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James Cone on a Black Jesus and the White Church

Black Jesus by Stanley Rayfield

Black Jesus by Stanley Rayfield

In the 1960s, theologian James Cone was writing in an era of civil unrest due to racial disparity in the presence of a majority church largely unaware and unconcerned with the injustices common to his experience.

Rather than postpone the triumph over injustice to some abstract, heavenly future, he stresses the incarnation of Christ into the lives of the oppressed. This emphasis empowers the oppressed as well as challenges the privileged. This hermeneutic introduces reconciliation as a necessity for mature discipleship.

Below is an excerpt from James Cone’s book, Black Theology and Black Power:

“The way of the church is related to the fact that the Kyrios Lord himself is on his way in the world, …and the church has no choice but to follow him who precedes. Consequently obedience and witness to the Kyrios require the discernment of the opening which he provides and the willingness to step into this opening.” –Thomas Weiser

The opening has been made and the Church must follow. To follow means that the Church is more than a talking or a resolution-passing community. Its talk is backed up with relevant involvement in the world as a witness, through action, that what it says is in fact true.

Where is “the opening” that Christ provides? Where does he lead his people?

Where indeed, if not in the ghetto. He meets the blacks where they are and becomes one of them. We see him there with his black face and big black hands lounging on a streetcorner. “Oh, but surely Christ is above race.” But society is not raceless, any more than when God became a despised Jew. White liberal preferences for a raceless Christ serves only to make official and orthodox the centuries-old portrayal of Christ as white. The “raceless” American Christ has a light skin, wavy brown hair, and sometime—wonder of wonders—blue eyes. For whites to find him with big lips and kinky hair is as offensive as it was for the Pharisees to find him partying with tax-collectors. But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so detestable to white society.

To suggest that Christ has taken on a black skin is not theological emotionalism. If the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation, and if the Church and Christ are where the oppressed are, then Christ and his Church must identify totally with the oppressed to the extent that they too suffer for the same reasons persons are enslaved. In America, blacks are oppressed because of their blackness. It would seem, then, that emancipation could only be realized by Christ and his Church becoming black. Thinking of Christ as nonblack in the twentieth century is as theologically impossible as thinking of him as non-Jewish in the first century (Click to Tweet) … Therefore Christ is black because he is oppressed, and oppressed because he is black. And if the Church is to join Christ by following his opening, it too must go where suffering is and become black also.

(Excerpted from James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, 1969, pages 68-69)

Utilizing Cone’s final paragraph, to speak of a black theology or of a black Christ does not necessitate skin color, but the willingness to follow Christ in suffering rather than in triumph. Christ suffers because he continues to identify with the oppressed in this world (which for Cone, was immediatly present in the black community). He continues to be present in the midst of injustice as a sign of hope that they are not forgotten by God. To relinquish privilege and the vestiges of power (the white cultural power) and join Christ where he is alongside our brothers and sisters who do not enjoy those luxuries– be they black, brown, ill, rejected, queer, or (as Jesus put it in Luke 4) the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.

If Christ is incarnated in the lives of those who suffer, where is he present in the lives surrounding you?

What action is your community being called into, if they are intent on following Christ into the lives of those who suffer?

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Michael Shepherd is the editor of GlobalTheology.org and a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and Hope International University. If you are interested in posting a guest contribution on this site, please see the Get Involved page.

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