James H. Cone

(1938 - )

The Relationship of the Christian Faith to Political Praxis"
Princeton Theological Seminary

Princeton, New Jersey - March 12, 1980

James H. Cone

Theologian James Cone is the main architect of black liberation theology, a strand of Christianity that grew out of the black power movement and interprets the Bible through the lens of the African American freedom struggle. Cone's first book, Black Theology and Black Power, was published in 1969 and, as one critic wrote, sparked an historic and unprecedented shift in African-American religious and theological thought."1 Scores of African American churches adopted its principles. Cone published his second book the following year, expanding on the ideas of black liberation theology and declaring, Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ's message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology."2

Among the early adherents to black liberation theology was the reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Barack Obama's former pastor. In 1972, Wright took over Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago and turned it into a massive institution, offering numerous programs for the poor. During the 2008 presidential election, Wright was depicted as a dangerous militant for sermons he delivered that condemned white America for racism. In a 2003 sermon, he said, The government gives [African Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America'? No, no, no, not 'God Bless America,' 'God Damn America.'"3 Obama had been close to Wright for years, but there was no evidence he shared all of Wright's beliefs. Nevertheless, in the heat of a close primary campaign, Obama was forced to repudiate his pastor to avoid alienating white voters. At the time of the controversy, Cone said Trinity was the best representation" of black liberation theology and that if Wright's sermons were offensive it was because he speaks the truth in harsh, blunt terms."4

James Cone was born in Arkansas in 1938 and raised in the small, segregated town of Bearden. It was a place where the white people tried to make us believe that God created black people to be white people's servants,"5 Cone said. Cone's father, Charlie, supported the family as a wood-cutter. In the early 1950s, Charlie sued the local school board to desegregate Bearden's public schools. Under segregation the colored" schools were invariably inferior to the white schools. Whites threatened to lynch Charlie Cone for his action, and it took several more years for the Bearden schools to desegregate. But Charlie Cone's brave move left a deep impression on his son. Cone said later, No person has influenced me more than my father in his courage, sense of self, and the clarity of his commitment to end racial injustice."6

Cone's mother, Lucille, was a powerful orator in the family's African Methodist Episcopal church and her example also left its mark on Cone. He says she gave me the gift of speech and faith [in the church], which is where I discovered my own voice."7 Cone felt protected from the daily onslaught of racism when he was in church, a place he says "affirmed your somebody-ness in a society that treated you as nobodies." In Cone's church, the preachers "always let us know that segregation was against God's will."8 They focused their sermons on Bible passages that reinforced this message.

Cone felt his own call to the ministry when he was 16 years old. At age 17 he enrolled in college and became a pastor. Cone received his B.A. from Philander Smith College in Little Rock in 1958, and several years later a masters in divinity from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He earned his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Northwestern University in 1965. Cone was on the faculty at Adrian College in Michigan from 1966 to 1969, a time of tremendous racial upheaval in the United States. It was during that period that his ideas about black liberation theology began to crystallize.

As a young minister and theologian, Cone was deeply swayed by Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent approach to black liberation. But Malcolm X's declaration that Christianity was a white man's religion led Cone to question his own theological perspective. Violent white backlash in the South and police brutality and urban unrest in the North in the late 1960s further tested Cone's faith. As he told the New Yorker in 2008, "It was the riots in Detroit, in Newark, both in '67 – that was what shook me. I said to myself, 'I have to have a theology that speaks to the hurt in my community. I want a theology that would empower people to be more creative. To be just as aggressive as they are in the riots, but more constructive.'"9 Cone wrote Black Theology and Black Power during the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination. According to one account, it took Cone just a month to complete the book. He described the process as a "conversion experience,"10 and said it was like he had a fire inside him.11

Since 1969, Cone has published 10 books and more than 100 articles about black liberation theology, expanding and refining his ideas in response to an array of thoughtful critics and the changing times. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X remain his abiding influences. Cone says, "I am an African-American theologian whose perspective on the Christian religion was shaped by Martin King and whose black consciousness was defined by Malcolm X."12 For Cone, black liberation theology is a fusion of their two philosophies. "I wanted to bring Martin and Malcolm together," he says, "so we can fight for justice as Martin King said, but love ourselves as Malcolm X said." Cone continues, "Malcolm said the worst crime white people have committed is to teach black people to hate themselves; that's why we kill each other in the ghettoes, etc…Black theology is bringing Martin and Malcolm together teaching us how to be both unapologetically black and Christian at the same time."

