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

By Joseph, Celucien L. | The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online), December 2018 | Go to article overview

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


Joseph, Celucien L., The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)


"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. …

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