Some of my students were uncomfortable when we read James Cone’s work, angry even. But that is precisely what theology should do – make you feel uncomfortable, make you realize how domesticated your theology might be, and have you see that God enfleshed is a God of the oppressed.
Thank you, Rev. Dr. Cone, for your life and work; you showed me that while we are blind we can never truly be free.
Rest In peace and rise in glory.
SueJeanne Koh is an independent scholar whose research focuses on the intersections of race, gender, and theological architectures of thought.
I’ve been mourning the loss of James Cone. But I’ve also been grieving something else: the fact that he had to live his life arguing for things that should have been obvious–that God wants people to be free, that God stands in judgment against oppression, that black human beings are beautiful and beloved creatures of God, that the U.S. history of slavery and lynching is blasphemous and un-Christian, and that God is graciously present with violated communities who are fighting for survival and a better life. Many have remarked on the anger in Cone’s theology, some condescendingly disapproving of it, others applauding its righteous motivations. I find myself lamenting the fact that there was persistently so much for him to be angry about. That this friendly and joyous servant of God had to bear the cross of such anger, because he had to spend his precious life in a racist society that constantly questioned and trampled upon his humanity. I’m bewailing the fact that after a lifetime resisting the evils of white supremacy–eight decades come and gone–we still need his anger to help us see the truth. The cross he bore is still there to be borne, because the violence that laid it upon his back has not gone away. I plan to keep conversing with him, reading his works, praying with him, praying to him–trying to find in myself the courage that he so tirelessly displayed.
Thank you, James Cone!
Andrew Prevot is an assistant professor of theology at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, MA.
About mid-way through this semester, a first-year student in my political theology class told me the class had ruined her life. She meant that as a compliment. She, a young white, formerly conservative, Christian had had her faith rocked by Black Studies and Black Liberation Theology. The world, her faith, her relationships could never be the same. This same student just presented her final paper to the class. In it she argued that we needed to abandoned the White Christ and follow the Black Jesus. She argued it was the way to break the chains of modern day slavery that we find in the Prison Industrial Complex. Her main interlocutor: James Cone.
It was Cone who taught me that love in a racist society is the righteous condemnation of everything racist. It is Cone who teaches me that if there is any hope for building the beloved community, it will only come when America, when white people give up our cloying desire for innocence. Cone, once sat in my living room talking about mothers and James Baldwin, it was in that moment that he also reminded me that we live theology not just politically, but cellularly, in the flesh. He is perhaps the theologian I draw on most now in my life in the deep south teaching at an institution wrestling with its White Supremacist past. It is Cone’s voice I speak through when reminding students that the opposite of love is not rage, but apathy.
When I told my political theology class that Cone had died, one of the graduating seniors, a young black woman, about to head off to Divinity school, lamented that she would now never get to meet him. We held her loss, but also reminded her that she will get to commune with the innumerable disciples he has left behind; she will continue to bring his spirit of truth and justice to life for generations to come.
We carry the torch, we are forever grateful.
Karen Bray is assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Wesleyan College.
Who could forget that distinct voice? The theological voice of James Cone was sharp and shattering when I first encounter it, and I watched over the years as appreciative students read, heard, and reacted to the range of Cone’s works I assigned—it moved them. As an undergraduate I, a Jewish consumer of liberation theology, discovered Cone through his Martin and Malcolm book and a pamphlet issued by the Democratic Socialists of America (“Marxism and the Black Church: What do they have to say to each other?”). Cone’s initial writings put the classic European theological canon under scrutiny—a black power critique of white theology that paralleled, in some ways, the moves of post-Holocaust theologians during that time. Later he walked away from those European interlocutors, turning to the resources of the African-American traditions and produced some of the most resounding theology, a model for all peoples.
May his memory continue to be a blessing.
Elliot Ratzman is Postdoctoral Fellow of Jewish Studies at Lawrence University.
White Christianity tries to recuperate and redeem itself by assimilating the work of James Cone into its project. But Cone’s work was nothing other than a call for the abolition of white Christianity and theology and its governance of the meaning of existence.