Cone has taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City since 1969. He won tenure early in his career and in 1987 was named Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology. Cone has won numerous awards and widespread praise for his groundbreaking work. Religious scholar C. Eric Lincoln said Cone "transcends the black revolution and offers to America, and to the church, a key to understanding more about the [Christian] faith than we have ever undertaken to learn."13

Cone is a forceful critic of white theologians who don't speak out against racism. "Their silence stems partly from a distorted understanding of what the Gospel means in a racially broken world," Cone said in a 2006 interview. "White theologians have not succeeded in making an empathetic bond with the pains and hurts of people of color." Cone speculates that, if their own children or parents were suffering discrimination, these theologians "would not only write passionately against it, but would make their rejection of injustice an essential part of their reflection on the Gospel." Cone concludes, "Of all the evils that exist in society, racism is one of the most intractable, because it is so difficult to name and so easy to deny."14

In this lecture, which Cone delivered at the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1980, he explains how black liberation theology grew out of the black power movement, and the connection between Christian faith and the political struggle for justice, freedom and equality.


Listen to the speech

Thank you very much. I'm very pleased to be here today and to share in this occasion with you. The theme of my lecture is Christian faith and political praxis. In this lecture, my concern is to examine the relationship of the Christian faith to political praxis, with special reference to the concrete realities of oppressed and oppressor whites and blacks; and the church's responsibility to preach and to live the gospel of Jesus Christ in a highly industrialized and capitalistic society.

What is the Christian faith? And what does it have to say about the rich and the poor, and the social, economic, and political conditions that determine that relationship? To answer this question is not easy in North America, because we live in a society that claims to separate church and state, religion and politics. Christianity, it is often said, is concerned with spiritual reality, but not with the material conditions of people. This view of the Christian faith is commonly held inside and outside of organized churches, thereby supporting the conservative role that religion has often played in politics.

If the Christian faith is no more than the cultural and the political intrigues of rulers transformed into theological categories, then Karl Marx is right in his contention that "Religion is the opium of the people," and therefore, should be eliminated with other legitimizing agencies in an oppressive society.

But if religion generally, and the Christian faith in particular, is an imaginative and apocalyptic vision about the creation of a new humanity that is derived from the historical and the political struggles of oppressed peoples, then to describe it as a sedative is to misunderstand religion's essential nature, and its later revolutionary and humanizing thrust in society.

When the meaning of the Christian faith is derived from the bottom and not from the top of those on the socioeconomic ladder, from people who are engaged in the fight for justice, and not from those who seek to maintain the status quo, then something radical and revolutionary happens to the function of the holy in the context of the secular.

Viewed from the perspective of oppressed peoples' struggle for freedom, the holy becomes a radical challenge to the legitimacy of the secular structures of power by creating eschatological images about a vision of experience that is not confined to the values of this world.

This strange and revolutionary character of the Christian faith – that is this is the strange, rather, and revolutionary character of the Christian faith that is often misunderstood by church and non-church people alike. When we permit ourselves to experience the root meaning of the biblical message, and to hear the claims that it lays upon all who would dare to be Christian in this world, then we will see the radical difference between the established churches and the truth of the gospel. For inherent in the Christian gospel is the refusal to accept the things that are as the things that ought to be. This great refusal is what makes Christianity what it is, and thus infuses in its very nature a radicality that can never accept the world as it is.

