Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

Get Instant Access

putative Christianness of the discourse based on these sources; or what norm or criterion ought to be used in establishing that which makes Black theology's sources suitable material for Christian theological reflection? Finally, how might the validity of this reflection itself be ascertained and measured?

The norm of Black theology

We are asking here about the norm to which Black theology and its sources are ultimately accountable, In one sense the question seems otiose since we have already seen Cone declaring blackness as the ultimate reality. But in another sense the question is crucial, because even when Cone sought to make absolute a particular ethnic experience he was aware, or so it appeared, of another reality alongside which he placed blackness/* We saw, for example, that for Black theology there is no more binding authority than the experience of oppression, and that at the same time Cone says Christ comes first.

This ambiguity has already been noted. Our purpose in mentioning it here is to introduce Cone's christology and the framework in which it is presented/5 For our explication we shall turn to two of his books where this topic is most clearly dealt with: A Black Theology of Liberation which is a sort of single-volume attempt at a fully fledged black systematic theology and Black Theology and Black Power.

I propose to deal with a distinction which is fairly central to Cone's doctrine of Christ in these books: the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith; and with how the content of his christology is subsumed within this distinction. Secondly, I shall discuss the importance of the incarnation itself, for the contextuality of theological discourse as well as the grounds it furnishes for Cone's claim that Christ is black. Cone (notwithstanding the ambiguity noted above) is quite clear that Christ is the key to the identity of all genuinely Christian theological utterances- It follows, then, that since Black theology belongs to the latter3 the truth of its identity, both as black and as Christian, is centred in the person of Christ.

Cone begins to formulate his christology by searching for the 'historical Jesus' because He is the guarantee against the gospel being reduced to a purely human project. Besides, the Christ of the kerygma cannot be understood without presupposing the historical one. In this emphasis Cone consciously follows Kascmann, Bornkamm, Fuchs and Conzelmann rather than Bultmann. He wishes to stress the historical Jesus because, in his own words, 'Focusing on the historical Jesus means that Black theology recognizes history as the indispensable foundation of Christology/66

Christology would, of course be incomplete, if not irrelevant, were its meaning and significance to be of merely historical interest- Just as access to the Christ of the kerygma requires the Jesus of history, so too the latter requires the former. But this dialectical connection between these two approaches does not in itself give us a clue to the content of the christologies it represents. One way of trying to sketch this out is to enquire as to what constitutes the historicity of Jesus. In Black Theology and Black Power Cone's christology has a double content: a negative and a positive one. Negatively, he describes the form of the work of Christ in terms of conflict. Thus, in the Gospels, Christ is seen as conducting a battle against the forces of evil: the healing of the sick, the exorcising of demons, the denunciation of corrupt religious authorities. The temptation of Christ at the beginning of his ministry and, ultimately, the cross itself, are characteristic features of his conflict-ridden campaign,67 If, however, the cross is the ultimate symbol of conflict, pain and death, the latter has no final hold on Christ. The death which he died did not mark the end of God's involvement with humanity, it did not spell the end of his redemptive project. That is why Easter exists. The resurrection acts in Cone's thought as the living proof of the enactment of the presence of God in Jesus Christ: it is that which discloses the moment of victory over death. It is in view of this victory that we are brought to the positive aspect of the twofold nature of Cone's understanding of the person of Christ. Here, again, he describes the essence of Christ's work in the language of liberation. In fact, the relation between the negative and the positive aspects of this understanding are, in a sense, an extension of the dialectic between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. For example, in A Black Theology of Liberation, both conflict and liberation in the ministry of Jesus make sense only if we accept that, according to the New Testament, the historical image of Jesus which has precedence over all the others is that of Christ as the Oppressed One, and that his whole life and work centred in his identification with the poor,68

The finality of Jesus lies in the totality of his existence in complete freedom as the Oppressed One, who reveals through his death and resurrection that God himself is present in all dimensions of human liberation. His death is the revelation of the freedom of God, taking upon himself the totality of human oppression; his resurrection is the disclosure that God is not defeated by oppression but transforms it into the possibility for freedom.6'

This quotation brings out clearly the connection between what we described above as the negative and the positive poles of Black theology's christology.

