Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Look at God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone - Part 2

(Part 1)

Cone has done a good job of showing the limitations of theological discourse. No one group, be it white or black, can lay claim to absolute objectivity on all matters. There is much to learn from other people who do not share our culture, history, and experiences. I agree with Cone in that our social a priori or “axiological grid” need not necessarily impede us from changing and broadening our perspectives. Speaking of the white theologians who rose to the challenge of opposing slavery in the 19th century (despite the environment and times in which they lived), Cone rightfully acknowledges that there are “concrete examples that social existence is not mechanical and deterministic. The gospel grants people the freedom to transcend their cultural history and to affirm a dimension of universality common to all peoples.”[1] Paradoxically, this kind of “objectivity” can only come once we recognize our subjectivity.[2]

For Cone the gospel of Jesus Christ is nothing less than the liberation of the oppressed from their oppressors. “[T]he essence of the gospel is the liberation of the oppressed from sociopolitical humiliation for a new freedom in Christ Jesus (and I do not see how anyone can read the Scriptures and conclude otherwise)…”[3] Liberation is the overarching motif in Scripture for Cone. Salvation is liberation, and any theology that would either ignore or purport a secondary status to this theme is “ipso facto invalid and thus heretical.”[4]

Cone is to be commended for bringing to the forefront an essential and much neglected motif in Scripture – the liberation of the oppressed. He adequately surveys both the Old and New Testaments, showing convincingly that God is for the poor and weak of society and against those who would exploit them. From the Exodus-Sinai event to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, “Yahweh is the God of justice who sides with the weak against the strong.”[5]

But what is Cone’s justification for making this motif, which is clearly taught in the Bible, the essential motif of the gospel and all of Scripture? Why not God’s holiness, glory, or sovereignty? What about God’s justice or love? Others can easily be mentioned. Aware of this critique, he plainly states: “These critics have a right to ask, what is the hermeneutical principle of selection involved here, and how is its validity tested?” He answers the former by stating his hermeneutical principle:

The hermeneutical principle for an exegesis of the Scriptures is the revelation of God in Christ as the Liberator of the oppressed from social oppression and to political struggle, wherein the poor recognize that their fight against poverty and injustice is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ.[6]

This is clearly and eloquently stated. Yet he answers the latter by saying that “[d]ivine revelation alone [=Scripture?] is the test of the validity of this starting point.”[7] I’m perplexed by this answer. Clearly, he wants to ground his hermeneutical principle in Scripture and not in his black experience alone, but he fails to answer why this principle should take precedence over other possible hermeneutical principles that may just as equally be deduced from Scripture. A little more elaboration on this point would have been helpful.

Cone’s Christology is built upon the dialectic of social context, Scripture, and Church tradition. Its fundamental question, ala Bonhoeffer, is “who is Jesus Christ for us today?”[8] First, our social context teaches us “that we cannot separate our questions about Jesus from the concreteness of everyday life.”[9] Second, “the Bible is our primary source of information about the Jesus we encounter in our social existence.”[10] And third, “Tradition, like Scripture, opens our story of Christ to other stories in the past and thus forces us to move outside of the subjectivity of our present.”[11] In addition, the historicity of Jesus must be maintained if a true faith is to be sustained.[12] Jesus’ presence with the oppressed in their struggle today is also necessary and must not be divorced from the Jesus of history. And Jesus’ future consummation of all things, including the complete liberation of the weak, rounds off Cone’s Christological formulation.

Because Jesus really existed and expressed his solidarity with the poor and socially marginalized, and because he is present with the outcasts of society today and will one day fully liberate all peoples, Cone declares that Jesus is black![13] He is not denying that Jesus was a Jew; in fact it is because Jesus was a Jew that Cone can assert he was black.

His blackness is literal in the sense that he truly becomes One with the oppressed blacks, taking their suffering as his suffering and revealing that he is found in the history of our struggle, the story of our pain…Christ really enters into our world where the poor, the despised, and the black are, disclosing that he is with them, enduring their humiliation and pain and transforming oppressed salves into liberated servants.[14]

I find Cone’s three part dialectic to be completely reasonable and well thought out. Keeping one’s social context, Scripture, and Church tradition in proper balance is a great approach for doing theology, let alone Christology. His forceful defense of Jesus’ historicity and Scripture’s faithful record of his life and teachings are well received. (While he would not hold to the Bible’s infallibility, he does hold to its reliability.[15]) His affirmation of Jesus’ blackness is a beautiful and powerful illustration of God truly being there for the poor, helpless, and oppressed.

Cone has opened my eyes toward a new and more self-conscious understanding of the theological task. He has made me aware of the significance and importance of one’s social context for doing theology, and the usefulness and legitimacy of using one’s particular cultural sources in dialectic with Scripture and tradition. Much more could be said about this ground breaking work, but space precludes an extended discussion. Overall, though I would disagree with him at certain points, God of the Oppressed is a must read for those who are serious about doing theology. Cone is an engaging theologian worth listening to.
[1] Ibid., 45.
[2] Ibid., 95.
[3] Ibid., 47.
[4] Ibid., 75.
[5] Ibid., 63.
[6] Ibid., 75.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 99.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 102.
[11] Ibid., 104.
[12] Ibid., 106.
[13] Ibid., 122.
[14] Ibid., 125-26.
[15] Ibid., 101-02.


Andrew said...

Jorge, I thoroughly enjoyed your treatment of Cone's work. I'm going to be attending Princeton Theological Seminary this fall. Shoot me an email please at

Jorge said...

Andrew, thanks! I wish you the best this fall. If you see Rev. Salguero send him my regards.