This radical perspective of the biblical faith has not always been presented as an essential part of the Christian gospel. At least since the time of the Emperor Constantine and his making of Christianity the official religion of the Roman state, the chief interpreters of the Christian tradition have advocated a spiritual view of the Gospel that separated the confession of faith from the practice of political justice. Whether we speak of Augustine's identification of the slavery with the sins of the slave; Luther's stand against the peasants' revolt; the white Americans' church endorsement of black slavery; or of contemporary European and American theology indifference toward the political embodiment of the gospel; it is unquestionably clear that the dominant representatives of the Christian tradition, both Protestant and Catholic alike, have contributed to the political oppression of humanity by defending the economic interests of the rich against the poor.

When the Gospel is spiritualized so as to render it invisible the important economic distinction between the haves and the have-nots, the dialectical relation between faith and the practice of political justice is also obscured. Recently, this assumed separation between faith and political praxis has been seriously challenged by the appearance of liberation theology in North and South America, Asia and Africa. Whether we speak of black theology, feminist theology, or African theology, liberation theology in all forms rejects the dichotomy between spiritual and physical salvation, between faith and political praxis and insists upon their dialectical relationship.

Liberation theology has been created by people who consciously seek to speak to and for the victims of economic and political injustice as represented in racism, classism and sexism. The advocates of this new theology are intolerant of any perspective of Christianity that fails to relate the Gospel of Jesus to the economic and social conditions of people. They contend that the Gospel embraces the whole human person in society, in work and in play. This means that the Gospel is inseparably connected with the bodily liberation of the poor. Because I am a black North American theologian, whose political and religious consciousness has been shaped in and by black peoples' historical fight for justice, I agree with my theological colleagues in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, who contend that the Gospel cannot be separated from the concrete struggles of freedom among the oppressed of the land. Indeed, this theological conviction has been an essential and integral part of the black religious tradition from its beginning; and it was reinforced on my theological consciousness during the civil rights movement, and in the context of the rise of black power.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, which was created and largely centered in the black churches with Martin Luther King, Jr. as its charismatic leader, demonstrated the continuing relevancy of black religion in the struggle for political and social justice. Not only were political strategy sessions held in the context of black church worship, but many black ministers withdrew from former denominational ties in order to devote full time to sit-ins, freedom rides, and other political activities. But the increasing violence of the existing structures in North American society, as well as black people's determination to exert their freedom in opposition to it led many black civil rights workers to question Martin King's uncompromising devotion to the principal of nonviolence. Thus, in the context of the James Meredith March in Mississippi, spring 1966, and in the light of the years of carefully organized violence of white society structures, Willy Rich sounded the cry of "black power!" And Stokely Carmichael and others enthusiastically accepted the intellectual and political challenge to define its social relevance in American society.

Black theology was born in response to the rise of black power, and in the context of the organization of the National Committee of Negro Churchmen. From the very beginning, black theology was interpreted as the theological arm of black power, with the responsibility to define the religious meaning of our prior political commitment to black liberation. The initial move in this direction was the publication of the "Black Power Statement," July 1966, in which an ad hoc ecumenical group of black church people defended the right of black people to empower themselves against the encroachment of white racism. Following the "Black Power Statement," many black church people began to move away from Martin King's rigid commitment to nonviolence; and to express their solidarity with James Forman's Marxist and revolutionary black manifesto: "Although we respected the integrity of Martin King's commitment to the struggle for justice, we nonetheless felt that his nonviolent method for radical change in society structures was not radical enough, and also, too dependent upon the possibility of change in the hearts of white oppressors."

The problem of King's assumption was that it did not take seriously enough Henry Holland Garnett's claim that if slaves would be free, they must themselves strike the blow. The theological meaning of Garnett's assertion for black Christians had to be worked out in the historical context of black violence. As black people were being systematically exterminated through the American military structures, dramatically symbolized in Watts, Detroit, and Newark abortive insurrections, we black theologians had to ask: What has the Gospel to do with life and death and the struggle of people to be free in an extreme situation of oppression?

The existential and political implications of this question forced upon us to take a new look at the theological enterprise. And we concluded that the beginning and the end of the Christian faith is found in the struggle for justice on behalf of the victims of oppressive society structures. Whatever else theology might be, we contended that it must take sides with the victims, who are economically and politically oppressed. If theology does not side with the victims of injustice, how then can it represent the victim, Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified because he was a threat to the political and religious structures of his time?

