Disclaimer 1a: Please read all 3 disclaimers.
Disclaimer 1: James Cone does not need anyone to defend him; he can speak for himself, just as his body of work speaks for itself. I do not believe however, Glenn Beck is speaking justly of Cone’s work.
Disclaimer 2: I am a reader and conversant in Black and Latin@ liberation theologies. But not all Black theology is liberation theology nor is every Latin@ theologian a liberationist. Liberation theology is not a hegemonic discourse; just as one cannot confuse John Calvin’s work with Jonathan Edwards, nor can we do the same to liberation theologians. Each liberation theologian has a particular perspective and makes specific truth claims that are contextual.
Disclaimer 3: On a side note, Glenn Beck and those who agree with him are probably going to be the most confused on this point, but before reading Cone, I was pretty much a statist, believing in an European-lite social democracy for the USA. It’s true to some extent. After reading Cone, Yoder, as well as Scripture again, I came to believe in a form of libertarianism I have yet to articulate clearly since libertarianism draws out a lot of fears in other persons.
James Hal Cone has a community that already affirms his legacy; yet, he is not without his critics. Did Glenn Beck know he is not the first person to lay down a critique of James Hal Cone or other black liberation theologians. Can I point you to, if I may (imagine me with a chalk board, pointing to a chart) exhibit A: J Deotis Roberts in the early 1970s, an African American and philosophical theologian, who said that Cone made no room for reconciliation, the heart of the gospel. Or how about exhibit B: Delores Williams, a Black Womanist theologian who argued that Cone’s theology was initially exclusive of the experiences of women, and that the God of the Bible is really a God of providence and survival for individual wholeness rather than community liberation. What? Wait? Individualism ? Pick up your boot straps? Sounds like…. well you can put 2 + 2.
I watched the Glenn Beck episode last week on Liberation Theology; I probably watch the Beck show three times a week at least (probably about the same for The Ed Show on MSNBC). Both of their bully pulpits are just fascinating to me for some reason. So Beck picked out the best quotes that he could from Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power and made it seem like it was just the worst thing since Beck’s favorite topic, Hitler. Did Beck ever stop to read the entire book, to look to see where Cone defines what it means to be black? Blackness in Cone’s black theology is NOT a race. It is an ontological term, a philosophical word to describe an orientation. For Cone, ; blackness is a predisposition of the human heart, mind, body and soul towards wherever the disenfranchised and wounded of the world are (Black Theology and Black Power page 151). Therefore, whiteness is the exact opposite; Cone is re-defining how we use white and black in order to argue that God transcends racist society. Divine transcendence, the notion that God is above and beyond humanity morality rather than putting divine approval on every human action that is esteemed and deemed successful by human standards, is crucial to understanding BTBP.
Blackness and Whiteness are symbols; we cannot speak of God directly (negative theology) so human beings need revelation (Jesus Christ) as well as symbols in order to speak of God (Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, page 7). Beck’s reading is a choice to take Cone’s words literally and then racialized them (to define black and white on racial terms rather than on Cone’s own philosophical terms). Cone is working with Christian existentialist theology here, in the tradition of Paul Tillich. Tillich’s theology has its issues, so, I would suggest the appropriate manner in which to deal with James Cone’s theology is to wrestle with Cone’s sources. A vast majority of Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power is influenced by Albert Camus and Karl Barth: 2 European thinkers, but Beck is not going to tell you that. No no no, that would be, well, honest.
As for Beck’s claim that Cone’s theology is not mainstream; that’s is a joke because James
Cone’s goal was to distinguish his theology from the racist philosophy of mainline and conservative churches. As others have claimed, it is obvious James Cone was writing in the context of the post-Civil Rights movement, where African Americans were excluded from seminary faculties (and to a large extent, still are due to the lack of racial minorities with PhDs). James Cone, for his part, only talks about those in power being at fault on one hand, but on the other, there is a call for responsibility on the part of the oppressed to self-governance. The oppressed can come in any race, gender, (ahem, age group like the unborn or the elderly for example) as well as religious orientation.
At some point, we need to start having actual theological conversations. I agree with Dr. Anthony Bradley that there needs to be more dialogue between liberal and conservative seminaries. The problem with Cone’s approach is that (because he has less of an emphasis on reconciliation) it is less adaptable to conversation, and may lead to the very hegemony that he protested. To say that the Oppressor needs to conform to the victim is promoting a form of group think suppressing individuality and heterogeneity (diversity in thought and culture).
To read an educated and fair critique of Cone, one has to go no further than to see J Kameron Carter’s work: Race: A Theological Account. In the large scheme of things, while I am sure there are a lot of people who like to get national attention, no one probably appreciates having their names ran through the gutter for the sake of a smear campaign. No one likes being taken out of context. No one wants to be associated with Hitler or Karl Marx. I know there are not any formal rules of engaging public intellectuals. I actually like the idea that people are confronting each others’ ideas in a passive aggressive society. But can we at least start reading people’s ideas in their own context and start arguing from there?
Truth and Peace
For another example of a criticism of Cone’s theology, see my thesis: Beyond Liberated: divine transcendence and cultural hybridity in the theologies of Clement of Alexandria and James Cone