The Gospel and Black Power: thoughts on and from James H. Cone's Black Theology and Black Power: "The Gospel of Jesus, Black People, & Black Power"

Note: This is post 4 in my series based on reading through the work of James Cone. See the first post here where I share thoughts on the Preface to the 1989 ed., here for the Introduction, and here for ch1 of Black Theology and Black Power, these are notes on chapter two "The Gospel of Jesus, Black People, and Black Power".

The task of theology is to show what the changeless gospel means in each new situation (31)

This is why there is a need for black theology, the need to make sense of the gospel in light of black oppression, white racism, and the struggle for liberation. White theologians (and white theology) cannot make sense of the black situation and therefore cannot make theology make sense to it.

Cone begins by asking what is the gospel of Jesus Christ. A few choice passages will sufficiently summarise this section:

Jesus is the man for others who views his own existence as inextricably tied to other men (sic) to the degree that his own Person is inexplicable apart from others. (35)

Jesus’ work is essentially one of liberation. Becoming a slave himself, he opens realities of human existence formerly closed to man (sic) (35)

Indeed, the message of the Kingdom strikes at the very centre of man’s desire to define his own existence in light of his own interest at the price of his brother’s enslavement. (35, 36)

Through Jesus Christ the poor man is offered freedom now to rebel against that which makes him other than human. (36)

[The Kingdom] is God encountering man in the very depths of his being-in-the-world and releasing him from all human evils, like racism, which hold him captive. The repentant man knows that though God’s ultimate Kingdom be in the future, yet even now it breaks through like a ray of light upon the darkness of the oppressed. (37)

Through this section Cone builds a picture of the gospel of Christ that lands with a bang. Reaching back into the preceding chapter he asserts that “it would seem that for twentieth-century America the message of Black Power is the message of Christ himself” (37). The argument goes “If the gospel is a gospel of liberation for the oppressed, then Jesus is where the oppressed are and continues his work of liberation there” (38). This means that the work of liberation in the community of the oppressed (which for Cone is most acutely understood as the black community struggling against white racism and dehumanisation) is the gospel of Jesus Christ, Christianity is black power.

Black rebellion is a manifestation of God himself actively involved in the present affairs of men for the purpose of liberating a people (38), for the purpose, one could say of seeing the kingdom come and the gospel lived out.

The next section of the chapter explores another correlation between black power and the gospel: freedom. As Christ came into the world to set us free by destroying the works of Satan so black power and black theology in its stead works for freedom in its attempts to defeat the “demonic forces of racism” (40). This section ends with a neat paragraph on freedom and black power:

From freedom Cone moves to justice and righteousness, specifically the righteousness of God. God’s righteousness is importantly defined as “the divine decision to vindicate the poor, the needy, and the helpless in society” (43) and then demonstrated through history in God’s continued siding with the oppressed. God’s righteousness is key for Cone when seeking to relate the gospel to those dying of hunger, or suffering under the despair of a world, which oppresses and denies their humanity. God is the author of justice, not man, or the state, or the systems and structures of our day, and “since justice is part of the Being of God, he is bound to do justly. Whatever God does must be just because he is justice” (44). For Cone there is reason for those struggling and working for black liberation to continue to turn to the gospel of Jesus Christ because it is the gospel of a God who can never be anything but for the oppressed, and their vindication. This then transforms our understanding of our own righteousness in Christ, it is about (to borrow a phrase from Gorman) becoming the justice of God. As Cone writes:

To be made righteous through Christ places a man in the situation where he too, like Christ, must be for the poor, for God, and against the world… the Christian should know that he has been made righteous (justified) so that he can join God in the fight for justice. Therefore whoever fights for the poor, fights for God… (46, 47)

Ok, now, this next section is so good I spelt “next” wrong three times just now in excitement. “Christian Love and Black Power” – Cone predicts a response to the 47 pages just past, ‘isn’t black power a contradiction to Christian love?’… How can the life and message of Jesus co-exist with the “any means necessary” of black power? After a brief discussion on the need to expand from the images and language of the received white western theology he begins to build the argument. I am going to try and lay it out the best I can below, but you should really go an read it, and not only because I might have got it wrong.


