This paper will begin with a summary of God of the Oppressed, followed by two theological positions I want to analyze deeper, my critiques of those positions, and ending with a summary of what I hope will be the main takeaways. This paper acknowledges Cone’s insights on how context influences our theology and how God’s salvation involves liberation from social contexts. I want to warn against relying too much on an interpretation of the world that only sees oppressed and oppressors, and diminishing spiritual liberation and salvation.
Cone starts the book off with revealing the philosophical position that informs his approach to theology. On page 14 he writes, “My point is that one’s social and historical context decides not only the questions we address to God but also the mode or form of the answers given to the question.” Cone is saying that our social context controls our theological questions and conclusions. This is the pillar he stands on to make his distinction between white theology and black theology. Elizabeth Johnson uses a similar approach when speaking about feminist theology and the importance experience plays into theological reflections (Elizabeth, 1). These categories of white and black theology are legitimate and real because black and white people occupy different social positions and have different life experiences. Cone argues that it’s the social position of black people that is most similar to the social position of the Israelites. Thus, this gives black theology primacy over white theology.
From here, Cone argues that divine salvation is actually the liberation of people from social bondage, as seen in Exodus, versus spiritual saving from sin. Next, Cone shows that for God to really be “God of the oppressed”, he must identify with the oppressed before liberating them. As a result, if black people are oppressed and God takes on the identity of the oppressed in order to liberate them, then God is black. Cone then transitions to his discussion on black suffering and points out the fact that black’s social conditions haven’t given them the privilege to consider the philosophical questions about God and evil. Instead, it has forced them to consider the reality of suffering and the existential question of, where is God in suffering? Last, he notes that since theology informs ethics, if Christian theology isn’t centered on liberation, then neither will its ethics and this is antithetical to who God has revealed himself to be.
Let’s now turn to analyzing two key theological positions. I want to start off with what was to me the most challenging aspect of the book. This was Cone’s argument that the gospel, liberation, and salvation need to be understood primarily in their application to sociopolitical situations, “The biblical God is the God whose salvation is liberation.” (Cone, 128). This is to say that God’s salvation and liberation cannot be divorced from earthly liberation from political bondage. God’s salvation isn’t just the saving of one’s soul from sin but is primarily the saving from political oppression. Cone makes the point clear when he writes:
“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.” (Cone 74)
There are some contentious implications that follow from this. If the gospel is primarily about bringing justice to those who are politically oppressed, then fighting for their freedom is a first level concern. If God is concerned first about releasing those in bondage from sociopolitical pressures, then we must also be primarily concerned about freeing the oppressed from the oppressors’ chains. It then follows if you are fighting for the freedom of the oppressed, then you are fighting on the side of God, you are fighting with God, you are fighting for God. Social justice becomes the work of God and if you aren’t fighting for political freedom of the oppressed, then you are against God.
I now want to address another theological position of Cone’s book, the declaration that black theology is more “Christian” than white theology. Two quotes will get to the heart of why Cone feels this way. On page 89 Cone writes, “To think biblically is to think in the light of the liberating interest of the oppressed. Any other starting point is a contradiction of the social a priori of Scripture.” Earlier in the book he also states, “While I believe that the social a priori of Black Theology is closer to the axiological perspective of biblical revelation” (Cone 41).
Cone is saying that the social contexts where God revealed himself in the Bible are similar to the social contexts of blacks. This gives black people a better perspective on the biblical writings and better opportunity to interpret them correctly. Since black people are oppressed, they will think in light of liberating the oppressed, and that is what the Bible calls us to do. As an oppressed group, blacks will see God as the Liberator, and thus will see God as he revealed himself in scripture. White theology though, hasn’t made this step to understand the social implications of the gospel and doesn’t fight for the social freedom of oppressed people in the way the gospel dictates. These ideas imply that we need to submit to the wisdom of black theology over that of white theology.
As illuminating as Cone’s book was, I did leave it with a few questions that went unanswered. When discussing the contextual theologies Plantinga asks, “what then are the controls for ensuring that various contextual theologies do not wind up creating God in their own likeness and likes” (Plantinga, 75). If black theologians want to point out how white theologians have let their “whiteness” inform and distort some conclusions about God, can’t we bring the same charge back to Cone and black theologians alike? I didn’t feel like Cone really defended against this attack but merely made assertions that black theology doesn’t fall into this trap. I do think these contextual theologies sometimes can lead to different groups just making God into a God that suites their needs; instead of exploring in full the diverse attributes and characteristics of God and acknowledging that some may be “less relevant” than others depending on your social context.
My next question is what are the requirements for meeting the standard of oppression? If we are to understand God and his work on earth as always striving to release the oppressed from bondage, then how do we decide who’s oppressed. Is someone oppressed simply because they feel oppressed, or are there specific markers that declare someone oppressed? Cone never gives us a robust criteria or framework for claiming oppression. My issue is without defining this well, any person or group of persons can claim oppression if society isn’t fighting for a particular interest they have, and then can claim God, as “God of the oppressed”, is on their side. It may seem obvious when someone is oppressed, but I think it isn’t always so simple. Ultimately, God is for the oppressed, but isn’t owned by the oppressed. Rather, it is all who belong to God, both oppressed and oppressor. And if we don’t see God as love first, then we can’t meaningfully say God is for all humanity.
My last objection is my most serious. As much as I love Cone’s unrelenting emphasis on the need to improve people’s lives now, I can’t help but ask the question, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?”. What I mean by this is, what benefit is it to save someone on earth but not give them eternal salvation through Jesus? Political freedom can still leave someone in slavery if they haven’t been saved spiritually. As I read, I couldn’t stop asking the question, who gets to heaven and how? Cone was not very forthcoming with his theological position on salvation and life after death. I think his lack of focus on the need for spiritual salvation results in social justice being an end in its self, instead of a means to an end. If we remember the need for spiritual salvation, we will still focus on temporal salvation without losing sight of eternal salvation.
I have worked to show the depth of brilliance and insight contained in God of the Oppressed by James Cone. Yet even the insights Cone has, has led him to conclusions that I find not attested to by Scripture. I’m afraid his tendency to view the world in a dichotomy of oppressed or oppressor and desire to not overlook the historicity and material nature of God’s salvation and liberation, has caused him to overlook the genuine spiritual and universal nature of God and his salvation.