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Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas, and grew up in Bearden, Arkansas. He and his family attended Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church. He received a BA degree from Philander Smith College in Arkansas in 1958, a B.D. degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1961, and MA and PhD degrees from Northwestern University in 1963 and 1965, respectively. He taught theology and religion at Philander Smith College, Adrian College in Michigan, and beginning in 1970 at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was awarded the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology in 1977. In 2018, Cone was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The hermeneutic, or interpretive lens, for James Cone’s theology starts with the experience of African Americans, and the theological questions he brings from his own life. He incorporates the powerful role of the Black church in his life, as well as racism experienced by African Americans. For Cone, the theologians he studied in graduate school did not provide meaningful answers to his questions. This disparity became more apparent when he was teaching theology at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. Cone writes, “What could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structure of their lives in a society that had defined black as non-being?”
Cone’s theology also received significant inspiration from a frustration with the Black struggle for civil rights; he felt that Black Christians in North America should not follow the “white Church”, on the grounds that it was a willing part of the system that had oppressed black people. Accordingly, his theology was heavily influenced by Malcolm X and the Black Power movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was also an important influence; Cone describes King as a liberation theologian before the phrase existed.
His methodology for answering the questions raised by the African American experience is a return to Scripture, and particularly to the liberative elements such as the Exodus-Sinaitradition and the life of Jesus. However, Scripture is not the only source which shapes his theology. In response to criticism from other black theologians (including his brother, Cecil), Cone began to make greater use of resources native to the African American Christian community for his theological work, including slave spirituals, the blues, and the writings of prominent African-American thinkers such as David Walker, Henry McNeal Turner, and W. E. B. Du Bois. His theology developed further in response to critiques by black women, leading Cone to consider gender issues more prominently and foster the development of womanist theology, and also in dialogue with Marxist analysis and the sociology of knowledge.
Cone’s thought, along with Paul Tillich, stresses the idea that theology is not universal, but tied to specific historical contexts; he thus critiques the Western tradition of abstract theologizing by examining its social context. Cone formulates a theology of liberation from within the context of the Black experience of oppression, interpreting the central kernel of the Gospels as Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed, the resurrection as the ultimate act of liberation.
As part of his theological analysis, Cone argues for God’s own identification with “blackness”:
The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism…. The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering….Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity. (A Black Theology of Liberation, pp. 63-64)
Despite his associations with the Black Power movement, however, Cone was not entirely focused on ethnicity: “Being black in America has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.” (Black Theology and Black Power, p. 151)
In 1977, Cone wrote, with a still more universal vision:
I think the time has come for black theologians and black church people to move beyond a mere reaction to white racism in America and begin to extend our vision of a new socially constructed humanity in the whole inhabited world…For humanity is whole, and cannot be isolated into racial and national groups.
In his 1998 essay “White Theology Revisited,” however, he retains his earlier strong critique of the White church and white man for ignoring or failing to address the problem of race.
Cone wrote his doctoral thesis on Karl Barth. His early books (Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation) draw heavily on mainstream Protestant theologians such as Barth and Paul Tillich as well as the figures of the black power and black arts movement.
Womanist theologians, such as Delores Williams, have critiqued Cone for both male-centered language and for not including the experiences of black women in his sources. Williams, in 1993, acknowledged in a footnote in her book Sisters in the Wilderness, that Cone has modified exclusive language for the reprinting of his works and acknowledged the issues with the previous language. However, she argues that he still does not use the experiences of African-American women in his method, and therefore still needs to deal with the sexism of his work.
Other critique of Cone’s theological positions has focused on the need to rely more heavily on sources reflecting black experience in general, on Cone’s lack of emphasis on reconciliation within the context of liberation, and on his ideas of God and theodicy.
Aspects of Cone’s theology and words for some people have been the subject of controversy in the political context of the 2008 US presidential campaign as Jeremiah Wright, at that time pastor of then-candidate Barack Obama, noted that he had been inspired by Cone’s theology.
Some scholars of black theology noted that controversial quotes by Wright may not necessarily represent black theology. Cone responded to these alleged controversial comments by noting that he was generally writing about historic white churches and denominations that did nothing to oppose slavery and segregation rather than any white individual.
Hoover Institute fellow Stanley Kurtz, in a political commentary in National Review, wrote:
Cone defines it as “complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary.” For Cone, the deeply racist structure of American society leaves blacks with no alternative but radical transformation or social withdrawal. So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist. “Theologically,” Cone affirms, “Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.'” The false Christianity of the white-devil oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.
Cone and his wife had two sons and two daughters. He died on April 28, 2018.