-       Human love for God and neighbour is grounded in God’s love for humanity (agape)

-       God’s agape is the starting point of the God-human relationship, it is creative and bestows worth

-       Therefore all humans have worth and value (initiated from the same source)

-       Like God’s righteousness this love is expressed in God’s activity for humanity – which is the basis for a persons response to God and neighbour

-       Love is tied to righteousness: “love prevents righteousness from being legalistic, and righteousness keeps love from being sentimental” (51)

-       “Love means God rights the wrongs of humanity because they are inconsistent with his purpose for man (sic)” (51) – humanity’s welfare is God’s primary concern (both God’s love and righteousness demand this concern)

-       Jesus summed up a persons obligation thusly “Love God, Love Neighbour”

-       So how should a person love God? A Christian is seized by the Christ event to the extent that they behave as if Christ is at the core of their being

-       It means being willing to let their existence be determined by their relation to God, to live out God’s mission, “it means joining God in his activity on behalf of the oppressed”

-       Following that, how should a person love their neighbour? It is to seek to meet their needs, confronting them as a thou and treating them as a creature of God.

-       Everyone is our neighbour; we need a “radical identification” with all humanity.

-       To accept God’s grace means that because God has acted for all, all men (sic) are free – free to respond creatively to that act.” We are to respond to that freedom with Christian love, which is fighting against all factors that hold people captive.

-       What does this mean for the black man or woman living in America?

-       “For God to love the black man means that God has made him to be a somebody”

-       For the black man or woman to respond to that love in faith “means that he accepts as truth the new image of himself as revealed in Jesus Christ” – an image of worth and value and full humanity – a thou not an it. The black man and woman does not need to transcend blackness but love it as a gift of the Creator.

-       “For he knows that until he accepts himself as a being of God in all its physical blackness, he can love neither God nor neighbour” (53)

-       So how does a black person love their white neighbour? They need to confront that white neighbour “as a Thou without any intention of giving ground by becoming an it.”

-       This refusal to take on the “it” will lead to conflict

-       Which is why love cannot be spoken about without justice and power, “love without power to guarantee justice in human relations is meaningless” (53)

-       Sentimentality is to be rejected – love is not “help”

-       Power is embraced because it makes possible reunion of self with self, and self with other.

-       Quoting Tillich, “it is the strange work of love to destroy that which is against love”

-       “Christian love comprises the being of man whereby he behaves as if God is the essence of his existence” – but there is always a threat of nonbeing which must be resisted (and so to anything which would seek to turn being into nonbeing).

-       “The violence in the cities, which appears to contradict Christian love, is nothing but the black man’s attempt to say Yes to his being as defined by God in a world which would make his being into nonbeing” (55)

-       Therefore violence may be the only way to express Christian love to the white oppressor, as it is the only way to confront the white oppressor as a thou, to remain a thou in the face of the threat of nonbeing, to remain true to the worth, value, and humanity that God has bestowed through the initiating agape love, the only way to embody love as righting the wrongs of humanity because they are inconsistent with God’s purpose.


And finally, after all of that… Cone briefly explores the Holy Spirit and Black Power. Here are four passages as a nice teaser to the argument:

The Spirit becomes the power of Christ himself at work in the life of the believer 

The working of God’s Spirit in the life of the believer means an involvement in the world where men are suffering

And this means that God is not necessarily at work in those places where the Word is truly preached and the sacraments are duly administered… but where the naked are clothed, the sick are visited, and the hungry are fed.

 Black Power though not consciously seeking to be Christian, seems to be where men are in trouble. And to the extent that it is genuinely concerned and seeks to meet the needs of the oppressed, it is the work of God’s Spirit.

And so Cone argues that Black Power is at least compatible if not synonymous with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Go read the chapter.



Song: What's Love Got to do with it? Tina Turner

Reading: The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich

Watch: Interview with Brandi Miller (“white supremacy and a black Christ)