1970s, Black Theology and Classism — Burrow on Cone and the Latin Americans

“[James H.] Cone was aware of the class question at the beginning of his writing career, but he felt that this issue was secondary to that of white racism. Contrary to his claim that there was no awareness of Marxism in his early theological-political consciousness, there was some awareness, as I showed in Chapter 4. Therefore, his claim in 1982 that his “introduction to Marx came with my encounter with Third World theologians, especially Latin American liberation theologians” is misleading. However, it may be that his dialogue with Latin American liberation theologians (which he says began in an informal way at a symposium sponsored by the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 1973), served to accentuate the significance of class analysis for him. As noted in Chapter 4, Cone’s first awareness of Marx and the class question appeared in embryonic form in his early writings. However, in the beginning his tendency was to ignore the class question in favor of racial analysis. In addition, he was highly suspicious of white socialists in both North and Latin America. As for the Latin Americans, Cone simply had not travelled in Latin American countries, and therefore did not have sufficient contact with them. In addition, he was aware that some Latin Americans claimed that there was no race problem on their continent, and therefore they perceived the fundamental issue to be classism. Cone knew, however, that there were more blacks in South America than in North America, and he wondered how it could be claimed that racism was not a problem when there were no blacks among the circle of Latin American liberation theologians. In addition, he was suspicious of white North American theologians and socialists because they welcomed Latin American liberation theologians but refused to recognize African American liberation theologians. They seemed to be able to conjure up a sense of radicalism about everything except the elimination of white racism, an issue they tried to ignore.

Though the initial meeting between African American liberation theologians and Latin American liberation theologians at the World Council of Churches symposium in Geneva in 1973 was not intended as a forum for these two groups per se, what was shared between them left a deep impression on both sides. Cone did not soon forget Paulo Freire’s comment that he (Cone) “is a Third World man because he was born in the world of dependence–of exploitation–within the First World.” In addition he had spoken of Cone as his friend. The comments by Hugo Assmann went even further (thought they were prevented from continuing the dialogue to determine similarities and dissimilarities in their respective experiences of oppression). In addition to picking up the theme of Third World people in the United States, i.e., poor and oppressed people, Assmann pointed out that it was more important for Latin Americans to dialogue with African American theologians than with white theologians from Europe and North America. In this regard he commented:

My biggest mistake in the first days of the symposium was that I was speaking to the participants and not to my friends who represent Black Theology. . . . I would like to say to my friends in Black Theology: I don’t know how this dialogue with you can be improved, but it is more important than European theology for us Latin Americans. I don’t want to destroy the connection with you [emphasis added].

Assmann made a minor capitulation from his earlier stance. According to Cone their initial attempts at dialogue were strained because Assmann felt so strongly about class analysis and was so critical of its absence in Cone’s theological project. Cone, on the other hand, was emotionally charged and highly critical of Assmann because of the absence of racial analysis in his project. Yet Cone was still able to make the explicit reference to Assmann as “a good friend” at the Theology in the Americas Conference in Detroit in 1975. At any rate, Cone said that Freire’s and Assmann’s referral to African Americans as Third World people indicated that “an openness was created from the Latin American side.” This was reciprocated by black theologians.

What is most interesting is that in his remarks at the Geneva symposium, Cone was talking the language of a sociologist of knowledge, which indicates that he was in the process of researching and thinking through his fourth book, God of the Oppressed. It is in this book that the idea of an on-going interplay between ideas and social context was systematically developed. In the context of his brief remarks in Geneva, Cone indicated that as long as we live in a world of oppressors and oppressed, it will be impossible to communicate on a level that really matters in terms of liberation and creating a social order where no group will dominate over any other merely because “they have different realities to which the symbols and the language refer.” All language, theological and otherwise, has a social context. The social context and location of the oppressed and the oppressor make communication difficult, if not impossible. The oppressed generally do not see either the problem or its solution(s) in quite the same way as the oppressor. Robert McAfee Brown reminds us that where one stands in society has much to do with what he or she sees or does not see!

Two years passed before the Latin Americans and blacks had another dialogue. The occasion was the Theology in the Americas (T.I.A.) Conference in 1975. To the dismay of black theologians the Conference was planned by whites as primarily an occasion for Latin American and white North American theologians to get together. This angered black theologians, and by conference time tensions were high. The Latin Americans and blacks insisted on the primacy of class and race analysis, respectively. It was reported that the Latin Americans “were too antagonistic toward any other contradiction (i.e., race and sex).”

There was much anger exhibited on both sides at the Detroit conference. However, Cone believes they left with a much better understanding of each other and a promise to conduct a continuing dialogue. Looking back on that meeting nearly ten years later Cone wrote:

It was at that time it became clear to me that either black theology would incorporate class analysis into its perspectives or it would become a justification of middle-class interests at the expense of the black poor. Although claiming to speak for the poor, we actually speak for ourselves.”

From Left to Right: Alem Habdu, James Cone, Abdul Alkalimet, Bill Sales and Mark Brown, 1987

— from Rufus Burrow Jr., James Cone and Black Liberation Theology, 1994, pp. 128-130.