Amaryah Shaye Armstrong is a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University in Theology and Black Studies.
When I arrived at Union Theological Seminary in 1995 to begin graduate studies, I knew James H. Cone only through his published scholarship. Within a year, I approached him about mentoring my research. By the time I graduated from the doctoral program in 2002, I knew him as a gifted and committed advisor, a dynamic presence on campus, and a caring human being. Cone believed in my work before I could even recognize my own possibilities. His intellectual passion was contagious, his generosity of mind, limitless. He incessantly urged me, “You have to find your voice,” an exercise he believed was essential to meaningful scholarship and intellectual life. Above all, Cone created an intellectual space for me and other students to produce scholarship that took seriously the academic and existential import of Black people and Black thought without ever having to defend the intellectual worthiness of such work. He simply demanded excellence.
As I mourn the loss of such an amazing human being, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to study with him, to have my mind and my life shaped by him, that I got to experience and understand how much he loved life, music, art, justice, good food, steadfast friendship, and faithful commitment that was uncowed by structures of oppression. Most of all, I am so thankful that this world, our world, has been touched and changed by this wondrous person.
I will always love you, Dr. Cone!
Sylvester Johnson is professor and director of the Center for the Humanities at Virginia Tech.
Many white theologians – myself included – largely ignored James Cone’s work for decades. By “ignore” I don’t mean we didn’t cite him. We were happy to cite him, and to nod sagely, with pained expressions of earnest concern, when someone brought up his work; but we treated the work as if it was about something special, something distinctive, sub-cultural, something not directly of relevance to me. How mistaken we were. How blind I was, for so long.
No one has managed to make more readers, particularly white readers, uncomfortable and energized than he. Cone was a black theologian, but also – for me, at any rate – the first theologian of whiteness, the first theologian to make vividly clear that mine was as much an “adjectival” identity as anyone else’s, and because of my blindness to this fact, my adjectival identity was far more pernicious than anyone else’s. America has always been a racial, and racist, community; Cone simply made it possible to do theology that acknowledges that fact, and that thereby pays truer attention to our literal flesh, in all its parochial specificity. And in attending to the flesh, he did something more: for all his emphasis on the judgment of God the Father, and the liberating power of God the Spirit, he was equally attentive to the incarnate Word.
Does that make him the most consequential theologian in American history? I increasingly think so. But whether you think that or not, you can agree: he made the word of God come alive in our bodies far more than it had before. What more can we ask of a theologian?
Rest in peace, James Cone.
Charles Mathewes is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.
“Up above my head, I hear music in the air…” How to give requiem for the radical, elegy for the prophetic, gratitude amidst grief? Of this I am never sure. Except to say that I—that we, that the work of theology—are forever indebted to the tilling, the example, the vivacity, the unmistakable smile, the rigor, the labor of love who is James Hal Cone. We did not wait for his death to heed his call, to take seriously the theological lives of black people and the black church, to be unrelenting in a legacy of black power and dignity and beauty that Dr. Cone gave those of us who love black people and love black people fiercely a theological grammar for. A giant among us is now gone, but his footprints, and the footprints of all those he brought along the way, are still articulating joy and resistance, still pressing us in power and protest, still pointing us in the direction we must go…“a charge to keep we have … a God to glorify.” Thank you, Dr. Cone. In us may you live on.
Amey Victoria Adkins-Jones is assistant professor of theology at Boston College.
When the gospel of Luke 4:18 was read at the worship service at Union Seminary to mourn Cone’s death and celebrate his life, I cried. Within me I asked: who is now going to remind us of the poor and the vulnerable at every corner of our lives? We all have big agendas and the poor is just one of our many issues. Not for Cone. For him the poor was at the center of the gospel and consequently at the center of his theology. I wonder who is left to remind us of the poor?
Cláudio Carvalhaes is associate professor of worship at Union Theological Seminary.
James Cone was a prolific author, most recently of The Cross and the Lynching Tree.