The Black Christ (James Cone)

I begin by asserting once more that Jesus was a Jew. It is on the basis of the soteriological meaning of the particularity of his Jewishness that theology must affirm the christological significance of Jesus’ present blackness. He is black because he was a Jew. James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 123.

For many, coming from a variety of theological perspectives, talk of “the Black Christ” is scandalous–and not in the sense that Gospel is a scandal. I want to unpack Cone’s defense of his claim, suggesting that what Cone should say, at the end, is: Christ is black because he is a Jew.

The claim that Jesus is Black “is derived primarily from Jesus’ past identity, his present activity, and his future coming” (122). Jesus’ past, his historicity, is the ground and starting point for any claim about Jesus, God, and humankind (106-110). So Cone begins by restating again that Jesus was a Jew. Israel was elected by God as the people through whom God would liberate God’s creation from the powers of sin, death, and slavery.

Although Cone uses the term “racial” for Jesus’ Jewish identity, the promises of God given to Israel–to be “a light to the nations” (Isa 42.6; quoted p. 124)–open up its Jewish particularity towards other peoples in a way beyond any racially conceived identity. The “divine freedom revealed in Israel’s history is now available to all” in Christ, and this does not negate “the divine election of Israel” but affirms it (124).

Israel’s own life unfolds within God’s commitment to liberate all creation from bondage. Christ is no figure trapped in the past but is present in and with the “little ones” struggling for freedom. His Jewishness allows other oppressed peoples–in America, people of color, and for Cone, Black people in particular–to articulate their own struggles within his covenantal life. Jesus’ Jewishness means that God stands in solidarity with the poor, or, in Cone’s words, “that black people are God’s poor people whom Christ has come to liberate” (125). Because Jesus is the Jew who has affirmed and fulfilled Israel’s covenantal calling, Jesus “really enters into our world where the poor, the despised, and the black are” (125). Jesus is at work in our world, identifying himself with the despised, bearing their burdens, and bringing them to the freedom of human life with God.

To say that Jesus is Black because Jesus is a Jew is to say that black life is the location–in America–in which the Jewish Savior is found. To say that Jesus is Black is to acknowledge that there is no knowledge of God, or Christ, apart from Christ’s present work in the actual struggles of oppressed people today. It is also to acknowledge that blackness has been opened up as a repetition of the covenantal openness of Jewish identity (to the point where Cone envisions the conversion of white people as their becoming black). God’s liberation of creation today–God’s gift of freedom and full, abundant life–occurs at the site and in the lives of black people affirming their full humanity in a racist society.

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One Response to The Black Christ (James Cone)

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