James Cone on the Uses and Limits of Karl Barth

Following up on the previous few posts, here is James Cone discussing why Barth’s criticisms are helpful for oppressors but not the oppressed:

Of course, black theology is aware of the danger of identifying the word of human beings with the word of God, the danger Karl Barth persuasively warned against in the second decade of this century:

Form believes itself capable of taking the place of content… Man has taken the divine in his possession; he has brought [God] under his management.”


To apply Barth’s words to the black-white context and interpret them as a warning against identifying God’s revelation with black culture is to misunderstand Barth. His warning was appropriate for the situation in which it was given, but not for blacks in America. Blacks need to see some correlations between divine salvation and black culture…

To be sure, as Barth pointed out, God’s word is alien to humanity and thus comes to it as a “bolt from the blue”–but which humanity? For oppressors, dehumanizers, the analysis is correct. However, when we speak of God’s revelation to the oppressed, the analysis is incorrect. God’s revelation comes to us in and through the cultural situation of the oppressed. God’s word is our word; God’s existence, our existence. This is the meaning of black culture and its relationship to divine revelation.

Black culture, then, is God’s way of acting in America, God’s participation in black liberation (_A Black Theology of Liberation_, 40th Anniversary edition, p. 29-30).

It goes without saying–and Cone would agree, in fact, insist–that we can’t simply take this quote and apply it to life today: it was written in and for a particular situation, over 40 years ago (with its gendered language, the singularity of “black culture,” etc). This contextualization, however, is one of his major points: the relationship between God and humankind–or revelation and culture–cannot be considered abstractly or dealt with as a generic, universal problem. Christ is really alive and present, identified with and acting among and for the oppressed. And this means that the appropriateness of any theological statement depends on how it relates to God’s liberating actions in that particular situation.

What do you think?

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3 Responses to James Cone on the Uses and Limits of Karl Barth

  1. That’s a helpful a timely quote for myself. I don’t work from a particularly barthian position (at least not intentionally) but I have been active in some of my denominational conversations around divorcing the Bible from the Word of God as such. In preparation for a sermon this Sunday I picked up Agamben’s The Time that Remains again and looked at his notion of the sort of eternal division (or division of the division) that messianic time calls for. I don’t have the book on hand to quote but he puts that division forward as important to warn against the ‘establishing’ of marginalized history, that this establishment will work against the original intentions. I have the same feeling about Cone’s quote here (that it will work against his intentions) but again I am coming from a position in which I feel the need to critique. I am less sure how to communicate to the near homeless man who sometimes visits me who is First Nations by heritage, Christian by apparent decision, and poor by (?). He gets rejection from all directions and what he holds on to is some line of basic evangelicalism that he probably picked up in jail. Am I supposed to help him identify that with the Word of God? Do I act presumptuously and try to identify it with something else? I don’t know.

    • Tim McGee says:

      You are absolutely correct that things become much more complicated in concrete, pastoral situations. I think Cone’s point–and one that is salient even in your example–is that if Christ is truly present bringing freedom and dignity to oppressed and degraded people, then we approach situations like the one you mentioned prayerfully, with the knowledge that Christ is really at work, and with the clear commitment to try, as best we can, to speak towards the freedom offered in Christ (and, as you know, sometimes this is best handled by silence, for sometimes there are not words to say, and sometimes, though there are things we think should be said, we recognize that we are not in the position to say them).

  2. Pingback: Preparing for the apocalyptic book event « the de-scribe

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