James H. Cone has been called the Father of Black Theology, and like a parent he continues to nurture this home-grown liberation theology. Additionally, he has embraced his theological vocation to name the white supremacy that has infected life in the United States. In the Postscript of the Fortieth Anniversary Edition of A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone explains how this book cannot be understood outside the historical and social context from which it came to birth (153). BTL was written in 1969, a time of considerable turmoil in the U.S. and around the world. In this regard Cone identifies the one year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, protests against the Vietnam War, James Forman’s Black Manifesto that demanded monetary reparation from white churches, synagogues, and all other racist institutions. A former member of the modern Civil Rights group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Forman suggested that only an armed black militia could stamp out anti- Black racism in the U.S. and around the globe. In short, revolution was in the air, and “blacks were tired of waiting for the freedom that should have been theirs at birth (153).”
It was in this context that Cone reflected upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus chose to be with the poor when he walked the earth. How was it, Cone queried, that white Christian theologians could ignore the spirit of the times and take a business-as-usual approach to doing theology? The life and witness of Jesus demanded of these theologians that they say something about the oppression of black folks, but “the theological meaning of black freedom seemed to have escaped them (154).”
For Cone, Christian theology is liberation theology insofar as it articulates God’s action in the world to bring freedom to all the oppressed, the least regarded sisters and brothers. Black theology is a survival theology. Black folks are daily about surviving physically and mentally within a dominant culture that does not wish them well. The development of a spirit of resistance comes at great cost, but paralysis is also costly. Black theology is a survival theology because it affirms the identity of African Americans which is of crucial importance if they are to understand their God-given worth. When black people understand that they are stamped with God’s image and that they have been made for God and will be returning to God, this provides meaning for them. This vision will sustain them. Lastly, black theology is a survival theology because socially and politically the concerns of African Americans continue to be marginal and the perspectives of members of the dominant culture result in exclusion and disregard for underrepresented populations (11).
The language of a BTL is passionate and direct because its prime audience is the black community. Cone also wishes to evoke a response from his readers. Why it is that Christian theologians do not care about the plight of black people in the United States nor do they believe that their theology has anything to say to this community, the church, or the world? Cone knows the two-fold answer: white supremacy and racism.
Theologians would do well to reread this seminal book and consider if and how efforts for the human liberation of the African American community have figured in their work. Back in the late 1960s Cone was perplexed that theologians were concerned about the “Death of God” and secular theology when revolution was happening around them. What topics have been embraced by theologians today so they do not have to write about the revolution happening (in the Middle East) and the suffering and disenfranchisement of oppressed people?