James Cone: Jesus is black because he was a Jew.

by Kim on July 12, 2011

When the past and contemporary history of white theology is evaluated, it is not difficult to see that much of the present negative reaction of white theologians to the Black Christ is due almost exclusively to their whiteness, a cultural fact that determines their theological inquiry, thereby making it almost impossible for them to relate positively to anything black. White theologians’ attitude toward black people in particular and the oppressed generally is hardly different from that of oppressors in any society. It is particularly similar to the religious leaders’ attitude toward Jesus in first-century Palestine when he freely associated with the poor and outcasts and declared that the Kingdom of God is for those called “sinners” and not for priests and theologians or any of the self-designated righteous people. The difficulty of white theologians in recognizing their racial interest in this issue can be understood only in the light of the social context of theological discourse. They cannot see the christological validity of Christ’s blackness because their axiological grid blinds them to the truth of the biblical story. For example, the same white theolgians who laughingly dismiss Albert Cleage’s “Black Messiah” say almost nothing about the European (white) images of Christ plastered all over American homes and churches. I perhaps would respect the integrity of their objections to the Black Christ on scholarly grounds, if they applied the same vigorous logic to Christ’s whiteness, especially in contexts where his blackness is not advocated.

For me, the substance of the Black Christ issue can be dealt with only on theological grounds, as defined by Christology’s source (Scripture, tradition, and social existence) and content (Jesus’ past, present, and future). I begin by asserting once more that Jesus was a Jew. It is on the basis of the soteriological meaning and particularity of his Jewishness that theology must affirm the christological significace of Jesus’ present blackness. He is black because he was a Jew. The affirmation of the Black Christ can be understood only when the significance of his past Jewishness is related dialectically to the significance of his present blackness.

James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1997, 1975), p. 123.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }


Joseph W 07.12.11 at 10:17 am

I think this is a bit nutty.

Jesus has morphed from a Jewish man into a black man?



Kim 07.12.11 at 10:58 am

Here is a clue, Joseph. Take a look at any paintings of the “Christa”, or Maxwell Lawton’s “Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS”, or the crucified Jesus depicted as a Latin American peasant, surrounding by government troops. What do you think the artists might be trying to say to us? Or is your response, “That’s nutty” — some even say blasphemous — “Christ wasn’t a woman, or a gay man with AIDS, or a campesino“? Use your theological imagination.


Tony Buglass 07.12.11 at 11:16 am

For ‘black’ read ‘not white’. From the black perspective, Jesus has been hijacked by white European culture, and that’s a problem for those who have been oppressed by that culture. Witness the numbers of black people who have been brought up in a white culture and have then converted to Islam - is it because Islam is better than Christianity, or that Islam is perceived as a way to God which isn’t controlled by the white supremacists around them?

If you want to address the question historically, then Jesus was a 1st C Galilean Jew, and must be understood within that culture. If you want to address the matter theologically and therefore incarnationally, Christ can be portrayed as any colour or culture not because that is what he was, but that is who he is.


Tony Buglass 07.12.11 at 11:34 am

Not entirely seriously, but following on from my last comment:

There were 3 good arguments that Jesus was Black:
1. He called everyone brother.
2. He liked Gospel.
3. He couldn’t get a fair trial.

But then there were 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was Jewish:
1. He went into His Father’s business.
2. He lived at home until he was 33.
3. He was sure his Mother was a virgin and his Mother was sure He was God.

But then there were 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was Italian:
1. He talked with His hands.
2. He had wine with His meals.
3. He used olive oil.

But then there were 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was a Californian:
1. He never cut His hair.
2. He walked around barefoot all the time.
3. He started a new religion.

But then there were 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was an American Indian:
1. He was at peace with nature.
2. He ate a lot of fish.
3. He talked about the Great Spirit.

But then there were 3 equally good arguments the Jesus was Irish:
1. He never got married.
2. He was always telling stories.
3. He loved green pastures.

But the most compelling evidence of all -
3 proofs that Jesus was a WOMAN:
1. He fed a crowd at a moment’s notice when there was no food.
2. He kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who just didn’t get it.
3. And even when He was dead, He had to get up because there was work to do.


Kim 07.12.11 at 11:50 am

Thanks, Tony. QED!

But you forgot the three good arguments that Jesus was a Mexican:
1. His first name was Jesus.
2. He was bilingual.
3. He was always being harassed by the authorities.


Joseph W 07.12.11 at 5:49 pm

This is like saying Jesus is a space alien because he came from another dimension, or like saying he is a mosquito because he walked on water.


Kim 07.12.11 at 6:17 pm



Joseph W 07.12.11 at 6:18 pm

But you told me to use my theological imagination.


PamBG 07.12.11 at 7:29 pm

Oh goodness. I guess all one can say is how fascinating it is that we all have different ways of processing ideas and perceiving life.