That insight impressed itself upon our consciousness to such a degree that we began to speak of a black theology of liberation. Our central concern was to show that the Christian faith, as lived by oppressed black people in particular, and oppressed people in the world in general, has been and more importantly can be, an instrument of political and economic freedom. It is out of this historical context of the black church, identification of the Christian gospel with the political liberation of the poor, that I would like to say a word about faith and work, theology and the practice of political justice.

In this lecture, I will try to state what faith demands of praxis, and what praxis demands of faith. The discussion will proceed with a description of faith in the context of black theology, and then to an examination of the praxis inherent in that faith. We look first [to] faith in Christ the liberator.

Faith is a religious term that expresses a person's commitment to the ultimate. According to Paul Tillich, faith is a total and centered act of the personal sect; the act of unconditional, infinite and ultimate concern. In its broadest theological sense, then, faith may refer to one's commitment to the things of this world, and more narrowly be limited to the god in organized religion. The distinctive characteristic of faith is its total commitment to that which functions as the ultimate in one's life, giving it order and meaning. Faith, then, is that total commitment that gives a people its identity, and thus determines what they must do in order to actualize in society what they believe necessarily for the attainment of their peoplehood.

When faith is understood as commitment to an ultimate concern, then it is obvious that there can be no separation between faith and obedience, because obedience determines faith. I know what your faith is, not by what you confess, but only by what you do. I will say more about this particular point in our discussion of praxis. At this juncture, I merely want to emphasize that the very nature of faith demands a practical activity, commensurate with its confession. Within the general definition of faith, I am dealing with the Christian faith, which may be defined as that total commitment arising from Jesus of Nazareth; his life, death, and resurrection. Faith as defined in the Christian context is not the leap in propositional truths designated as important by organized churches. Rather, it is an ultimate commitment to a particular god who revealed the fullness of divinity in the human presence of Jesus Christ.

In order to clarify the sociological content of my theological affirmation, it is necessary to state the source of my faith perspective. My view of the Christian faith is derived from the biblical method, as interpreted in the liberation struggle of an oppressed, black, North American community; and reinforced by similar interpretations among oppressed people fighting for freedom throughout the world. From the dialectical relationship of these historical contexts arises the theological conviction that the Bible is the story of God's liberation of victims from economic and political oppression.

Historically, the story begins with the liberation of Israelite slaves from Egypt and the establishment of the Covenant at Sinai:

"You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among people. For all the Earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

In the Old Testament, faith in God is based upon a historical event of rescue, wherein Israelites become God's free people with the responsibility of spreading freedom throughout the land. Faith is accepting the gift of freedom and putting one's absolute trust in the promise of God to be with the little ones in time of trouble. When Israel lapses from this faith, in God's righteousness, and forgets her slave heritage by treating the poor unjustly, divine love is transformed into wrath. The God of the Old Testament is a god of justice, whose revelation is identical with the liberation of the oppressed. For the basic human sin is the attempt to be God; to take God's place by ordering the societal and political structures according to one's social interest. Sin is not primarily a religious impurity, but rather social, political and economic oppression of the poor. It is the denial of the humanity of the neighbor through unjust political and economic arrangement.

When the prophets laid their demand before the kings and the priests of Israel, the demand is identical with justice for the poor and the weak. A faith that expresses itself in ritual is not enough:

"I hate, I despise your feast and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offering and sterile offering, I will not accept them, and the peace offering of your feted beast I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs. To the melody of your harp I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

Amos and other prophets contend that Israel will be sent back into servitude. Not because the people failed to attend religious services, but because of their economic oppression of the poor.

The same theme of God's solidarity with the victim is found in the New Testament, where it receives a universal expression in the particularity of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. The appearance of Jesus as the oppressed one prevents any easy identification with his ministry. Jesus was not a successful person by North American standards. Neither was he morally good and religiously respected. He identified with the prostitutes and drunkards, the unemployed and the poor, not because he felt sorry for them, but in order to reveal God's judgment against social and religious structures that oppress the weak. Jesus was born like the poor, he lived with them, and on the cross he died like them. If Jesus is the divine revelation of God's intention for humanity, then faith is nothing but trust in the one who came in Christ for the liberation of the poor. To place one's trust in this god means that one's value system is no longer derived from the established structures of the world, but from one's struggle against those unjust structures.

