Why James Cone Was the Most Important Theologian of His Time

Commentary
By Jim Wallis 5-02-2018

If racism was and is America’s original sin, and repentance is the only sufficient response to sin, James Cone was the most important theologian of his generation. To white Americans, he said, “Repentance means dying to whiteness.”

Widely considered to be the founder of black liberation theology, Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone died on Saturday, April 28. Beginning with Black Theology & Black Power (1969) and continuing with such groundbreaking works as A Black Theology of Liberation (1970) and God of the Oppressed (1975), Cone “upended the theological establishment with his vigorous articulation of God’s radical identification with black people in the United States,” as Union Seminary’s obituary states. His most recently published book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011), won Cone the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, a joint award from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville. Just last week, days before Dr. Cone passed away, he was elected to the 2018 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He richly deserved these and his many other awards — and hopefully more to come posthumously. But, most importantly, James Cone got the biblical message right when it came to the most important moral issue in American history, one that the overwhelming majority of white theologians have gotten wrong: the sin and idolatry of white supremacy. The oppression of the poor, and black people in particular, was at the heart of James Cone’s work, and, as he wrote so prophetically and brilliantly, the love of the oppressed and divine passion for justice is at the heart of God.

White Western theology, in such devastating and painful contrast, has mostly missed the heart of God. The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, a student of Cone’s and now a professor at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where Dr. Cone was long on the faculty, told the Washington Post that he centered the Gospels on racial justice and later on the struggles for gender and class equality: “He could not understand how anyone could do Christian theology in America without talking about the black struggle for freedom, and how anyone could do Christian theology in general without talking about the oppressed.” In that same article, Anthony B. Pinn, a religion professor at Rice University said, “Cone wasn’t arguing that God was physically black, or that only black people were righteous. He was arguing that Christians — white, black, purple, and red — have to be committed to racial justice. That whites in their churches have to be committed to racial justice or they need to call themselves something different.”

But doing theology with little recognition or regard for the oppressed was and, for the most part still is, the practice of “theology” in America. I have often found it so revealing that the required “theology courses” in most seminaries, universities, and majority churches are indeed white and Western, while all the “liberation theologies” are thought to be extracurricular and optional electives. The real theology is still assumed to be Euro-American and male; changing that will be key to the transformation most needed to align America and Europe with the center of the church that has now moved decisively to the global South.

James Cone not only opened the door to liberation theology but showed the message of liberation to be at the core of the gospel. Cone’s black liberation theology, then Gustavo Gutierrez’s Liberation Theology, then other indigenous versions of that in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, then women’s, then womanist theologies, have opened up an understanding of God that is not controlled by white Western men (even helping to set many of them/us free).

Cone grew up in the era of lynchings in the segregated town of Bearden, Ark., which at the time had a population of about 400 blacks and 800 whites, and he often feared for his father’s safety.

“I had heard too much about white people killing black people … when my father would finally make it home safely, I would run and jump into his arms, happy as I could be,” Cone once recalled. He was called to the ministry at age 16 in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and served several small churches while attending college at Shorter College and Philander Smith College in Little Rock, where he got his bachelor's degree in 1958. He went on to receive a theology degree in 1961 from Garrett Theological Seminary, as well as a master's degree (1963) and a Ph.D. (1965) from Northwestern University. Cone joined the faculty of Union Seminary in 1969, where he served until his death last week.

He was deeply influenced by two of the major black public figures in American life: first by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then by Malcom X, who both seemed to carry on a continual dialogue in James Cone’s soul. In one interview, he spoke to the way that dialogue influenced his theology: “Christianity was seen as the white man’s religion,” Cone said in the interview. “I wanted to say: ‘No! The Christian Gospel is not the white man’s religion. It is a religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free.’ But I realized that for black people to be free, they must first love their blackness.”

