Black Liberation Theology, in its Founder's Words

James Cone

hide captionJames Cone: Black liberation theologian says the overriding message of Old Testament prophets — and Jesus Christ — is "a condemnation of the nation and of the religious [establishment] ... for oppressing the poor."

Courtesy Union Theological Seminary

The Rev. James Cone is the founder of black liberation theology. In an interview with Terry Gross, Cone explains the movement, which has roots in 1960s civil-rights activism and draws inspiration from both the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, as "mainly a theology that sees God as concerned with the poor and the weak."

Cone also comments on controversial remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former minister and a black liberation theology proponent.

In a now-famous 2003 sermon, Wright charged that an ingrained, abiding racism in American society is at fault for many of the troubles African-Americans face, and he thundered, "No, no, no, not God bless America! God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people."

Cone explains that at the core of black liberation theology is an effort — in a white-dominated society, in which black has been defined as evil — to make the gospel relevant to the life and struggles of American blacks, and to help black people learn to love themselves. It's an attempt, he says "to teach people how to be both unapologetically black and Christian at the same time."

Cone's books include Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, and Risks of Faith. He teaches at Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary.

A Closer Look at Black Liberation Theology

Presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) defended his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on Tuesday, even as he repudiated some of the pastor's inflammatory sermons. But Wright's comments likely come as no surprise to those familiar with black liberation theology, a religious philosophy that emerged during the 1960s.

Black liberation theology originated on July 31, 1966, when 51 black pastors bought a full page ad in the New York Times and demanded a more aggressive approach to eradicating racism. They echoed the demands of the black power movement, but the new crusade found its source of inspiration in the Bible.

"God's presence in the world is best depicted through God's involvement in the struggle for justice," says Anthony Pinn, who teaches philosophy and religion at Rice University in Houston. "God is so intimately connected to the community that suffers, that God becomes a part of that community."

Freedom and Liberation

Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says black liberation theology often portrays Jesus as a brown-skinned revolutionary. He cites the words of Mary in the Magnificat — also known as the "Song of Mary" — in which she says God intends to bring down the mighty and raise the lowly. Hopkins also notes that in the book of Matthew, Jesus says the path to heaven is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. And the central text for black liberation theology can be found in Chapter 4 of Luke's gospel, where Jesus outlines the purpose of his ministry.

"Jesus says my mission is to eradicate poverty and to bring about freedom and liberation for the oppressed," Hopkins says. "And most Christian pastors in America skip over that part of the book."

Hopkins attends Trinity United Church of Christ, where Rev. Wright just retired as pastor. In the now-famous sermon from 2003, Wright said black people's troubles are a result of racism that still exists in America, crying out, "No, no, no, not God bless America! God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people."

According to Hopkins, that was theological wordplay — because the word "damn" is straight out of the Bible and has a specific meaning in the original Hebrew.

"It means a sacred condemnation by God to a wayward nation who has strayed from issues of justice, strayed from issues of peace, strayed from issues of reconciliation," Hopkins says.

A Loud, Passionate, Physical Affair

Anthony Pinn of Rice University acknowledges that black liberation preaching often sounds angry. But he says the anger does not advocate violence but is instead channeled into constructive routes. Trinity UCC, he notes, has 70 ministries that help the poor, the unemployed, those with AIDS or those in prison. Pinn says the words can be jarring to the untrained ear, but they're still valid.

"Folks, including myself, may be taken aback by the inflammatory nature of the rhetoric, but I don't think very many of us would deny that there is a fundamental truth: Racism is a problem in the United States," Pinn says.

Black liberation preaching can be a loud, passionate, physical affair. Linda Thomas, who teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, says the whole point of it is to challenge the powerful and to raise questions for society to think about. Thomas says if white people are surprised by the rhetoric, it's because most have never visited a black church.

"I think that many black people would know what white worship is like," Thomas says. "Why is it that white people don't know what black worship is about? And I think that is because there is this centrality with white culture that says we don't have to know about that."

Obama presents himself as uniquely situated to bridge those two cultures because of his biracial heritage. In his speech on race Tuesday, the presidential hopeful said he could no more disown his controversial pastor than he could disown his white grandmother.

"These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love," Obama said.

He denounced the harshness of Wright's words — not because they were false, he said, but because they did not acknowledge the strides that the U.S. has made in the fight against racism. Obama said his own candidacy shows how far the country has come.

Books Featured In This Story

God of the Oppressed
God of the Oppressed

by James H. Cone

Paperback, 257 pages | purchase

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  • God of the Oppressed
  • James H. Cone
Risks of Faith
Risks of Faith

The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968™1998

by James H. Cone

Paperback | purchase

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  • Risks of Faith
  • The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968™1998
  • James H. Cone
Black Theology and Black Power
Black Theology and Black Power

by James H. Cone

Paperback, 165 pages | purchase

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  • Black Theology and Black Power
  • James H. Cone

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