In his book, Who Is Jesus Christ For Us Today, James Cone Ph.D., answers this question taking into consideration the dynamic interplay between social context, Scripture, and tradition from a Black perspective.
By the “social context,” Cone refers to the encounter of Jesus Christ in our ordinary everyday existence. It is the experience of Christ in the social world of injustice and oppression: a world of top-dog and underdog. It is the experience of Jesus in the midst of life’s absurdities that motivates one toward exploration of the Christological question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?
Cone cautions against assuming however, that the meaning of Christ is derived from or dependent upon our social context. He insists that the Scriptures must also be incorporated into our total understanding of the truth of Jesus Christ. He feels that this is vital because it provides us with reliable data about the Jesus Christ we encounter in our social existence.
Tradition, Cone declares, is “the bridge that connects Scripture with our contemporary situation.” He sees the Black religious tradition as representative of the Black Church’s affirmation of their humanity as well as affirmation of their faith at various junctions in history. This, he believes, provides the Black Church of today with a deeper understanding of the truth of Jesus Christ.
According to Cone then, social context, Scripture and tradition form the theological presuppositions upon which an investigation into the meaning of Christ should begin.
Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Cone poignantly points out that “Jesus is who He was.” The historical Jesus was the truly human Jesus who was also a Jew. His humanness and His identity as a Jew are both relevant and important for the affirmation of faith. Cone stresses that Jesus was not so much a “universal” man, but He was a “particular” man; a particular Jew who came to fulfill God’s will to liberate the oppressed. Blacks could relate to the historical human Jesus because He stood as a symbol of human suffering and rejection. Jesus too, was unaccepted and rejected of men; Jesus too, was beaten and condemned, mistreated and misunderstood; Jesus too, suffered from an unjust social system where the “little ones” were oppressed. Blacks identified with the historical Christ because they believed He shared in their misery and struggles. Without the humanness of historical Jesus, Cone contends that “we have no basis to contend that His coming bestows upon us the courage and the wisdom to struggle against injustice and oppression.”
Secondly, Cone suggests that “Jesus is who He is.” What he seems to be saying is that who Jesus is today is intrinsically related to who He was yesterday. His past existence affirms His present reality that is experienced with the common life. Thus, Blacks believed, not only because of the validity and authenticity of the historical Christ, but also because of their actual experience of the Christ in their everyday social existence. Christ in the present helped and strengthened them in their struggle for liberation in an oppressive society. The experience of Christ in the present enabled them to keep on fighting for justice even when odds were stacked against them. Their view of a just social order was inseparable from their faith in God’s liberating presence in Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, the meaning of Christ is taken further when Cone suggests that “Jesus is who He will be.” He is “not only the Crucified and Risen Lord, but also the Lord of the future who is coming again to fully consummate the liberation already happening in our present.” Black hope, which emerged from an encounter with Christ in the fight for freedom, is the hope that Jesus will come again and establish divine justice. The eschatological hope found in Black faith was not an opiate, but was born out of struggle in their present reality.
Finally, Cone asserts that “Jesus is Black.” He is not referring to a color but a state or experience of oneness. He draws an analogy between Christ’s historical Jewishness and present Blackness. Cone seems to be at least intimating that as the Jews were the elect chosen for divine liberation in history, so are Blacks chosen for liberation through Jesus in the present to be fully realized in the future.
Jesus’ blackness to Cone is both literal and symbolic. In the literal sense, Christ becomes one with the oppressed Blacks. He takes on their suffering and pain. Symbolically, He represents the Black experience.
This book is enlightening and educative in that it sheds a bright light on the subjectivity of Black Theology.