Now, it is significant that this biblical theme of God's solidarity with the historical liberation of the oppressed is notably absent of the songs and the sermons of white missionaries when they introduce their version of Christianity to African slaves in North America. Like all oppressors who interpret the Gospel in the light of their right to dominate others, white preachers contended that God willed Africans to be slaves. And they cited the biblical reference to Noah's curse upon Ham and to Apostle Paul's slave, "Be obedient to your masters" as the theological justification of their claim. But slaves rejected the white distortions of the Gospel, and insisted that God willed their freedom and not their slavery. As evidence, they pointed to the Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus' preaching of the Gospel to the poor and not the rich.

Through sermons, prayers, songs and testimonies, black slaves created a qualitatively different version of Christianity when compared with the religion of their masters. The distinctiveness of this black faith was its focus upon God's will to liberate the oppressed. That was why the independent black churches were created in the North; and the so-called invisible, secret institution was formed in the South. Black people were determined to fashion a faith that was identical with their political fight for justice. In the ecstasy of their church services was born their encounter with the god of Moses and of Jesus. And he bestowed upon them the power to articulate in their present history the freedom they experienced in their worship and read about in the scriptures. That's why they sang, "Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom I love thee. And before I be a slave, I be buried in my grave. And go home to my Lord and be free."

The historical [em]bodiment of black faith is found not only in the creation of separate, institutional black churches, with songs, prayers and liberation; also important is the presence of black faith outside of the confessionals and organizational framework of black churches. Black faith is found in secular songs and stories, slave insurrections and protest assemblies. This faith cannot be imprisoned in church structures and prayers of black preachers. When I speak of black faith, I am referring only secondarily to organized religion, and primarily to black people's collected acknowledgment of the spirit of liberation in their midst – a spirit who empowers them to struggle for freedom, even though the odds might be against them. This is the historical matrix out of which my hermeneutical perspective has been formed.

Since other oppressed peoples in and outside of North America are making similar claims regarding God's solidarity with the poor, the North American black perspective is reinforced and enlarged. Indeed, the universal dimensions of the biblical faith so central in the New Testament, is found in God's will to make liberation not simply the property of not one people, but of all humankind. Where people are being, wherever people are being dehumanized, divine righteousness is disclosed in that historical struggle to be other than what is intended by their oppressors.

Faith, then, is a human response to the liberating presence of the divine spirit in an oppressed community. God's spirit is liberating because God gives people the courage and power to resist dehumanization and slavery. So through faith, oppressed people receive the gift of a new humanity that can only be realized in the historical struggle of liberation. But since faith does not have included in its confession the social analyses needed to implement its eschatological vision of freedom, it – faith, that is – must relate itself to a social theory in order to actualize in society what it confesses in its worship. This leads us to an analysis of praxis. Faith and praxis.

In philosophical and theological circles, "praxis" is a term closely related to the philosophy of Karl Marx. It is perhaps best summarized in Marx's often quoted, eleventh theses on Feuerbach: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it." Praxis, then, is that directive activity toward freedom, wherein people recognize that truth is not primarily a question of theory, but is a practical question. In practice, people must prove the truth by destroying the existing relations of untruth. And it has been said, the question of the essence of freedom is not only a question; it is, it wants participation in the production of freedom. It is an activity through which freedom frees itself. In its broadest sense, praxis is connected with the Christian idea of obedience, and is identical with the horizontical implementation of the vertical dimensions of faith.

According to the New Testament, Jesus says, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven; but he that does the will of my Father who is in heaven." A similar point is made in first John: "He who does right is righteous. If one says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother or sister, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother or sister, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." For inherent in the biblical faith, then, he finds it. In contemporary theology, no one made this point any clearer than Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he said, "Only he who believes is obedient. And only he who is obedient, believes." Bonhoeffer continues, "It is quite unbiblical to hold the first proposition without the second. Faith is only real when there is obedience; never without it. And faith only becomes faith in an act of obedience. Therefore," Bonhoeffer says, "only the obedient believe. Without this preliminary step of obedience," he says, "our faith is only a pious humbug, and leads to grace that is not costly."

