Take Up Your Cross: Exploring the Theology of James Cone

(This is longer than I normally write…much longer. However, I’ve recently been exploring Black theology through James H. Cone. This is a paper I submitted for a class that puts into perspective some of the differences between the Black and white church. I highly recommend Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree as an accessible text for exploring Black theology.)

In 1619 the first African slaves arrived on the shores of the “New World” marking the origin of America’s participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, an institution of systematic oppression with an enduring influence on the nation that continues today. As enslaved Africans were forced to labor for the powerful landowners of the burgeoning nation, dividing lines of race, ethnicity, and class were established that have withstood the abolition of slavery and the dissolution of the Jim Crow social order. These significant strides in the struggle for justice and freedom, achieved only through the Civil War and the heroic community organizing efforts of the Civil Rights movement, have not been able to expunge the persistence of systemic racism inherent in the civic, religious, commercial, and social structures of American life, leading Jim Wallis and others to conclude that racism is “America’s Original Sin.”[1]

The Black church in America emerged in the midst of the institutional oppression of slavery and developed under the thumb of a dominant white society and government meticulously curated after the Civil War to perpetuate the myth of white superiority and sustain a social order with whites at the top. Consequently, James H. Cone, regarded by many as the “Father of Black Liberation Theology,” describes Black theology as a reflection on the Scriptures that narrates the story of God as the “liberation of the oppressed from bondage.”[2] This paper explores the context of Black theology, highlighting its emergence in the experience of slavery and segregation in America. Using the theological reflection of James H. Cone as an example, it will demonstrate how the Black American church understands the Gospel as an “already/not yet” liberation, seen particularly in how the Black church, like Simon of Cyrene, “takes up the cross” of oppression resulting in an experience of solidarity with a suffering Messiah that is largely unrealized in mainstream evangelicalism.

The Context of Black Theology

As briefly mentioned above, the oppression of Black people in the United States has been a hallmark of American life for over 400 years, serving as the primary context for Black theology. Others have devoted precious pages detailing the horrors of slavery and the terrorism inflicted on Blacks by hate groups like the KKK. Most notably is the era of lynching in America from 1882–1968.[3] While these stories need to be told continuously, for the purposes of this essay, attention will be given to the miraculous emergence of Black Christianity in the context of such brutality.[4]

Paradoxically, it was white owners who introduced their slaves to the Christian story, often in distorted ways that gave theological justification to slavery and the exigencies of life as chattel. Dante Stewart describes the miracle of conversion as slave communities began to read the Bible for themselves: “In the biblical narratives that described these characters the enslaved Africans found reasons to believe not only in the liberating power of the God of Scripture, but in the liberating emphasis of Scripture itself.”[5] A vibrant Christian community emerged in the slave quarters that closely identified with a suffering Messiah who was raised to new life. They dared to hope that those “who share in His sufferings” might also “share in his glory.” (Romans 8:17, NIV) Consequently, the testimony of Christian slaves in the Antebellum South was, “You can keep your religion, but give me this Jesus.”[6]

Black faith grew and flourished even in the midst of oppression. The refusal to integrate free Black Christians into all white churches is a well-documented fact of America’s segregationist past. The emergence of the Black church, however, was not only because whites refused to integrate them, but also due to the contours of Black faith and piety that differed from their white counterparts. Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church, is one such example of a Black faith leader whose new ecclesial venture was born out of his community’s distinct understanding of the Gospel.

Cone explains how this historical context has given rise to Black theology, a reflection on the Gospel that is unique and in a category all of its own in comparison to the dominant European and North American Protestant traditions. He contends that the dissimilarities are more important than the similarities, especially when considering how one was used to dominate and subjugate slaves in the New World, and the other was used to affirm Black identity and empower them in the struggle for justice. It speaks a word of hope to those who live in what W.E.B. DuBois called the “double-consciousness” of Black folk, always understanding one’s identity through the eyes of others. In describing the modern Black theology Cone elaborates, “When Black theologians began to concentrate on the Black culture and history, we realized that our own historical and cultural traditions are far more important for an analysis of the Gospel in the struggle of freedom than are the Western traditions which participated in our enslavement.”[7]

Therefore, Black theology is a contextual understanding of the Bible emerging from the faithful endurance of an oppressed people. God’s promises of justice and liberation are read alongside a community who know in collective memory and personal experience what it is like to be denied these realities. Black theology reorients the “double-consciousness” of the American Black experience in light of a suffering Messiah who was similarly marginalized but was eventually vindicated in resurrection, a victory imparted to the faithful in their “struggle to survive with dignity in a society that they did not make.”[8]

Black Theology and Black Power: Theological Themes of James H. Cone

As a student of theology during the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, Cone was frustrated by the indifference of dominant, white theological voices to speak into the Black struggle for justice and liberation. With deafening silence coming from the academy and only marginal engagement at the top levels of Mainline ecclesial bodies, Cone remembers, “How could I find meaning in a world that ignored Black people? I decided I had to say something about that contradiction.”[9]

He established his voice in Black Theology and Black Power in 1969, developing a liberation theology that was coherently merged together as both Black and Christian.[10] In this seminal work, he defended Black identity, using a contextualized and contemporary reading of the Bible to establish Blacks as eternally more than what whites thought about them, affirming the intrinsic and divinely inspired beauty of Black humanity. Cornel West elaborates on the importance of this book, “It is death of the ‘Negro’ and the birth of ‘blackness.’ It is the death of a certain kind of deferential disposition to white supremacy in the hearts and minds and souls of Black people themselves and the birth of a certain kind of self-assertiveness — a courage to be.”[11] Just as the newly liberated Israelites received a new identity and vocation as a “holy nation” and a “Kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6, NIV), Cone envisions a similar empowerment for Blacks living in the realities of racism in America.