In the wake of their assassinations, Cone later recalled, “I was within inches of leaving the Christian faith.” He had been challenged by Malcolm’s message that Christianity was a white religion, and was profoundly shaken by my hometown Detroit riots of 1967 that claimed 43 lives. He said last year of that time,“I heard the voices of black blood crying out to God and to humanity.” After six weeks of intense writing in the church office of his older brother, a fellow minister, Dr. Cone emerged with what would become Black Theology & Black Power, the founding text of black liberation theology, which “sought to reconcile the fiery cultural criticism of Malcolm X with the Christian message of [Martin Luther] King [Jr].” As Dr. Cone put it in an updated edition of the book in 1997, he “wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses in the name of Jesus, whose Gospel I believed had been greatly distorted by the preaching theology of white churches.”

In 1970, Cone followed up Black Theology & Black Power with A Black Theology of Liberation, which expanded on the earlier book’s argument and laid out a systematic way of understanding Christianity as fundamentally concerned with the liberation of black people in the United States specifically and liberation of the oppressed more broadly. As he says in the book, "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."

James Cone was a theologian and author, but he never gave up his important identity as a minister in a black denomination. Also a pastor, Cone described black liberation theology as “an interpretation of the Christian Gospel from the experience and perspectives and lives of people who are at the bottom in society — the lowest economic and racial groups.”

Dr. Cone was searing in his criticism of the version of Christianity practiced by most white Americans, as well as the version of theology taught by most white theologians. He told the New York Times in 1969 that “white theology is basically racist and non-Christian,” and once called himself “the angriest theologian in America,” due to the failure of white theologians to forcefully condemn institutional racism and lynching. In God of the Oppressed, Dr. Cone drew on the full experience of black culture in the United States to present a systematic theology not dependent on Euro-American definitions. He constructed an approach to the gospel that brings together the tradition of the spirituals, black folklore, the historical black struggle for survival and liberation, as his own formative experiences in the black church in Bearden.

In the book, Dr. Cone laid out both the challenge and promise of the true repentance that white people need to make before they themselves can be liberated from America’s original sin and discover true Christianity:

There can be no forgiveness of sins without repentance, and no repentance without the gift of faith to struggle with and for the freedom of the oppressed. When whites undergo the true experience of conversion wherein they die to whiteness and are reborn anew in order to struggle against white oppression and for the liberation of the oppressed, there is a place for them in the black struggle of freedom. Here reconciliation becomes God’s gift of blackness through the oppressed of the land.

As an evangelical Christian, growing up in a white church that emphasized the importance of being “born again,” it was Cone’s articulation of repentance that finally made most sense to me as to how to become truly born again in America. Cone also explained in God of the Oppressed that it is impossible to “separate love from justice and reconciliation from liberation.” It’s a powerful message that’s as deeply resonant and painfully timely today as it was in 1975.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree is the theological capstone of a brilliant career. It also made a symbolic connection that white people, for the most part, have not grappled with, as he explains in the book’s introduction: “Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections.”

Dr. Cone passionately explores those connections, in passages like this one:

Both are symbols of the death of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation, and terror. They both also reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning and demonstrate that God can transform ugliness into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.

There is deep resonance that the man who wrote these words passed in God’s presence in the same week that the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Ala. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have done an extraordinary public service to our nation by creating a memorial to the thousands of black people lynched in the Jim Crow era and even more recently, often with cheering crowds watching these brutal murders. Stevenson’ s message of the importance of changing the narrative in America, of being proximate to the oppressed, of the necessity of making people uncomfortable, and to the importance of living in the hope of changing all that — resonates so deeply with the message and legacy of James Cone. It is indeed difficult, once one has heard or read Dr. Cone, not draw the comparisons, not to see the striking parallels to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

In words introducing his final book Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, to be released later this year, James Cone says this about his vocation, “I write because writing is the way I fight. Teaching is the way I resist, doing what I can to subvert white supremacy.”

Cone’s writing and teaching has changed countless legions of lives, and this white disciple of Rev. Dr. James Cone is deeply grateful.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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