In North America, black slaves' perception of this biblical insight enabled them to make the distinction between the confession of faith and the obedience that validated it. They knew that their slavery invalidated white religion. That's why they sang, "Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there." [laughter] Some slaves even contented that no white people went to heaven. On one occasion, a white minister's sermon was interrupted by an elderly slave with the question, "Is us slaves gonna be free in heaven?" The white preacher paused with surprise and with anger, but Uncle Silas was persistent. "Is God gonna free us slaves when we get to heaven?" The remainder of this incident was described by a slave who was present: "The old white preacher pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his face. 'Jesus says, "Come unto me, ye that are free from sin, and I will give you salvation,"' preached the preacher. 'Gonna give us freedom along with salvation?' asked Uncle Silas. 'The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. He that is without sin is gonna have life everlasting,' preached the preacher. Then he went ahead preaching fast-like, without paying any attention to Uncle Silas."

Uncle Silas was insisting upon a practical implications of faith, which the white preacher had no intentions of granting – especially in view of the economic and the political consequences. Now, because oppressors do not reorder the structures of society on the basis of, and appeal to, the practical implications of faith, praxis is more than the biblical understanding of obedience. It is this more that gives it its distinctive identity. Praxis is a specific kind of obedience that organizes itself around a social theory of reality, in order to implement in society the freedom that is inherent in faith. If faith is the belief that God created all for freedom, then praxis is the social theory used to analyze the structures of injustice, so that we will know what must be done for the historical realization of freedom. To sing about freedom and to pray for its coming is not enough. Freedom must be actualized in history by oppressed people who accept the intellectual challenge to analyze the world for the purpose of changing it.

The focus on praxis for the purpose of societal change is what distinguishes Marx from Hegel, liberation theology from other theologies of freedom. That is why Marx studied the economic forces in society, and why liberation theologians in Latin America find his social theory so basic in the development of their theological enterprise. For the same reason, black liberation theologians also connect their theological program to social theories about racism. Feminist theologians do the same in their analyses of sexism. While there are different emphases among liberation theologians regarding the major historical contradiction in society, yet they all agree with the need to relate theology to our social theory of reality. Because they share the conviction that truth is found in the active transformation of unjust societal structures.

For liberation theologians, then, faith and praxis belong together, because faith can only be expressed in a political commitment to the humanization of society. We believe that inherent in faith is the love of God. And the latter can only be manifested in the love of one's neighbor. Therefore Gutierrez writes, "To know God is to do justice." He continues, "It is not enough to say that the love of God is inseparable from the love of one's neighbor. It must be added that the love of God is unavoidably expressed through the love of one's neighbor."

But in order to protect love from sentimentality, we must analyze it in the fabric of social relationship, where people are situated in economic, cultural and racial coordinates. What does it mean to love the exploited social classes, the dominated people or modulated race? That's the question. It is in the attempt to answer this question that we must also realize that praxis is inseparably connected with faith that expresses itself in the love of one's neighbor. If the masses are our neighbor, then we will find it impossible to tolerate economic structures that are destructive to their humanity. Love demands justice – that is the creation of space in the world so that love can realize itself in human relations. To love the neighbor requires more than a pious feeling in my heart; it requires social and political analysis so that piety will not become a substitute for justice.

The truth of the Gospel, then, is a truth that must be done and not simply spoken. To speak the truth without doing the truth is to contradict the truth that we claim to affirm. The church is good at writing resolutions and preaching sermons about this or that idea, but the denunciation of injustice is not only a spoken word or a written text; it is an action. It's a stand. The word is only a gesture of commitment. This gesture must be concretized by social analysis so that the oppressed will be empowered to change the unjust social arrangement.

