God is black

James Cone (b. 1938), one of the founders of Black theology within the United States, has said that the God of Scripture ‘is known and worshipped as the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt, and who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. He is the political God, the Protector of the poor and the Establisher of the right for those who are oppressed’.[1] In electing Israel, the oppressed, instead of Pharaoh, the oppressor, the God of Scripture reveals himself to be on the side of the weak, vulnerable and helpless. Having been liberated by God from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai shows that Israel has been liberated to be for God. The prophets of the Old Testament deliver the message of the liberating God to Israel as Israel herself begins to forget the poor and destitute (Am. 4.2; Hos. 13.5-6). This same God is revealed in the New Testament. The Incarnation itself means that ‘God in Christ comes to the weak and the helpless and becomes one with them, taking their conditions of oppression as his own and thus transforming their slave-existence into a liberated existence’.[2] Here Cone points to Jesus’ reading of Isa. 61 at the beginning of his public ministry in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ continual identification with the poor and the destitute and the Kingdom’s message of good news to the poor and the downcast. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is confirmation that in Jesus’ ministry and teaching we are dealing with God himself and that in Jesus Christ God was working to liberate the oppressed. In Jesus Christ is found the freedom to struggle.

For Cone, the stories of the Exodus and Jesus Christ are a revelation of who God is and what God has done. These stories are interpreted from the experience of those who have been and are oppressed within the United States. Given the historic and systemic racism of the dominant white society towards blacks, that God identifies and works among the oppressed means that we can say that ‘God is black’, and that ‘Jesus Christ is black’. Cone thinks that such statements are salutary and necessary at this particular historical moment and place inasmuch as the Exodus and the Incarnation reveal to us the extent and nature of God’s identification with the oppressed and the history of blacks within the United States. Yet the stories of the Exodus and the Incarnation in turn illuminate and transform the experience of blacks. Regarding the nature of faith, Cone states

to believe is to receive the gift and utterly to reorient one’s existence on the basis of the gift. The gift is so unlike what humans expect that when it is offered and accepted, we become completely new creatures. This is what the Wholly Otherness of God means. God comes to us in God’s blackness, which is wholly unlike whiteness. To receive God’s revelation is to become black with God by joining God in the work of liberation.[3]

Faith, then, means freedom from oppressive structures and groups, the ‘trust and conviction’ that one is in God and beloved by God, and the freedom to work for the liberation of others.[4]

  • [1] James Cone, The God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), p. 62.
  • [2] Cone, The God of the Oppressed, p. 76.
  • [3] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986), p. 66.
  • [4] Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 141.
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