In the scope of an essay like this, it would impossible to exhaustively explore the many themes of Black theology. In an effort to place Cone in dialogue with the ecclesial context of this author (suburban and white), the following will be treated briefly: Christ’s solidarity with the suffering and the “already/not yet” tension of Black theology.

Christ’s Solidarity with the Suffering

Much of Cone’s work explores the correlation between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of the Black community in America. This culminates in a book written in the twilight of his life, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. The failure of white theologians to connect the practice of lynching in America and the crucifixion of Jesus is astounding to Cone, for the parallels are numerous and obvious: victims of lynching were often wrongfully accused, it was a grotesque and brutal way of execution, lynching served as a propagandistic warning for those that would subvert the status quo, and it was an incredibly humiliating way to die. Any seasoned Sunday School teacher has made the same points in reference to the crucifixion and some have done so having witnessed first-hand a lynching on their town square.

Cone makes the connection with lynching that others have been unwilling to make, presenting a suffering Jesus in complete solidarity with the suffering. In the dominant Protestant theological tradition, various “theories of the atonement” have been posited to cognitively explain the meritorious death of Jesus. Perhaps the most common in evangelicalism is “substitutionary atonement,” which could be explained simply as, “He for me.”

The Black church, according to Cone, is not interested in explaining the transaction as one objectively removed from the event. Rather, it hauntingly asks in one of its most famous spirituals, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The Black experience knows first-hand the humiliation and suffering of the cross. Cone explains, “But when the poor of North America and the Third World read the passion story of the cross, they do not view it as a theological idea but as God’s suffering solidarity with the victims of the world. Jesus’ cross is God’s election of the poor by taking their pain and suffering upon the divine person.”[12] Consequently, the atonement in Black theology is simply explained as “He with me.”

As traditional white churches have focused on the atonement as a cognitive theological idea, they have “taken the crucified off the cross,” exalting a sterile, stained-glass propositional truth to be affirmed with one’s head yet not felt in one’s heart, neglecting the full implications of faith in a crucified Messiah. This partially explains the continued indifference of the white church to the struggle of marginalized communities.

The lynching tree shatters the stained glass, removing whites from the position of innocent bystander and placing them in the angry mob crying, “Crucify him.” As disorienting as this must be, this perspective is necessary if the Gospel of the marginalized Nazarene is to be wrestled back from the legacy of white supremacy inherent in the white American church. The spiritual, “Were You There?” is the soundtrack as Cone takes us to the cross through the story of the lynching tree, inviting the faithful to see the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of the lynched as a beacon that points to the ultimate hope of resurrection. This is the way of the cross upon which all faithful followers of Jesus must traverse and is the absolute least one can do to understand the painful legacy of lynching in America. If one will “lean in” to this disorientation, a redemptive hope and beautiful Gospel awaits at the end.

The Already and Not Yet

The most prevalent eschatology of white evangelicalism separates the physical from the spiritual settling for a delayed justice in the “by-and-by” and minimizing the Bible’s prophetic imperative for God’s reign to be realized in the “here-and-now.” Black theology offers a helpful corrective, holding in healthy tension the “already” and “not yet” of God’s salvific promises.

This tension is present throughout the Black experience as embodied in the spirituals that emerged from the experience of slavery. These lyrical expressions of hope in the transcendent “not yet” and abiding faith in the imminent “already” serve as the backdrop for the participatory and anticipatory worship of the Black church. Cone, reflecting upon the Black church in the days leading up to the Civil Rights movement, contends that worship was an eschatological event:

The transition from Saturday to Sunday is not just a chronological change from the seventh to the first day of the week. It is rather a rupture in time, a Kairos-event which produces a radical transformation in the people’s identity. The janitor becomes the chair-person of the Deacon-Board…The last becomes first, making a radical change in the perception of self and one’s calling in the society.[13]

This is seen most clearly in the prophetic imagination of the Civil Rights movement and its resilience in the face of resistance. Just as God transformed “nobodies” into “somebodies” on Sunday morning, the leaders of the movement stubbornly believed this same transformation of marginalized persons should take place in society as a whole. This persistent commitment to participate in God’s “already” prompted Fred Shuttlesworth to proclaim, “You have to be prepared to die before you can begin to live.”[14] This sentiment demonstrates the ethos of Black theology’s dialectical tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” For Shuttlesworth and others, their faith in the “not yet” gave them the strength to fight for justice, believing in what God wanted to do in the “already.”