The concretization of faith, actualized through love, can only be done by connecting faith with the praxis of justice. The theological assumption that necessitates the connection of faith with praxis is found in Jesus Christ. The incarnation connects faith with life and work. By becoming human in Jesus, God connects faith with social, political and economic conditions of people; and establishes the theological conclusion that we cannot be faithful to the creator without receiving the political command to structure creation according to freedom.

The best way to understand the relation between faith and praxis is to reverse the order, as seen in Bonhoeffer's contention that only the obedient believe. To be sure, ontologically, faith is prior to obedience, and thus is its foundation. But practically speaking, obedience comes before faith. We do not first receive faith from God or the church, and then seek to live that faith in the world. It is the other way around. One meets God in the process of historical liberation. In the historical context of the struggle for freedom, one receives the gift of divine freedom, wherein the realization occurs that the eternal structures of creation are empowering the oppressed in their fight for justice. This realization is the gift of faith.

Faith, then, is not a datum, but rather a commitment that arises out of one's struggle for freedom, and not before. The power that throws us in the struggle for freedom before we consciously see its connection with faith, may be called the prevenient grace of God. This grace is ontologically prior to justification and sanctification because it is grounded in the creative will of God. Therefore, when we are justified and sanctified by the grace of God, the recognition of both experiences occur in the struggle of freedom, and they are a gift of God.

By putting obedience prior to faith on the sociological plain, we protect ourselves from the heresy of substituting faith for action. We must never allow a prayer for justice to become a replacement for an act against injustice. But if our act against oppression is to have meaning and not be purposeless, then obedience must connect itself with a social theory of change. Why are people poor? And who benefits from their poverty? In an attempt to answer this question, theology must actualize its Christian identity through social analyses and political participation on behalf of the victims of economic injustice.

When theology defines the meaning of the Christian obedience, in turn structured in sociology and politics, it becomes global in its outlook by analyzing international capitalism and multinational corporations. For what oppressors do to the people in North America, they also do in poor countries. The world becomes their domain of economic exploitation. Thus, Holiday Inn, [inaudible] and multinational corporations are present in South America, South Africa, and other third-world countries, exploiting the victims. Anyone who would be Christian by taking their stand with the victims must connect their obedience with praxis. That is, a social theory of change that would disclose both the causes of injustice and what must be done to eliminate it.

However, persons who would cast their lot with the victim must not forget that the existing structures are powerful and complex. Its creators intended that way so that any action that challenges their existence will appear both immoral and useless. Oppressors want people to think that change is impossible. That is the function of the military and the police. They want to scare the victims so that any social and political analysis will lead to despair. That is what Martin King called "the paralysis of analysis." But truth is otherwise. If analysis does not elicit hope for change, then it is incorrect. For the constituent definition of humanity is that people are agents of history, capable of change.

Because hope is the foundation of praxis, praxis can never be separated from faith. The Christian faith is grounded in the promise of God and is actualized in the process of liberation in history. Praxis without faith leads to despair. Despair is the logical consequence of a praxis that does not know the eschatological hope derived from historical struggle. Without hope, there is no struggle.

It was this eschatological knowledge, derived from Jesus' cross and resurrection, that enabled black North American slaves to struggle in history, but not to be defeated by their historical limitation. To be sure, they sang about the fear of "sinkin' down," and the dread of being a "motherless child." They experienced the trouble and the agony of being alone, where "couldn't hear nobody pray." They encountered death and expressed that encounter with a song: "Soon one mornin', death comes creeping in ma' room. Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, what shall I do?" In these songs are expressed the harsh realities of history, and a deep sense of dread at the very thought of death. But because the slaves believed that death had been conquered in Jesus' resurrection, they could also transcend death by interpreting salvation as a heavenly eschatological reality. That's why they sang, "You needn't mind my dyin'. Jesus gonna make up my dyin' bed. In my room, I know somebody's going to cry. All I ask you to do for me: just close my dyin' eyes." This is not passive resignation, but rather an eschatological expression of an historical commitment that refuses to adjust itself to the power of oppressors. This is what the praxis of faith in the Christian context is all about. Thank you.

[applause]


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