JAMES HAL CONE
James Cone has been hailed as the father of contemporary Black liberation theology, which emerged out of the Black church in response to the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Among Black theologians he is one of the first to take a public stance against sexism in general and sexism in the Black community and church in particular. Cone knew, even when he published his first book, Black Theology and Black Power (1969), that the Gospel of liberation is for all people, but, like many Black men, he then believed that the fundamental and most pressing issue for the Black community was racism. Aware that the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was composed primarily of middle-class White women and few Black women, Cone initially concluded, like many of his Black male counterparts, that sexism was "a white thing" and not a serious problem in the Black community as such.
However, by 1972 Cone made a significant transition in his theology. He wrote of his deep appreciation of "black brothers and sisters who provided a critique, both positive and negative, of my earlier attempts to interpret the black religious experience and thus gave me the stimulus I needed for this present work."43 The reference to sisters (Black women) is significant, since it is an indication that by this time he was beginning to hear and acknowledge the voices and critiques of Black women.
In 1975 one finds not only the use of language inclusive of women but also language critical of sexism: "There is no place for male dominance of females. There can only be equality, and equality of power defined in the context of struggle."44 In his change of attitude toward women, Cone was moving much faster than his contemporaries in Black theology.
Challenged by Black and other "Third World" women, Cone could see that White women were not the only ones interested in women’s liberation. When he was asked by Black female students at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary to read a paper on the theme "New Roles in the Ministry: A Theological Appraisal," the event proved to be a turning point in Cone’s theology. "Black women know that their ministry has been severely limited, and they also know why," said Cone. "That is, they know who benefits from their
oppression."45 He pointed out that, although it is good to proclaim the need for the liberation of Black women, this alone is not adequate proof of genuine, substantive commitment. He went on to say that "the gospel bears witness to the God who is against oppression in any form, whether inflicted on an oppressed group from the outside or arising from within an oppressed community."46
In the same speech, Cone noted the contradiction when Black men protest against White racism while simultaneously oppressing their Black sisters. He was adamant that the status of women in the Black church was unacceptable and that it was time for Black men and women to deal with their differences openly and honestly. He called for the recognition that sexism is a serious problem in the Black church and community.47 This appeared radical at the time, but, upon reflection eight years later, Cone concluded that it was at best a tame statement, and one of which he could not be proud:
When I now read that October 1976 paper, I am embarrassed by how mildly and carefully I approached the theme of women’s equality in the church. It was anything but radical, somewhat analogous to a southern white liberal reflecting on racism. But black male seminarians, almost without exception, were greatly disturbed by my paper.
If my paper can be compared to that of a southern white liberal, the reactions of many black male seminarians were similar to those of most reactionary southern white racists. They quoted the Bible to justify that women should not be ordained, and some even insisted that they should not even be in the pulpit.48
In My Soul Looks Back (1982) and For My People (1984), Cone was even more explicit and passionate in his criticism of Black male sexism.49 He pointed out that Black churchwomen were urged to continue in their traditional roles in the choir, as ushers, cooks, head of the missionary society, Sunday school teachers, and so on, and were discouraged from seeking the pastorate. Many Black male pastors held that women could hold any office in the church, including that of evangelist ("a ministry with no institutional authority"), but not the pastorate! Cone observed that even the radical group of Black clergymen that formed the National Committee on Black Churchmen during the formative years of contemporary Black theology did not advocate equality for women in ministry. "It is shameful but scarcely surprising," Cone said, "that black theology learned the patriarchal bad habits of its progenitors."50
As a response to the theological narrowness of many Black theologians and that of White feminist theologians, Black religious scholars like Jackie Grant, Cheryl Gilkes, Katie Cannon, Karen Baker – Fletcher, Delores Williams, and Clarice Martin have begun developing a liberation theology that speaks more to their unique experience of triple jeopardy (i. e., as victims of racism, classism, and sexism). Influenced by Alice Walker’s use of the term womanist,51 they have given it the name Womanist Theology. Although there are still vestiges of sexism in the Black church, Cone’s work has played an important role in sensitizing the Black church to issues of gender.
What remains to be considered now is what Black men can and ought to do regarding the plight of Black women. I want to offer several suggestions. It is important to note, however, that each of the items listed is informed by two basic assumptions: 1) God is that personal being upon whom all beings depend for their existence and continuance. Inasmuch as the image of God is etched into the being of every person, there is no fundamental difference between persons (male and female) as such. But correlatively, every person is somebody, because created in God’s image. Because God loves them, all persons should be treated with dignity and respect. 2) One who recognizes that she or he is created and sustained by a God who values all persons equally must develop the highest conception or estimation of the worth and dignity of all persons, regardless of race, gender, age, or class. Adherence to the highest possible conception of persons will generally lead to one’s doing all in her or his power to avoid and put an end to dehumanizing and depersonalizing practices.
Therefore, in the case of persons—more particularly Black women—the way we treat each other reflects how we think about God and whether we generally think highly or lowly of persons as such. With this in mind, I make a few suggestions regarding what Black men can do to aid in the elimination of individual and institutional sexism. These are not listed in any order of priority:
1. Listen to the stories of pain and hurt as told by Black women in all quarters of this society. Do not talk. Listen!
2. Acknowledge that sexism, like racism and other practices that alienate persons from each other and the creator, is not merely a sociohistorical and political problem but a theological problem. Anything that alienates persons from each other is inconsistent with what a loving God requires of us.
3. Those guilty of uncritically participating in sexist structures should openly confess their sin, followed by the necessary steps to put into practice what the new-found position requires.
4. Notwithstanding that some women are as conservative and sexist backward in their thinking and practice regarding male-female relations as many men, we should take our clues from women in terms of what we should be saying and doing about the issue of sexism.
5. Any supportive statements about the gender issue should generally be made in the presence of other men. The best place to make one’s witness regarding sexism is among sexist males. Malcolm X made a similar point about the role of wellmeaning Whites regarding the race question. He reminded them that it is more helpful to make their witness within the White community from which racism emanates, rather than in the presence of Blacks. It is relatively easy for men to witness about sexism among enlightened women (and men). The real challenge is whether they have the moral fiber and courage to do so within a crowd of unenlightened, sexist males (and females)!
6. Speak up for women’s rights and interests whether or not women are present. If only one woman is a part of some group, do not expect her to always raise the issue of women’s concerns, since to expect this implies disregard for her already overburdened, painful situation. The traditionally excluded need not be present for us to "do the right thing."
7. Understand that women’s liberation is not a joke but, as Cone contends, is "a viable issue." Take it seriously, and insist that others do the same.
8. Take seriously affirmative action measures for women in churches and other societal structures. Be imaginative; be
radical. If a so-called secular model of affirmative action requires the presence of at least one woman in a managerial position, for example, insist on the hiring of two or more! This is especially crucial for Black men who claim to hold deep religious convictions.
9. Support Black women in their efforts to find present and past role models in the ministry and other professions.
10. Be intentional about altering your language about God, recognizing that this is but one necessary step in the right direction. Understand that because we get on board the inclusive language train does not in itself translate into radically transformed societal structures. Cone is instructive when he writes that "it is easy to change the language of oppression without changing the sociopolitical situation of its victims. I know existentially what this means from the vantage point of racism. Whites have learned how to use less offensive language, but they have not changed the power relations between blacks and whites in the society."52 The same phenomenon occurs with respect to Black male theologians and the issue of gender. They talk less offensively as a result of the emerging Womanist theology, but they have done little in substantive ways to alter structures from which they benefit.