BBC Radio 4:Professor Robert Beckford - 08/05/2018


Yesterday in New York the funeral was held for Professor James Cone. He was the architect of black liberation theology and spent most of his working life as professor of theology in New York City. Alongside other pioneers of the new Liberation Theology, from the early 1970s, he advanced a belief that, at its core, Christianity is a movement for radical social transformation. James Cone will be remembered for his relentless quest to provide the Christian ideas for the church’s struggle against racism.

Raised in the American south in the middle of the last century, he was exposed to Jim Crow – the laws which maintained racialised segregation in many states. As a Christian, he came to realise that, Christianity, rather than confronting racism, colluded with it – churches were as segregated as the schools, restaurants and businesses. But it was not until he completed graduate training in theology and embarked on a career as a university teacher that he addressed this predicament head on.

His first of many books, Black Theology and Black Power, published in 1970, was a piercing analysis of the failure of mainstream Christian ideas, and how they contributed to the church’s complicity. Unable to depend on the vast majority of their white counterparts for support, he proposed a radical alternative for progressive Christians: a black theology of liberation.

James Cone mixed the Christian theology of Martin Luther King, and the CRItique of race from Malcolm X to create black theology. He therefore concluded that the Christian God is always on the side of those resisting oppression, and within in the particularity of the American situation of the late 60s, God was on the side of black people.

Today, his work is taught in seminaries and universities across the world. But his influence goes beyond the boundaries of the ivory towers: his scholarship inspired a generation of preachers and activists in America and Britain to continue the unfinished work of racial justice and played a seminal role in the South African Church’s involvement in the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

James Cone managed to do in his life time, what few theologians accomplish - using ideas about God to achieve positive social change.

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