This is the second post in the series introducing James Cone’s theodicy (as I mentioned in the first post, I would love any/all criticism or correction):


III. The Terrible Beauty of the Cross

          Having examined, in the last post, Cone’s hermeneutics, it is  apparent that he supports the claim  that theologians are at once exegetes of Scripture and subjective experience. Cone’s emphasis on the Scriptural motifs of suffering and deliverance are a corrective of their long neglect in traditional systematic theology. It is clear that Cone’s method and content are tightly interwoven; this leads directly to the question of Cone’s theological rendering of evil and the Christians response to oppression. Cone attempts to solve the problem of evil without denigrating God’s love or power; here, he is in harmony with Classical Christianity.[1] To see how the Black theodicy differs from traditional theodicies, it is helpful to observe the standard approaches.[2]

First, there is theodicy based on God’s retributive justice; its logic unfolds in three claims: (1) God is just; (2) justice requires that none suffer unless they do wrong; (3) if one suffers, then one must have done evil to deserve it. A second approach involves conceiving of humanity’s moral freedom. Here, it is argued that if God is good, humanity must possess free will and exist as morally free agents. Evil is thereby explained in regards to the potential for choosing immoral action, and suffering is primarily attributed to humanity. A final perspective addresses the suffering caused by nature. Being impersonal and amoral, nature has not been “sent” for a purpose other than maintaining a fallen environment: hurricanes equally devastate the just and unjust. In each, it is stressed that God’s will guides problems towards a future goodness.

Cone rejects all three traditional theodicies, arguing that Western theologians are too consumed with philosophical systems rather than Biblical revelation: “this is why [they] spend more time discussing the metaphysical origins of evil than showing [how]…to eliminate the structures that create evil.”[3] The White response too naively assumes that all things work for good—even the willful subjugation of non-whites. Black theodicy, on the other hand, does not attempt to base itself in abstract logic, the mind, or the depths of the heart.[4] This is the key to Black theodicy: it refuses to embrace a concept of God who would make Black suffering divine will. Instead, its roots are in social liberation and preparing the minds of blacks for freedom, so they will then be prepared disperse it to all.[5] Put simply, Black theodicy is the understanding that God’s decisive word in Christ makes it possible to struggle for freedom because we know that God is struggling too.[6] Although Cone agrees that White theologians correctly locate Christ as the gospel’s essence, he exposes their sin: Christ’s gospel is addressed to none outside the White walls.[7] Whites are therefore not held accountable for the mistreatment of people unlike them.

In order to understand evil, Cone believes that one must begin with the Bible. Contrary to two centuries of tradition, he contends that Scripture shows little interest in rationally justifying the existence of evil[8]:

Will you forget me forever, O Lord?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?[9]

This is not an expression of intellectual inquiry about divine justice, it is the voice of one struggling between faith and the pains of human experience. Here, understanding Cone’s hermeneutic becomes crucial: since God’s revelation is historically provided through liberation, there is no need for a unified philosophy of evil. For Scripture, and therefore Black theodicy, the issue is not that evil exists, but how God has, is, and will respond to it.

Because of this, Black theodicy finds its ultimate meaning in Christ’s paradoxical suffering.[10] Because Christ’s work was directed at abolishing evil, it necessarily involved tremendous suffering; indeed, Jesus never promised a life without suffering. Quite the opposite: as shown by Martin Luther King, Jr., for those who stand up against injustice, suffering is their fate. Translating the trauma of salvation is difficult because it inverts our expectations: the terrible message of the cross is that one’s highest hopes “are turned into shambles of despair.”[11] For Blacks, despair runs deep: for Mary Turner, this meant that after recently celebrating her pregnancy she watched her husband, Haynes, get lynched in place of a runaway. Upon protesting, she was “stripped, hung upside down…soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death…while a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife.”[12]

Although the cross does imply literal torment, it does not end there—and neither does the Holy Spirit’s work through the Blacks in America. The beauty of the cross is that it is the ultimate illumination of the God and man[13]: God’s explanation for suffering was not conceptual, and the resurrection means accepting pain for the sake of the Other. Life after death means that one must endure and embrace suffering in order to end it. For Blacks the beauty is bittersweet: for Mamie Till, Emmit Till’s mother, this meant exposing her son’s “battered and bloated corpse” to six hundred thousand people at his funeral, and crying out, “Lord, you gave your son to remedy a condition, but who knows, the death of my only son might bring and end to lynching!”[14] Ultimately, the cross provides hope for the future: the Messiah is alive today at work against White supremacy.

Together, the cross and the resurrection are the full radicalization of God’s strategy for liberation: the particularity of Israel’s suffering on the cross symbolizes the universality of humanity’s anguish; the resurrection is symbolic for the universal freedom for those who are bound by the grip of death. Based on the dialectic of cross/resurrection, Cone concludes that Jesus is black because he was Jewish; Christological titles, he argues, are not categorical or universal, but speak towards and reflect a particular people.[15] The Blackness of the Divine is existentially revealed when one’s life is placed in oppression and one makes a decision against that condition.[16] As stated succinctly by Howard Thurman, “To be free means the ability to deal with the realities of one’s own situation without being overcome by them.”[17] Theodicy is, therefore, less an abstract problem, than it is the historical unfolding of God’s work of liberation through human hands. The gospel is God’s good news that a victim’s humanity is not defined by their victimization, that “[victims] can do something to change not only their perceptions of themselves, but also the existing structures of oppression.”[18] Although the continued suffering of Blacks poses serious challenges for Black Theology, Cone concludes that it does not negate it: human pain reflects God’s own pain.

[1] Keith A. Bolton, “The Theological Method of James Cone” (PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary Dissertation, 1986), 50.

[2] The following overview relies heavily on: Thomas F. Tracy, “Why Do the Innocent Suffer?,” in Why Are We Here?, ed. Ronald Thiemann and William Placher (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1998).

[3] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 193

[4] Keith A. Bolton, “The Theological Method of James Cone,” 50.

[5] James Cone, Black Theology & Black Power, 117.

[6] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 176.

[7] Keith A. Bolton, “The Theological Method of James Cone,” 44.

[8] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 151.

[9] Psalm 13:1-2, (New Revised Standard Version).

[10] James Cone, Black Theology & Black Power, 118.

[11] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 79.

[12] Ibid., 120.

[13] Ibid., 37.

[14] Ibid., 67.

[15] Keith A. Bolton, “The Theological Method of James Cone,” 48.

[16] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 126.

[17] Howard Thurman, For the Inward Journey (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2002), 212.

[18] James Cone, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 115.


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