That 'Jesus' identification with the oppressed is the distinctive historical kernel in the gospels'70 derives, according to Cone, from the generative events of the faith. In particular, he mentions four items to buttress his point:

(1) Jesus's birth in the stable, the socio-political marginality of Mary, the visit of the shepherds and the wise men and Herod's hostility toward his birth.

(2) Jesus's baptism and temptation:

(a) In being baptised Christ identified himself with sinners: this was a practice intended primarily for them;

(b) when he refused to yield to Satan's temptation he was effectively rejecting the 'available modes of oppressive or self-glorifying power1.

(3) As we have already seen, Jesus' ministry was directed at the poor and was intended to inaugurate God's Kingdom on their behalf (Mark 1.14-15).71

(4) Finally, his death and resurrection are the fulfilment of his campaign for the poor,7*

For Black theology all this adds up to the biblical evidence that Jesus is the oppressed man par excellence and the liberator of all who suffer and are exploited.

But to speak of Christ as the representative of the oppressed because he himself knew what oppression is, is in fact to comprehend his christological significance through the symbol of blackness for, as we have already had occasion to observe, blackness itself has historically been a symbol of oppression. Thus the christological question and its significance for blacks, as well as the experience of faith which evokes it in the first place, are rooted in the reality of this symbol; in the concreteness of the social context of black existence (the context of racism, slavery and rejection). The existence of this 'situation1 is the basis for the need to recast the issue of christology. It is not enough merely to appropriate the biblical witness as to who Christ was, for we cannot be satisfied simply with repeating Scripture: we need to ask who Christ is for us today. We must continually move from the identity of Christ then, to his identity now, and back again without undermining either pole. In order for the pendulum to swing in this way Cone proposes three stages necessary for the process: (1) Scripture; the primary, transcendent, 'other' source, (2.) tradition; the mediating link and (3) the social context of black people. These are the moments through which the reformulation of christology must go. What is the precise shape of this reformulation? Here, once again, we need to recall Cone's erzrKxsb oa the historicity ot Jesus, This emrtasis is necessary not simply foe the sake of history, but also because on history itself depends the humanity of Christ. Jesus' humanity in the concreteness of its self-expression (that is> in the ethnic specificity of its Jewishness) provides, at least for the present version of Black theology, the theological grounds for remoulding christology through a hermencutic of blackness. So, the particularity of Jesus' ethnic identity - this irreducible mainstay of his humanity - allows Cone to say that if the christological significance of Jesus cannot be affirmed in terms of blackness, his resurrection is of little consequence for the twentieth century. Thus: '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/73

We must be careful to note here that Cone is not claiming that Jesus was biologically black, although he sometimes appears to want to say this;74 rather his point seems to be that the experiences which characterised his (Jesus') life, being born a Jew, of an oppressed and despised people, and into an insignificant family, as well as his suffering at the hands of both the religious and political authorities, are capable of being apprehended through blackness today. Hence, when Cone declares, as he frequently does, that Christ is black, it is the idea of Christ's identification with the suffering of blacks caused by racism which is in the foreground, and not primarily the racial category of blackness.

Cone is aware that 'blackness* as a christological title may not be universally appropriate, but he points out that this is equally true of New Testament titles such as cSon of God\ 'Son of David' etc. Therefore to say Christ is black is not only to recognise the Jesus of history in the Jesus of faith and vice versa; it is also an indication that Black theology stands in a long tradition of naming Christ in terms of historical experience.

To sum up, christology cannot be reconstructed without regard for the historical specificity of Jesus5 humanity; without regard for the social context which establishes his racial identity and thus identification with those who are negated because of their own racial identities. But, in turn, the christological importance of Jesus' humanity can itself not be properly construed except within the context of the kerygma of liberation.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Self Help Affirmations

Self Help Affirmations

The big book of affirmations from personal development authors. An affirmation is something you say to yourself. Everybody uses them on purpose or accidentally. You get up in the morning, leap out of bed and proclaim,

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment