The God of the Oppressed by James Cone – A Book Review
If you want to have your mind blown, then read this book. Dr. James Cone is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York. As you may remember, his name came up during the election of Obama, as Obama’s old Pastor – Jeremiah Wright – mentioned how much James Cone has influenced his thinking. With that in mind, here is my review of God of the Oppressed.
James Cone in God of the Oppressed takes us through a sweeping systematic approach to theology from an African American Liberation perspective. Holding onto to his black oppressive heritage in one hand (lived under Jim Crow law), and the scripture and his systematic theology in the other, he takes on the Euro-white theological establishment as he develops a consistent historical-narrative theology that is grounded in the African American experience under-girded with a Black Christo-centric liberation approach.
He says, Black Theology’s answer to the question of hermeneutics can be stated briefly, “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” (74,75).
With this hermeneutical device ever before him, he uses history, tradition and reason to proclaim his understanding of biblical revelation and black theology. He takes a look at the historical Jesus from a liberation approach (an exodus motif), looks at both the past and current state of affairs in regard to black people, and – in light of the historical, present and future Jesus – Jesus incarnates into a poor oppressed black man in the present, who continues to fight for the justice of the oppressed. He says, “I begin by asserting once more that Jesus was a Jew. It is on this basis of the soteriological meaning of his particularity of his Jewishness that theology must affirm the Christological significance of his past Jewishness is related dialectically to the significance of his present blackness” (123).
Liberation is defined both as a divine gift, and a calling. Christian ethics is to be done only among the black and oppressed community, because oppressors (namely whites) have made themselves unqualified through their oppression.
What about reconciliation? Reconciliation can only come about between white and black, if and when white people want to become black and follow a black Jesus until the world is just. As Cone says, “There can be no forgiveness of sins without repentance, and no repentance without the gift of faith to struggle with and for the freedom of the oppressed. When whites undergo the true experience of conversion wherein they die to whiteness and are reborn anew in order to struggle against white oppression and for the liberation of the oppressed, there is a place for them in the black struggle of freedom. Here reconciliation becomes God’s gift of blackness through the oppressed of the land.” For Cone, reconciliation cannot come about without liberation, otherwise whites would be granted the ability to “separate love from justice and reconciliation from liberation” (222).
As you may be able to tell from my quick review, this is a pretty hard-hitting book. While his language might appear bombastic, this book is more thoughtful than it may appear in my review, for a short review of a book of this nature undoubtedly does not do justice to its contents. Have you read this book before? If so what did you think about it? If you haven’t, what goes through your mind as you read this review?