In Honor of James H. Cone


Image Courtesy of Coolhappysteve

There are few scholars, preacher-teachers whose work paints such a bright line across the landscape of their discipline that we have to say there is a radical difference between before and after. James H. Cone, known as the father of black liberation theology, is such a person.
James Cone died April 28, 2018, and those of us who have been influenced by his life and work must pause to acknowledge the debt we owe to him. There is Christian theology before Cone that was primarily interested in getting to heaven after death, and there is Christian theology after Cone that is primarily interested in bringing the justice and truth of heaven to earth. There is the Christian theology before Cone that did not recognize the black struggle for human dignity and justice to exist at the heart of the Christian project, and there is after Cone that understands that God is the God of the oppressed, that being in right relationship with God means being in right relationship with the least among us. There is Christian theology before Cone that basically ignored the matter of lynching, pogroms, and systematic violence against black people, and Christian theology after Cone where such ignore-ance is sin. If the theological project is faith seeking understanding, then theology before Cone that does not see the daily lives and struggles of ordinary black people as a source of theological reflection can never understand the faith of the oppressed. After Cone, we understand that unless our theological reflections are baptized in the tears and sweat of ordinary people working to build decent lives for themselves and for their families, we will never understand a faith that is able to not only sustain life, but make life worth living. For Cone, Jesus is black as are all oppressed people, no matter the color of their skin or their religion or their nation or class or sexual orientation or gender identification.
Cone’s theology was born from his life growing up in Arkansas and coming of age during the early days of the civil rights movement. His work is a response to the idea that Christianity is a religion of white supremacy, that black people ought to first liberate themselves from Christianity before they can liberate themselves from social, cultural, political, and economic oppression. Cone knew the terrors of white supremacy personally, but he also knew that Christianity is far from the “opiate of the people,” as Marx described. It can be fuel that keeps oppressed people going. It is a balm in Gilead that heals a sin-sick soul. It is a way for black people to not only stay alive, but to stay alive while preserving their human dignity. And, in a country that wants black people either quiet, subservient, invisible, or dead, to stay alive knowing that black people are children of God and beloved of God is a revolutionary act.
I did not know James Cone personally. I was not one of his students directly. I had the privilege of hearing him speak on more than one occasion, and when he did speak, his passion for God, the church and the work of salvation understood as bringing heaven to earth was infectious. It was inspirational. His passion was an enthusiasm that projected the God within him that was speaking to the God within me saying: “this work is important.” If I was tired, his words always infused me with new energy. I considered his passion a commitment and a kind of radical love.
His passion for his work was not only infectious but, like love, it was expansive. When love loves, it is like a pebble in a pond that sends out waves that grow in larger and larger concentric circles. Such was the passion enthusiasm love of James Cone. His work inspired his students and colleagues. It inspired those of us who read his work and used it. His students went on to become scholars who taught his work to their students. Some of his students were preacher-teachers themselves who preached his theology to people who then went on to employ it in their daily living. God only knows how many people’s lives are better because of the work of James Cone.
One of my memories of Cone was passing him in the hallway at an American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. He was walking alone, without a group of people who sometimes follow important scholars. We smiled and nodded at each other. A few minutes later, we were in the same room, and my teacher, Dr. Katie Cannon, asked him to respond to a panel of womanist scholars. He had come to listen, but he graciously agreed to be a part of the panel. He encouraged us.
We saw him wrestling with the same problems we were and still are working to understand. What is the true meaning of redemptive suffering? In his book – “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” – he says that the suffering of the civil rights workers redeemed the American south from its own brand of apartheid. He recognizes the difference in the south of his youth and the south of today. At the same time, he appreciates the womanist critique that says suffering is not redemptive. In this same book, he thinks about the relationship between faith and doubt. He says that doubt is necessary to keep faith from becoming too sure of itself, yet, at the same time, faith is necessary to keep humankind from falling into the trap of meaninglessness. In this book, we see a scholar who is still learning. He is a wise man who knows that he knows and who also knows how much there is yet to learn. (I speak of him in the present tense because, for me, his spirit is still with us.)
And so, we are left to continue his work. I hope and pray that we can do our work with the same passion, enthusiasm, radical love, and integrity with which Cone did his. We may not be the line of demarcation that he was, but we can surely try to make a difference for the better.
(Cone taught for 50 years at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. See:

Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *