Book Review: God Of The Oppressed
Length: 1895 words (5.4 double-spaced pages)
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"God of the Oppressed"
James H. Cone
"God of the Oppressed" is a history of the African American Struggle through the complex account of its author, James H. Cone. Written in 1975, "God of the Oppressed" is the continuation of Cone’s theological position, which was introduced in his earlier writings of, "Black Theology and Black Power," (1969) and "A Black Theology of Liberation" (1975). This final account was put together and published as a response to the continuous dismissal of Black Theology. This response shows Cone’s use of personal experiences, knowledge, and faith to explain the actual God of the oppressed found in Black Theology. The importance of the chosen title is maintained through all ten of Cone’s chapters because every detail leads the reader to a further understanding of the God of the oppressed. The 1975 publication date also proves of importance because it assisted in shaping Cone’s extreme religious position. This extremist position came from a time period when there was a universal dismissal of Black Theology and at the peak of Black Power movement.
"God of the Oppressed" is brilliantly organized into ten chapters. These chapters serve as the building blocks to the true understanding of Cone’s Black Theology. This progressive movement begins with an introduction of both him and his viewpoint. He explains that his childhood in Bearden, Arkansas and his membership to Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E) has taught him about the black Church experience and the sociopolitical significance of white people. “My point is that one’s social and historical context decides not only the questions we address to God but also the mode of form of the answers given to the questions.” (14) The idea of “speaking the truth” is added at this point because to go any further the reader must understand the reason and goal for Black Theology. Through the two sources in that shape theology, experience and scripture, white theology concludes that the black situation is not a main point of focus. Cone explains the cause for this ignorance, “Theology is not a universal language; it is interested language and thus is always a reflection of the goals and aspirations of a particular people in a definite social setting.” (36) This implies that one’s social context shapes their theology and white’s do not know the life and history of blacks. As the reader completes the detailed analysis of society’s role in shaping experiences, Cone adds to the second source, scripture.
Cone explains that the black situation being ignored is God and Christianity, “There is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom.” (57) This means that “the truth” introduced earlier revolves around the idea of the oppressed and their liberation. He then adds the fact that scripture tells the story of the Exodus; Moses is sent by God to help the Israelites escape the oppression in Egypt. The importance is the fact that God saved Israel from oppression because they were the chosen people and the black situation is identical. Cone then answers the question of the New Testaments relation; Jesus only associated with the poor and weak. Ideology is then introduced to explain why the white theology ignores the idea of liberation, “Simply put, ideology is deformed thought, meaning a certain idea or ideas are nothing but the function of the subjective interest of an individual or group.” (83) Close to mid-book, Cone adds a major theme, who is Jesus today? Cone explains that Jesus is the past (helped the poor liberate from oppression), Jesus is the present (through his death and resurrection he transcends time and becomes one with the black oppressed people) and Jesus is the future (his promise to come back and judge the people, eschatology). Black Theology also believes Jesus is black because he made the divine promise to come take the struggles of the poor, weak and oppressed; the black community. Christian ethics is then introduced to the discussion because ethics is the truth, societies input, liberation, role of Jesus, scripture, God and so on, put into action. Ethics is theology and white theology is blind, therefore it directly affects white ethics, “because white theologians have not interpreted God as the Liberator of the oppressed, it follows that white ethicists would not make liberation the central motif of ethical analysis.” (185) A poem by Joseph Cotter ends the book because it is Black Theology’s thought on reconciliation with the white community. In 1975, Cone’s answer was this reconciliation is not going to happen because blacks were still being oppressed. Today, Cone may feel that enough progress has been made in liberating the blacks to reconcile with whites.
Clearly the learning process Cone puts his readers through is based on “building blocks.” He begins at a certain point and builds on it till Black Theology is understood. This creates for many reoccurring themes that cannot go unnoticed. The themes of liberation, suffering and scripture are the themes that seem to cover all that Cone has discussed in his literary teaching. The three continuously overlap so discussing the three together is only logical. To Christianity scripture is obviously crucial, but for Black Theology it is everything. The Old Testament book of Exodus is crucial in understanding Black Theology, because it gives a historical account of God helping a special oppressed group survive and liberate. Blacks in America were oppressed just as the Israelites, so they believe that God will liberate them. While they wait for this liberation they gain both strength and faith through the New Testament. This piece of Scripture is important to Black Theology because “Jesus’ life was a historical demonstration that God of Israel wills salvation for the weak and the helpless.”(73) The story of Jesus also tells of his suffering. This is crucial to Black Theology because God is working through Jesus, so when Jesus suffers it is God himself suffering with the oppressed people. This shows that God relates to poor people not the oppressors, “in our experience that makes it possible to struggle for freedom because we know that God is struggling too.” (178) The reason the blacks have to suffer oppression is because that is what connects them to God, “for in the fight for liberation God joins them and grants them the vision to see beyond the present to the future. Faith thus is God’s gift to those in trouble.” (178) In conclusion the themes work as follows, through suffering the blacks being oppressed were connect to God through God’s use of Jesus in scripture. The story of the Exodus shows the blacks that because they are oppressed like the Israelites they too will be placed on the Lord’s journey, which is reserved for God’s people. This journey ends with Divine liberation because of Jesus’ eschatological promise. Until that day comes, God struggling with the black community tells them they have the right to struggle for freedom, also liberation. For Black Theology, scripture teaches blacks that liberation is the goal that is reached through suffering.
James Cone wanted this book to respond to the dismissal of Black Theology. I believe it accomplished his goal because it had important strengths. The first of which is Cone’s use of a progressive movement when explaining Black Theology. By beginning simple and adding piece by piece, Cone got the chance to explain the importance of each topic/thought/belief AND explain how they relate to one another. By relating the ideas to one another, Cone is explaining Black Theology from many different angles. For Black Theology to gain its deserved respect and not be dismissed, the reader obviously will need to understand his argument. This structure left his explanation clear and repeated, and thus ensuring the reader will understand. Another strength of Cone’s explanation was his use of examples for his all crucial points. Examples give the argument a strength that is nearly impossible to contradict. For example, instead of just saying the Old Testament taught of liberation, Cone spent numerous pages explaining how the Israelites were saved and why. Then he clearly related the Exodus to the black struggle. A Christian, who accepts the word of the Bible, must agree with this point because both groups are identical and the first was liberated. If the opposition cannot dispute certain facts then they won’t be able to legitimately dismiss it. The final example of the book’s strength is the way the author logically dismisses the opposition. Cone explains Black Theology by explaining what was wrong with white theology. He did not just say “white theology is wrong,” he said “black theology is right and white theology is wrong BECAUSE…” An obvious example of this usage is as follows; Black Theology is right and white theology is wrong in determining the importance of liberation because both theologies believe in the word of the bible and liberation is the underlying theme in both the Old Testament and New Testament. By proving a point and attacking the white theology at the same time, Cone offers double the evidence supporting his explanation of Black Theology.
This explanation of Black Theology is one man’s opinion on the situation. When it is an opinion it is tough to say the author should have changed something. I do not have a strong education in Christianity which adds even more reason to why I can’t suggest a change. I do know however that the right to heaven can’t simply be for blacks only. I do not know why this is in terms of Christianity, but I know that he did not completely convince me, a white person, as to why I was born without the chance at heaven, “It is important to point out that Jesus does not promise to include the poor in the Kingdom along with other who may be rich and learned. His promise is that the Kingdom belongs to the poor alone.” (72) (This quote includes the fact that poor symbolizes blacks and rich symbolizes whites) Cone knows what Jesus said better than I do, but I know it is either untrue or needs further explanation, both of which make it an argument. My only argument would be that if whites are born into a position where they are rich and white, yet can’t go to heaven because of it, are they not being oppressed as well? American Heritage dictionary defines oppressed as such, “to keep down by an unjust force or authority.” Therefore, keeping whites from heaven because they are white is unjust and forced so wouldn’t this be oppression in itself?
Through this account of Black Theology one can open the door of discussion to expand their current viewpoint. He makes great arguments for the promotion of Black Theology, that can only educate an individual. It is also an easy read because he uses a slow, progressive structure (which is always a positive aspect). If anything, “God of the Oppressed” offers a valuable history of African Americans aside from a religious aspect. Thus, this response to black oppression is a valuable, worthwhile experience for any agenda.
Cone, James H. “God of the Oppressed.” Obris; New York, 1975/1997.
"oppressed." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 24 Apr. 2008.