Joseph W 07.12.11 at 9:34 pm

Well said Pam :-D


doug 07.12.11 at 9:44 pm

PamBG stated: “The Orthodox Rabbi I work with gets incensed at the concept of Messianic Jews. He says he doesn’t care if a Jew wants to convert to Christianity but they shouldn’t try to pretend they are Jews. That’s his view for information. Please don’t shoot (or argue with) the messenger.”

So I guess PamBG according to your Orthodox Jew friend, Jesus wasn’t a Jew for He was the Messiah and hense a Messianic Jew. :)


Richard 07.12.11 at 9:52 pm

>> “…according to your Orthodox Jew friend, Jesus wasn’t a Jew…

Can’t make my mind up whether I’m supposed to take that seriously.

Probably not.


jason 07.12.11 at 10:34 pm

Which White theologians object to the Black Christ? Kim makes that claim in the first sentence but never gives examples. Are these contemporary theologians? or is Kim drawing from past experience?



Kim 07.12.11 at 11:02 pm

Jason, Kim isn’t making the claim, he is citing probably America’s most distinguished African American theologian, Jame Cone. Curiously (to coin a phrase), I suspect he isn’t making it up.


jason 07.12.11 at 11:22 pm

Ah - I didn’t understand that the entire post was a quote. Thanks.

I did not state or imply that Cone (or Kim) was making it up. I specifically asked whether these are contemporary theologians, and - if so - who they are. Having just earned a graduate degree in theology, I’m not aware of any credible theologians working today who are unable to relate positively to anything black, though I certainly believe that they may still be around. [I guess I would just not call them credible...] This is likely due to the work of Cone and those that followed his lead, as well as the cultural advances over the last quarter century.


Tony Buglass 07.12.11 at 11:22 pm

“Which White theologians object to the Black Christ?”

I can’t quote any particular theologians, but I do recall hearing the story of a US church which had commissioned a stained-glass window picture of the face of Christ; when it was unveiled, they were horrified to see he had a dark face. The artist replied to their objections that Jesus wasn’t a white man, to which they responded he sure as heck wasn’t black. At that point the sun came out and shone through the window, and he was seen to be neither white nor black, but something approaching his true Mediterranean colouring.

It’s probably one of those preachers’ stories, or it might have its origins in a real event - I don’t know. I guess from the vast volume of art that Jesus is simply assumed to be white, and in much European theology until recent decades little was written which suggested anything different. It was only with Geza Vermes’ “Jesus the Jew” in 1973 that a serious attempt was made to understand Jesus in his true historical context. For too many years the influence of Bultmann had led to the widespread assumption that here was little history to be gleaned from the NT, and even when his pupils insisted that there must be SOMETHING we can know about Jesus they tended to work on the so-called criterion of dissimilarity - namely, if something cold be explained by reference to the Jewish of Hellenistic background, that was a later addition of tradition. Only things which could not be so explained were left to be authentic Jesus-tradition. Utter nonsense, of course, because that left a Jesus who was an alien, not connected with either his context or his consequences. That was why the so-called “Third Quest” arose, which is still going on, trying to see Jesus within his true historical context.

As I say, I cannot quote any theologian who would argue that Jesus was white, or that he was black, but the unconscious assumption leans in the direction of an unconscious racism, which is why James Cone wrote as he did.


Joseph W 07.13.11 at 12:02 am

Cone does sort of veer off towards radicalism, though.

Some of the stuff he writes, you think, steady on mate.


PamBG 07.13.11 at 1:08 am

So I guess PamBG according to your Orthodox Jew friend, Jesus wasn’t a Jew for He was the Messiah and hense a Messianic Jew.

doug, you’ve spent I don’t know how many months telling me I’m antisemitic, and now you say something which, if you knew what you’d said, would have been insulting to my friend. Arrrrrrrgggggghhhhh

Cone does sort of veer off towards radicalism, though.

Just over the edge. (e.g. I do actually believe that white people can inherit the Kingdom) But it’s mostly insightful and makes you think.


Kim 07.13.11 at 7:24 am

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

– Flannery O’Connor


doug 07.13.11 at 3:49 pm

PamBG, the point (I know rather sarcastically and humorously) is that there is a difference between being a Jew as a race and Jew as a religion. It seems when people try to combine them that there are issues. I was just pointing out the flawed logic of the Orthodox Rabbi in conjunction with Joseph pointing out within Judaism how Jews are Jews by race as well which the Orthodox Jew is neglecting even within his own religion.

I do find it interesting that some Christians do not like the term Messianic Jew when in fact Jesus was one by being the Messiah.

With regard to Salvation by Faith, the point being on another post the book of Romans and the book of Hebrews go hand in hand with regard to Jew/Gentile issues and Messianic Jew/Jew issues as well. In addition Salvation by Faith pre-Christ in the likeness of man and post Christ in the likeness of man. (likeness of man used as to be biblical)

PamBG, I have never said that you were antisemetic and definately that word or definition never came from my mouth.

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