James H. Cone on the Gospel and Liberation Theology
Pharoah's Amry Engulfed by the Red Sea (source: wikipedia)

Pharoah's Amry Engulfed by the Red Sea
by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (source: wikipedia)

Liberation Theology is at the heart of the Gospel, and is the task of setting captives free of bondage. Deliverance from slavery is the constant theme from the beginning of the Bible and throughout Church History until today. It is God delivering the Israelites out of the Egyptian captivity by his mighty hand and outstretched arm. Liberation Theology is a work that evangelicals have surrendered to groups who oppose them, and then ironically point to the Anti-Christian packaging of those groups (such as Marxism) to further deny this Christian responsibility of proclaiming release to the captives.

In Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998, James H. Cone demonstrates that Jesus defined the nature of his ministry in the terms of Liberation Theology. I've selected three quotations from Risks of Faith to demonstrate how Liberation Theology is the Gospel.

In this first quotation, Jesus defines the nature of his ministry as 'liberation of the captives' and Cone explains how this means the destroying all forms of slavery. Cone quotes from a key passage from the Gospel of Luke to explain:

He is God Himself into the very depths of human existence for the sole purpose of destroying all human tentacles of slavery, thereby freeing man from ungodly principalities and powers that hinder his relationship with God. Jesus himself defines the nature of his ministry in these terms:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor,
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of the
sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

(Luke 4:18-19)

His work is essentially one of liberation. Becoming a slave himself, he opens realities of human existence formerly closed to man. Through an encounter with him, man now knows the full meaning of God's action in history and man's place within it.

Cone, James H. "Christianity and Black Power." Risks of Faith the Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1999. 8. Print.

In this second quotation, James Cone provides several other biblical quotations and examples of how the Gospel is Liberation:

It reality the message of the Kingdom strikes at the very center of man's desire to define his own existence in the light of his own interest at the price of his brother's enslavement. It means the irruption of a new age, an age that has to do with God's action in history on behalf of man's salvation. It is an age of liberation, in which "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them" (Luke 7:22).

This is not pious talk, and one does not need a seminary degree to interpret the passage. It is a message about the ghetto, Vietnam, and all other injustices done in the name of democracy and religion to further the social, political, and economic interests of the oppressor. In Christ, God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed. Their suffering becomes his; their despair, divine despair. Through Christ the poor are offered freedom now to rebel against that which makes them other than human.

It is ironical that America with its history of injustice to the poor (especially regarding the black man and the Indian) prides itself as a Christian nation (is there really such an animal?). It is even more ironical that officials within the body of the Church have passively or actively participated in injustices. With Jesus, however, the poor were at the heart of his mission: "The last shall be first and the first last" (Matt 20:16). That is why he was always kind to traitors, adulterers, and sinners and why the Samaritan came out on top in the parable. Speaking of Pharisees (the religiously elite of his day), he said: "Truly I say to you, the tax collectors (traitors) and harlots go into the Kingdom—but not you" (Matt 21:31).

Jesus had little tolerance for the middle- or upper-class religious snob whose attitude attempted to usurp the sovereignty of God and destroy the dignity of the poor. The Kingdom is for the poor and not the rich because the former has nothing to expect from the world while the latter's entire existence is grounded in his commitment to worldly things. The poor man may expect everything from God while the rich man may expect nothing because of his refusal to free himself from his own pride. It is not that poverty is a precondition for entrance into the Kingdom. But those who recognize their utter dependence on God and wait on him despite the miserable absurdity of life are usually poor, according to our Lord.

And the Kingdom which the poor may enter is not merely an eschatologically longing for escape to a transcendent reality, nor is it an inward serenity that eases unbearable suffering. Rather it 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 even though God's ultimate Kingdom is in the future, it breaks through even now like a ray of light upon the darkness of the oppressed.

Ibid. 8-9

And in this third and final quotation, the emphasis on immediacy is brought forward to explain that waiting, or pacifism may only be another form of opposing Liberation Theology:

(the 11:00am hour on Sunday is still the most segregated hour of any weekday), but by their typical response to riots: "I deplore the violence but sympathize with the reasons for the violence." What churchmen, laymen, and ministers alike apparently fail to recognize is their contribution to the ghetto-condition through permissive silence—except for a few resolutions which they usually pass once a year or immediately following a riot—and through their contenancy with a dehumanizing social structure whose existence depends on the enslavement of black people. If the Church is to remain  faithful to its Lord, it must make a decisive break with the structure of this society by launching a vehement attack on the evils of racism in all forms. It must become prophetic, demanding a radical change in the interlocking structures of this society.

Of course the Church must realize, in view of the Christian doctrine of man, that this is a dangerous task. But obedience to Christ is always costly. The time has come for the Church to challenge the power structure with the power of the gospel, knowing that nothing less than immediate and total emancipation of all people is consistent with the message and style of Jesus Christ. The Church cannot afford to deplore the means that oppressed people use the chains of slavery because such language not only clouds the issue but also gives comfort and assistance to the oppressor. Therefore, the primary purpose of this essay is to show that embracing Black Power is not only possible but necessary, if the Church wants to remain faithful to the traditions of Christianity as disclosed in the person of Jesus Christ.

Ibid. 3-4

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  1. I’ve just started reading ‘Introducing Liberation Theology’ by Boff & Boff, but I’m struggling to understand the place of the cross within liberation theology.

    You provide quotes to say the Gospel is Liberation, but I don’t see the cross there (obviously, this is not to say it’s not in Cone’s book at all – just these few words you’ve offered!). So I was wondering where you see the cross in liberation theology? Thanks!

    • Mark,

      James Cone identifies the lynching tree with the Cross of Christ. I have a few more posts on James Cone that may help. Risks of Faith may be better to read directly to have your questions answered. I can ask a friend.

    • Greetings Mark,

      My name is Rod and Wyatt requested I address your question. First off, given the familiarity and grasp I have of Liberation theology since I did my ThM thesis on James Cone and Clement of Alexandria, here’s what LT has to say about the Cross.

      #1. God is revealed as a Suffering God for people who are Suffering political and spiritual oppression. Jesus on the cross becomes The Oppressed One/ Suffering Servant who dies with us, in solidarity with the oppressed. (see, James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation)

      #2. The Cross is a horrific catastrophe , it is God’s kingdom being rejected in this world. Suffering, death are things Christians should oppose, and not simply the natural order of things as death-of-god theologians suggest.

      #3 The Cross is Jesus as Christus Victor leading the Church to triumph over Sin, Death, and Oppression (traditionally Satan). In Colossians it says that Christ triumphed over the powers, resisting them on the cross. This is the third part of liberationist views of atonement. (see James Cone’s God Of The Oppressed).

      No direct quotes given above but here are a few links from my archives that could help:



  2. “If the Church is to remain faithful to its Lord, it must make a decisive break with the structure of this society by launching a vehement attack on the evils of racism in all forms. It must become prophetic, demanding a radical change in the interlocking structures of this society.”

    I love this. Thank you, Wyatt.

  3. (2Co 5:21 KJV) 21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

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