When James H. Cone, a leading founder of the black theology movement, died last month, I felt the loss personally. Cone’s book God of the Oppressed changed my theological career.
Early on, I knew Mennonites as a peace church stood outside the mainstream of North American culture. It seemed natural to ask if, in the realm of theology, Mennonites also had a view outside the mainstream on such key issues as Christology and atonement.
Once I had the first version of such a theology in mind, I wondered if any other groups outside the mainstream had a unique perspective. At that point, I knew only the name of James H. Cone, and that black theology existed. I went to the library and pulled God of the Oppressed off the shelf.
What I found overwhelmed me. Cone wrote that the standard formula for Christology of Jesus as “God and man” from the third and fourth centuries and the generally accepted satisfaction atonement image were written without reference to the narrative of Jesus — that is, the entire story of Jesus’ life. Consequently, they allowed Christians to claim Jesus as Savior while accommodating slavery. That critique was parallel to mine, except that where Cone said the classic statements accommodated slavery, I had said they accommodated the sword. And what was more, we posed similar alternatives — an approach that depended on the narrative of Jesus and an atonement image that featured Jesus’ resurrection as victory over evil.
Then I realized that beyond seeking a peace church theology for Mennonites, I was in fact engaged in a conversation that addressed all Christians and the character of theology generally. Cone had pushed me to see that the classic creeds and statements actually reflected a particular context. They are white theology and violence-accommodating theology.
At a national theology conference, I made a point of seeking out Cone. He affirmed that my observations about the white, violence-accommodating character of classic statements were valid. His parting comment was, “You are one of the few white folks who knows. You tell the white folks.”
Cone’s words still echo in my mind. His writing is one of the strongest influences in my understanding that any statement about the nature of Jesus should begin with or be derived from the narrative of Jesus. Beginning with this story makes Jesus’ rejection of violence and his challenge to racism integral dimensions of who Jesus is and what it means to be his disciple.
J. Denny Weaver is professor emeritus of religion at Bluffton (Ohio) University, a member of Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church and the author of God Without Violence: Following a Nonviolent God in a Violent World (Cascade, 2016), which reflects the influence of James Cone.