Theologians must continually ask: “How do we distinguish our words about God from God’s Word…our dreams and aspirations from the work of the Spirit” (Cone, God of the Oppressed, 77). Each theological movement challenges some other movement for its ideological entrapment. For instance, Hauerwas points out the ways in which American Christianity functions ideologically as a divine blessing on American nationalism. Apocalyptic theologians then point out that the Hauerwasian idea of the church as alternative polis functions ideologically by conflating the church’s institutional life with the gospel.
James Cone offers an important challenge to every criticism of ideology. He says,
Checks against ideological language in theology are not derived abstractly from the Word of God [as Barth does], because God’s Word is not an abstract object, but is the liberating Subject in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom. I believe that some of my critics would probably agree with that linguistic formulation. But the real test of the referent in the formulation is found in whether we are led to be involved on the same side in the historical struggles for freedom. (93).
For Cone, theology becomes “abstract” when it “overlooks the oppressed and the hope given by Jesus Christ in their struggle” (117-118). Jesus is not an idea, not a past event, not an ethical model; Jesus is the divine event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed today and any theology that does not originate from this concrete presence of Christ is abstract. This may sound good abstractly, and so the real test, Cone says, is whether their lives will be shaped by the knowledge that they can only live as Christians by joining the oppressed in their struggle for freedom.
There is no universal antidote to ideology–in fact, the attempt to procure one is itself ideological (I have some questions about apocalyptic theology on this front, for it tries to solve the problem of ideology by calling everything human hopelessly ideological–sinful, religious). The discernment about when and how to identify our work with God’s salvific act of liberation depends on the concrete determination of the situation (89).
For Cone, then, theological reflection originates from (and does not descend to) this problem. Theological thought is the attempt to clarify how, in a specific context, God has tabernacled with the oppressed: taking on their burdens, electing their struggle as God’s own, and sustaining their hope for a future world of freedom beginning here and now.