James Cone on Moltmann and the “Hope Theologians”

James Cone (Image Source: Wikipedia)

It also became clear to me between 1975 and 1980 that I personally could not authentically frame a “theology in context” and a “theology in movement” (liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology), for I am not living in the Third World, am not oppressed, and am not a woman. In those years, I tried as best I could to let the voices of silenced men and women be heard in the world too – the world in which I myself live. I initiated translations and provided them with commendatory prefaces. I wrote essays supporting liberation theology and feminist theology, African theology and Korean Minjung theology. But all this did not blind me to the fact that my life and my context are not theirs.
Jürgen MoltmannThe Trinity and the Kingdom, p. vii.

Before reading Moltmann, I was almost completely unfamiliar with liberation theology, aside from an outside reference here or there (generally not in a favorable light!). I found that Moltmann would write frequently on themes of liberation, sometimes in direct conversation with liberation theologians (some of whom he calls “friends”). Though Moltmann himself could not be a liberation theologian (as he explains in the quote above), he has devoted a considerable amount of energy into making sure that the cry of the oppressed for God found in liberation theologies be heard by a broader audience.

So, based on Moltmann’s commendations, I decided to check out a book by a black liberation theologian – God of the Oppressed, by James Cone.

Moltmann describes his first encounter with Cone in Experiences in Theology: “I first met Jim Cone, the creator of ‘black theology’, at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion in 1969, in one of the huge New York hotels. I had talked about hope and poetry under the title ‘How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ He came up to me to say that he was working on a theological interpretation of the black blues and spirituals. We got on at once and became friends.” (p. 190) Moltmann’s wife, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendell, describes the impact of meeting Cone on her own thought in How I Have Changed: “Another important experience was a visit by James Cone, the Afro-American liberation theologian. He made liberation theology, with its quite different approach, clear to me: beginning with human experience which is not limited to that of the dominant white male stratum.” (p. 40)

Below are a few paragraphs from God of the Oppressed where Cone explains the contextual difference between “hope theology” and “liberation theology”, and offers a critique of American “hope theologians” for being interested only in philosophical theology, to the neglect of concrete engagement with the situation of the oppressed. A timely and helpful reminder!

It is important to point out that black people in their sermons, prayers, and songs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were talking about the politics of hope long before the appearance of hope theology in Germany. The rise of hope theology is related to the increasing disenchantment of contemporary European theologians with the alternatives posed by Barth’s kerygmatic theology and Bultmann’s existentialist approach. Unlike Barth who ignored Marx and in contrast to Bultmann who seemed to depoliticize the gospel, the hope theologians made political praxis a decisive ingredient in theology itself, thereby laying the groundwork for dialogue with Marxism. By contrast, black people’s talk about hope, though contemporary with Marx, did not arise out of a dialogue with Marxism. Black religion and its emphasis on hope came into being through black people’s encounter with the Crucified and Risen Lord in the context of American slavery. In their encounter with Jesus Christ, black slaves received a “vision from on high” wherein they were given a new knowledge of their personhood, which enabled them to fight for the creation of a world defined by black affirmations. Their hope sprang from the actual presence of Jesus, breaking into their broken existence, and bestowing upon them a foretaste of God’s promised freedom. They could fight against slavery and not give up in despair, because they believed that their earthly struggle was a preparation for the time when they would “cross over Jordan” and “walk in Jerusalem just like John.” They were willing to “bear heavy burdens,” “climb high mountains,” and “stand hard trials,” because they were “trying to get home.” Home was the “not yet,” the other world that was not like this one. Jesus was the divine coming One who would take them to the “bright mansions above.”

Unfortunately, American white “hope” theologians have been influence too much by German and American philosophical discourse on hope and too little by the actual bearers of hope in our social existence. And if they continue their talk about hope primarily in relation to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Moltmann, and Pannenberg, while ignoring hope disclosed in the songs and tales of black slaves, then we can only conclude that white theology’s hope is a reason for despair on the part of the oppressed and thus alien to the gospel of Jesus.  How can Christian theology truly speak of the hope of Jesus Christ, unless that hope begins and ends with the liberation of the poor in the social existence in which theology takes shape? In America this means that there can be no talk about hope in the Christian sense unless it is talk about the freedom of black, red, and brown people.

I am baffled that many American white theologians continue to do theology independently of the oppressed of the land. That a public conference on Hope and the Future of Man could be held in New York (1971) featuring Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Metz but including no one from Africa, Latin America, or even black America is completely beyond my comprehension. I contend that when theological discourse overlooks the oppressed and the hope given by Jesus Christ in their struggle, it inevitably becomes “abstract” talk, geared to the ideological justification of the status quo.

Jürgen Moltmann raised this issue in the New York conference on hope in his public response to the American theologians of hope.

The future which does not begin in this transformation of the present is for me no genuine future. A hope which is not the hope of the oppressed today is no hope for which I could give a theological account. A resurrection symbol which is not the symbolizing resurrection of the crucified one does not touch me. If theologians and philosophers of the future do not plant their feet on the ground and turn to a theology of the cross and the dialectic of the negative, they will disappear in a cloud of liberal optimism and appear a mockery of the present misery of the suffering. If we cannot justify the theme of the conference, “Hope and the Future of Man,” before the present reality of the frustration and oppression of man, we are batting the breeze and talking merely for our own self-satisfaction.

The public reaction was intense but mixed. Some thought the comment was in bad taste and others said that Moltmann rightly exposed the navel-gazing of academic theologians. This issue was taken up again in a small working group of about forty theologians. I was the only black person present, which seemed to be due to my faculty status at Union Theological Seminary. (All Union Theological Seminary faculty were invited.) In the first workshop meeting (there were three in all), theologians discussed hope’s relation to politics as defined by Moltmann. Most seemed uncomfortable with the discussion, because they had come to discuss the philosophical structure of hope as defined by Whitehead, Teilhard, and Bloch and not the political status of poor people. In the other two workshops, discussion returned to its expected status.
God of the Oppressed, p. 127-129

For an excellent introduction to Moltmann’s relationship to Liberation Theology, check out these posts by Kevin Brown:

I also recommend listening to James Cone’s sermon, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

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