James H. Cone, a leading figure of Black Liberation Theology and of American religious socialism, died on Saturday, April 28.
We invite readers of Religious Socialism to reflect on Cone's 1980 essay "The Black Church and Marxism: What Do They Have To Say To Each Other?"
Cone wrote this essay for a seminar sponsored by the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, DSA's predecessor. In it, he calls on African-Americans to "indigenize marxism, that is, to reiterpret it for our own situation," and he calls on socialists, especially white socialists, to be willing to "take seriously the uniqueness of black oppression" and to "consider whether the black church has something distinctive to contribute to the struggle to create a new socialist society." Cone writes:
Hope in black religion is based on a vision not present in, but created out of, historical struggle. If we limit our hope to what is, then we destroy it. Hope is the expectation of that which is not. It is a belief that the impossible is possible, the "not yet" is coming in history. Without hope, the people perish...To believe in God is to know that our hope is grounded in Jesus Christ, the crucified Lord whose resurrected presence creates a new hope for a better world. Why not think that the "not yet" is possible? Why not think of a completely new society and begin to devise ways to realize it on earth? For if our heavenly visions have no earthly realizations, then they can only serve as a sedative that eases the pain of an unbearable present. Is that the extent of black religion's essence?...Perhaps what we need today is to return to that "good old-time religion" of our grandparents and combine with it a marxist critique of society. Together black religion and marxist philosophy may show us the way to build a completely new society. With that combination, we may be able to realize in the society the freedom of which we sing and pray for in the black church.