James H. Cone: The Vocation of Christian Theology and the Christian Church Today.

Author:Joseph, Celucien L.
Position:Critical essay
 
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"Men were not created for separation, and color is not the essence of man's humanity." --James H. Cone, Black Theology, Black Power, p. 17. Introduction

James H. Cone articulates a Black theology of liberation in the context of the history of Black suffering and white domination in the United States and frames it as a corrective response to American (white) theology that is silent on Black pain and suffering and the alienation of Black people from white theological accounts about God's involvement in human history. He defines Black Theology as a "radical response from the underside of American religious history to the mainstream of white Christianity." (1) In his second and seminal work, A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), Cone argues that Christian "theology cannot be separated from the community it represents. It assumes that truth has been given to the community at the moment of its birth. Its task is to analyze the implications of that truth, in order to make sure that the community remains committed to that which defines its existence." (2) The relationship between theology and ecclesiology is intertwined in Cone's theological language and reasoning. The concerns and experiences of the people of God in the church are the raw material for theological hermeneutics and the reading of God's liberating actions among his people.

While Cone prioritizes God's revelation as the beginning point of theological inquiry, correspondingly, he contends that the culture of a people is another fundamentally adequate source to think theologically about the redemptive movement of God in the world--through the agency of his church, his emissary in the local culture. Consequently, Cone establishes that theology has both a communal function and public vocation in relations to the needs of the Christian community and the needs of the people in society that contextualize and inform theological imagination and hermeneutics. Because of the complexity of human relations in society and the multifaceted functions of the church in culture, if Christian theology and the Christian church are going to be faithful witnesses to God's active involvement in human affairs, they must contribute to the wholistic transformation of the human condition in society and the reconciliation of all things through Christ the Liberator. Christian theology as an academic discipline and the Christian church as God's chosen agent in the world must not remain unresponsive to the plot of the oppressed and the vulnerable in society.

The objective of this essay is to investigate the interplay between Christian theology and the Christian church and their engagement or disengagement in society in the (politico-) theological writings and ecclesiological hermeneutics of James H. Cone. In Cone's work, Christian theology is expressed as a public discourse and testimony of God's continuing emancipative movements and empowering presence in society with the goal (1) to set the oppressed and the vulnerable free, (2) to readjust the things of the world toward divine justice and peace, and (3) to bring healing and restoration to the places in which volitional (human) agents have inflicted pain, suffering, oppression, and all forms of evil. This essay is an attempt to imagine creatively with new hermeneutical lenses and approaches--liberative, postcolonial, and decolonial--both the task of Christian theology and the vocation of the church as public witnesses to carry out the emancipative agenda and reconciling mission (salvation, healing, hospitality, wholeness, reconciliation, and peace) of God in contemporary societies and in our postcolonial moments.

The basic argument of this essay is twofold. First, it contends for the essential role of liberation theology in redefining Christian theology and ecclesiology in general. Rather than being a "special interest" or merely political theme in theology, it suggests that Black liberation theology has a special role to play in "freeing" Christian theology and ecclesiology (globally) from racism, oppression, and imperialism. Second, by promoting some new understanding of Cone's work and applying it in some new context, this article is deploying Cone's theology to critique or awaken dominant white theology to a new way of thinking about the whole field of theology and church in the twenty-first century.

Broadly, the essay is divided in five parts. Briefly, the first part discusses the complexity of race in the history of American Christianity; particularly, it provides some historical examples of how white supremacy completely distorts theology and race relations in America. By providing three main examples, the second part of the essay demonstrates the bankruptcy of white American theology and Cone's constructive criticisms to white theological discourse. Particularly, it showcases how an "other worldly" Christianity consistently dehumanizes the Black other but also mangles Christian theology itself into a mere cover for human oppression. The third part discusses the task of Christian theology in the quest for human flourishing. It demonstrates how Cone's project of Black liberation affirms the humanity and agency of the oppressed and has the potential to redefine Christianity for ALL people as this-worldly, engaged, situated, and attuned to the healing of suffering in the present, rather than Christianity as other worldly ideology covering racism, oppression, and imperialism. While the fourth part of the essay makes some propositions about the true vocation of the Christian church, the final division of the essay provides some suggestions on how theology should inform the practices of the church. Cone's rich ecclesiology supplies both intellectual resources and practical examples about the role of theology in the life of the church in contributing to a prophetic and postcolonial church in the twenty-first century. As we learn in Cone, when Christian theologians and the church "spiritualize" sinfulness and oppression, they provide justification for the depredations of racism and exploitation and deprive their oppressed of their humanity.

Fragments of American History: Theology and Race in "Christian America"

The introductory article of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that bears considerable political ideologies and linguistic parallels with The Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights (1791) and France's Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen (1789) begins with the following declaration: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom." (3) Both historical documents were written in the blossoming era of the transatlantic slave trade and the flourishing of the institution of slavery in the slaveholding North American and French Caribbean colonies. The practice of racial slavery in the newly-independent and republic of the United States violated the very inalienable rights of the enslaved African population the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights promised to all people.

Not only the systemic oppression of Black people through the institution of slavery robbed the enslaved of their honor and humanity; anti-Black racism equally demoralized and culturally alienated them in the American society. Unquestionably, racism is a question of human respect and honor. Ghanaian-born philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah interprets American racial slavery as "the subordination of one race by another and it entailed the systematic subjection of Black people to dishonor." (4) Unfortunately, the history of racism as America's great moral failure and the dishonor of Black lives is linked to America's theological conviction and religious habitus.

The American experience is captured within five central "American ideologies" that tell a distinctive story of American Christian expression, the country's theological development, and the interplay between Americans' attitude toward race and the triumph of American freedom and unfreedom. These ideologies also explain the history of internal wars, oppression, violence, and dehumanization that have marked the life of America's people of color and the disfranchised poor. The complex relations between Black and White Americans and the people of European descent and those of non-European ancestry living in America correspondingly provide an important window to make sense of the triumph of white supremacy, racial segregation in American churches and society, and the economic injustice toward the poor and the mistreatment of racialized Americans. Below, I highlight the five cardinal American ideals and beliefs already signaled above:

  1. Election of God: The idea that America is a Christian nation distinctively chosen and called by God to protect and bring American freedom to the developing nations, and to bear witness of God's blessings in America to the world.

  2. Racial Purity: The concept that America is a white nation, and for many white Americans, it entails the natural separation of the two major races, the Black and White races, and the maintenance of the supremacy of the white race in all human affairs and transactions.

  3. Slavery: for many white Christian Americans and non-Christian white racists, the enslavement of African people in the country of America was a divine sanction and the institution of slavery should be construed as God's predestining choice of the African people to be brought to America, so they could be exposed to the light of the Gospel and receive the grace of Christ's forgiveness and salvation.

  4. White Christianity and White Theology: the belief in the white version of Christianity and white articulation of Christian theology is prominent among both white American Christians and white American theologians; it is connected to the ideology of the divine election of America as a white and Christian nation, and that the "white...

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