James Cone: In Memoriam

James Cone

James H. Cone passed away on Saturday, April 28th, at the age of 79.  [Read a tribute here: James H. Cone dies].  Today, then, it is both a privilege and a pleasure to share some reflections in tribute. It is no exaggeration to say that Cone was one of the most significant theological voices of the last century. He was unquestionably the father of black theology, and his significance and work in that area is immense and almost impossible to quantify; but at the same time, to limit his scope and influence to one particular community or perspective would be misleading.

I think it is fair to say that Cone changed the thinking of every single person who read his work.  He encourage, invited and yes, sometimes forced all of us to reimagine God, to re-envision what it means to be human, and dare to engage in the work of rebuilding the human community.  And, of central importance, he pushed us always, always to articulate why theology actually matters for life in this world.
There are a dozen examples I could give of how Cone’s work impacted my own theological thinking and teaching, but I’ll settle here for three.  The first and probably most significant comes from his earlier work, and that is the bald declaration that God is black–and that Christ is on the side of the black community, which is persecuted and marginalized in contemporary US culture. Inevitably in my classes, my white students felt challenged by Cone’s work–not only by that statement, but by the way in which Cone named the racism and white privilege that pervaded–and still pervades–so much of western theological thinking.  They felt themselves accused and called out, and they often resisted his perspective, sometimes strenuously.  And, yet:  many of them–dare I say most of them–persevered, and worked to hear him, and see what he saw–both in God and in the world, and many of them got to that wonderful place of being uncomfortable with the status quo and wanting to change it.  There is no way to calculate the number of lives his work changed, and the number of churches that were changed because pastors and other leaders were affected by him.
The second example is the story he told about his own theological study, which took place during the race riots of the 1960s, where he was told by his professors that issues of race, racial violence in the streets, and his own blackness were irrelevant to his study of theology.  [I’m generalizing here, but you get the idea:  the way it always struck me was something along the lines of “What does Detroit have to do with Barth?”]  He knew at the core of his being that this was not true, and he staked his entire theological career on the belief in that truth; I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that his decision, and the dawning realization by so many others of that truth, changed the course of theology.
It is no surprise, then, that one thing Cone’s work always conveyed with absolute sincerity and conviction, is that if theology is not relevant to the sufferings and experiences of people, and if it doesn’t meet people where they are and speak a word of grace and hope in their darkness, it isn’t worthy of the name. In my own work, I have tried to keep that always in mind.  This insight is one of the lasting gifts he leaves at the theological table.

Finally, it is very difficult to pick out just one work of Cone’s to single out for special mention, especially in light of his recent work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which I have been using in my classes since its earliest Genesis more than 10 years ago as a lecture at Harvard Divinity School. The connections he makes in this book between Christ’s suffering on the cross and the suffering of lynched black bodies is extremely powerful, and challenges what is too often a sanitized interpretation of the cross, and also invests the cross with new and powerful redemptive meaning, particularly for those who are suffering lynchings of any kind.
Nonetheless, I do want to single out one work:  Martin & Malcolm & America: a Dream or a Nightmare, as it is probably my favorite of his books. I use it all the time, in a wide variety of contexts; in fact, just one day before his death, on Friday, in a conversation with a Muslim student at Gettysburg college, I brought it up again, talking about the difference between their backgrounds growing up and what that meant for their self-understandings.  In my view, if he had written nothing else, that book alone would have solidified his reputation.
Cone will be missed, but he will not be forgotten; his memory will live on in his own work, as well as in the work of his many students, colleagues and admirers.  His compelling vision, keen insights and persuasive argumentation still stand and will continue to inspire countless others.  Eternal rest, grant unto him, O LORD, and let perpetual light shine upon him.

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