future, it will be found here.

As the spiritual forebearers of Cone’s Black Theology, Dr. King and Malcolm X both would come to this understanding in the final year of their lives. In his speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” King makes the clear the relationship of racism to the global structures of economic inequality:

“… the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Malcolm, for his part, also was in the process of making clear connection between racism and capitalism. In an interview conducted shortly before his death Malcolm says, “… all of the countries emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning toward socialism. I don’t think it’s an accident. Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries, and the last bulwark of capitalism today is America. It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

Cone, himself, articulated the need for a deeper understanding of socialism, indicating his disbelief that capitalism could solve the problems Black people experience in the United States. At a seminar addressing “Religion, Socialism and the Black Experience” in 1980, Cone said the following, “Although the socialist tradition among Black church people is small, it is still present and we black theologians and historians should rediscover it in order to enhance our vision of liberation.” He goes on to state, “The Black Church cannot simply continue to ignore socialism as an alternative social arrangement. We cannot continue to speak against racism without any reference to a radical change in the economic order. I do not think that racism can be eliminated as long as capitalism remains intact. It is now time for us to investigate socialism as an alternative to capitalism.”

Cone is envisioning a Black Theology that is truly revolutionary in that it is committed to the restructuring of the very socioeconomic order that profits from the oppression that Black people have faced since those first Africans were sold as property on the shores of the colony of Virginia. Such a Black Theology is most necessary if it is to take seriously the work of Black liberation today.

Such a Black Theology can no longer be confined to the white-funded walls of academic conferences. It can no longer just write or preach about the problems of the poor. It can no longer be a Black Theology that, like white theology, appeases the Black poor with neoliberal acts of charity and affirms philanthropy and mission as the Gospel’s answer. It must become a Black Theology that is responsive to and affirming of Black workers and the Black poor marching not just in the streets of Ferguson and Flint in the United States, but those in the favelas of Brazil and the shantytowns of Soweto. As Cone asserts in God of the Oppressed, “… who Jesus Christ is for us today is connected with the divine future as disclosed in the liberation fight of the poor. When connected with the person of Jesus, hope is not an intellectual idea; rather, it is the praxis of freedom in the oppressed community.”

In the last years of his life, James Cone said it was the cry of Black blood that called out to him as he wrote Black Theology and Black Power. That cry of Black blood has only grown louder and more insistent in recent years as the bruised bodies of Civil Rights activists at the bully clubbed hands of a Bull Connor have been replaced with the bullet-ridden bodies of random Black people murdered by police across this nation. Like Malcolm before him, Cone’s criticism was not only reserved for the white Christian church and white society at-large. That cry of Black blood urged him to call out the contradictions of a Black church that is all too often reluctant to defend the defenseless.

“The black church must ask about its function amid the rebellion of black people in America. Where does it stand? If it is to be relevant, it must no longer admonish its people to be ‘nice’ to white society. It cannot condemn the rioters. It must make an unqualified identification with the ‘looters’ and ‘rioters,’ recognizing that this stance leads to condemnation by the state as law-breakers. There is no place for ‘nice Negroes’ who are so distorted by white values that they regard laws as more sacred than human life. There is no place for those who deplore black violence and overlook the daily violence of whites.”

That question posed fifty years ago has now become a condemnation of a Black Church establishment that has grown sinfully silent in the face of the wholesale state-sanctioned slaughter of Black youth.  That condemnation is echoed in the sound of Black youth leading themselves in a confrontation with the American Empire. By the multitudes, in the streets across this nation and around the world, there is a generation of Black people that are the living, breathing embodiment of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology who are saying with their feet what Malcolm made plain: “I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Any time I have to accept a religion that won’t let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion.”

The crisis of Black survival in a world run over by a white supremacist order, in a country led by the likes of an ungodly crypto-fascist capitalist, cannot be overstated. Such should become the challenge and inspiration for advancing a Black Liberation Theology that is wholly Black in all the expressions of our shared humanity and determination to be free. A Black Theology as uncompromisingly Black as Malcolm. A Black Theology as courageously Black as Fannie Lou. A Black Theology as Black in aspiration and articulation as the Black working class that gave birth to them both.

Ewuare X. Osayande is an activist, essayist and author of several books including Whose America?: New and Selected Poems and Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement. Follow his work on Twitter @EwuareXOsayande.