The fact that white evangelicalism is content to settle for delayed justice in the “by and by” is evidence of a privileged status that distorts the urgency of the Prophets, the social agenda of Jesus, and the moral vision of the New Testament. (Is. 58, 61, Mt. 5–7, Lk. 4:18–20, Gal. 3:28, Jas. 2:14–17, et al.) Just as lynching was unchecked by white churches and theologians, an indifference to redlining by community banks, to unjust HUD policies that have perpetuated segregation, to police brutality, to the disproportionate incarceration of Black men, and to blatant racism in national political discourse persists in the evangelical establishment today. Many would agree these things are wrong, but lack the willpower to actively correct them because they have never been the victim of them deferring their correction to an ethereal “not yet,” even as the Holy Spirit whispers, “What about now?”

The faith of the Black church in the “already/not yet” nature of God’s liberating promises transformed victimization into mobilization, prompting Nellie Burroughs to admonish activists gathered at Bethel AME Church in Washington, D.C., “Work like it all depends on you. Pray like it all depends on God.”[15]

The white church need not be the victims of injustice to advocate for its correction in the here-and-now: “…from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48, NIV) This is especially urgent for congregations in the Wesleyan theological tradition. Cone, drawing on his own Wesleyan heritage, reflects on the vocational imperative of sanctifying grace, “When the meaning of sanctification is formed in the social context of an oppressed community in struggle for liberation, it is difficult to separate the experience of holiness from the spiritual empowerment to change the existing societal arrangements.”[16] This was certainly true of Wesley’s engagement in issues of social justice in 18th century England, most notably was his public and controversial support of slavery’s abolition. May it be true of those congregations standing in the tradition that bears his name in the 21st century.

Conclusion: Take Up Your Cross

Every Black preacher has a sermon on Simon of Cyrene. Although only mentioned once in the Gospel narrative, his role is paramount in the story. Jesus spends years teaching the disciples to “take up your cross,” but when the weakened Jesus buckles under its weight, it is not the disciples who volunteer to carry it, but Simon of Cyrene coerced by the empire to participate with Jesus in the redemption of all things.

Christian tradition has always asserted that Simon was dark-skinned, perhaps as a way to reinforce the subservient nature of this ethnicity. However, the Black homiletical tradition embraces Simon as the only melanated person in the Gospels and more importantly as the only person who actually carries the cross of discipleship.

The theme of “carrying one’s cross” was prominent for Martin Luther King, Jr., reminding participants in the struggle for freedom that this was their cross to bear. In language similar to Gutierrez’s “preferential option for the poor” King reminded the congregation of Dexter Ave. Baptist church, “I think one day God will remember that it was a Black man that helped His son in the darkest and most desperate moment of his life…God will remember this. And in all our struggles for peace and security, freedom and human dignity, one day God will remember…”[17]

Cone keeps this radical call to cross-bearing discipleship at the center of his theology, establishing a solidarity with the suffering of Black people and the suffering of Jesus. Cone reminds those that take up the cross that the hope of resurrection awaits at the end, but it cannot be realized without the cross, experienced by some as the lynching tree. For those willing to journey with Simon of Cyrene and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the countless others who have suffered before, there is a resurrection at the end. May the white church be emboldened to join them and embrace the urgency of this moment, for an “already/not yet” resurrection reality promises that “no gulf between Blacks and whites is too great to overcome, for our beauty is more enduring that our brutality.”[18]

[1] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016). This work expands on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s repeated diagnosis that America was “morally sick.”

[2] James H. Cone, “Black Theology in American Religion,” Theology Today 43, no. 1 (April 1986), 7.

[3] “The History of Lynching,” NAACP, accessed on July 4, 2020, https://www.naacp.org/history-of-lynchings/.

[4] Cone offers a lucid historical account of the practice of lynching in America in Chapter 1 of The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).

[5] Dante Stewart, “Why the Enslaved Adopted the Religion of Their Masters — and Transformed It,” Christianity Today 62, no. 1, (February 2018): https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2018/february/why-enslaved-african-americans-stayed-christian.html. This article builds extensively on Emerson B. Powery and Rodney Steven Sadler, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press), 2016.

[6] Stewart.

[7] Cone, Black Theology in American Religion, 19.

[8] Cone, “Black Theology in American Religion,” 7.

[9] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, xvi.

[10] James H. Cone and Cornel West, Black Theology and Black Power: 50th Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018).

[11] Cone and West, vi.

[12] Cone, “Black Theology in American Religion,” 19.

[13] James H Cone, “Sanctification, Liberation, and Black Worship,” Theology Today 35, no. 2 (July 1978), 140–1.

[14] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 73.

[15] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 142.

[16] Cone, “Sanctification, Liberation, and Black Worship”, 149.

[17] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 82.

[18] Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 166.

Son, Husband, Father, Friend, Lead Follower @BvilleComChurch. Strangely, I still believe God is using the Church to save the world.

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