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Around the Network, Politics of Scripture

Remembering James Cone

A life dedicated wholeheartedly to paradox, necessarily lived in opposition to the ways of the world: this is what we have lost.

James Cone offered the gift of language. We open his books frustrated that we are unable to say what we want to say, what we need to say. We close his books with our frustration relieved, fluent in a language that is both our truth and the truth.

For half a century, Cone shared his gift. Through that gift, black students rightfully pained by the giants of European Christianity, or by their disciplining disciples, found a way to talk back. Not by turning away, to black vernacular Christianity, unsatisfactory in its own ways, but by embracing the eloquence of a new language: black liberation theology.

God is black. God works in history on the side of the oppressed. Christianity provides hope that suffering will end. The theology of the privileged, white theology, is false theology. Idolatry. To worship God means to struggle with those living under domination, against the forces of domination. Jesus sided with the poor, the weak, the imprisoned, the abandoned. God is black.

Cone’s was a gift offered to all. White Christians who sensed the limitations of their words and views found a way to name those limits, and to speak and see otherwise. Latinx, Asian, African, feminist, and queer Christians found relief from the theological aphasia that comes with marginalization in the intellectual moves Cone modeled. Atheists and others suspicious of God-talk but attuned to racial justice found in Cone’s language an opening to speak together and work together with Christians.

To give a language is not to give a voice. Activists claim to represent others, speaking to the public on others’ behalf, offering a voice to the voiceless. This was not the project of James Cone. Gifting language means making possible a conversation. It means empowering a community to speak on its own behalf, true to its experiences, true to the world, and true to God. Communities are themselves diverse, and language makes it possible to appreciate and struggle with this diversity. The language that Cone offered brought black women, black queers, black immigrants, and many others into a conversation oriented toward struggle against white supremacy.

Cone offered the gift of language, but this formulation distracts from Cone’s own gift, and his real significance. When we turn from the man to the language he initiated, we turn from charisma to routine – and soon to textbooks, institutions, guilds, grades, and a new status quo. As those who read his words, who watched him lecture, or who had a chance to converse with him know, Cone himself was extraordinarily gifted. Part of his charism was to produce and nurture a language, black liberation theology. But that was not all.

To invoke charisma, in the best sense, is to speak of the unspeakable, to name a gift defined only by its extraordinariness. To encounter Cone was to witness the extraordinary, with all that entails. The ordinary, the status quo, becomes provisional. The encounter activates our intuition that the world does not suffice, that we long for something more. We do not receive answers from the charismatic – that is charisma at its worst, authoritarian – but rather we ask new questions.

Reading or watching Cone from the 1960s and Cone from the 2010s, and from the years in between, it is striking just how consistent he is. For some extraordinary women and men, initial brilliance becomes a trap they can never escape. The rest of their years are spent repeating an idea that was once bewilderingly novel until they become a caricature, their idea part of the norm. This does not describe James Cone, thanks, in part, to the intractability and cruel ingenuity of American racism. The essentials really have not changed: the reign of white supremacy continues, and to speak out against it without compromise remains a courageous, faithful act.

It is not just Cone’s good, or bad, fortune that his words still hold power. It is because of what we have lost: his humanity, that extraordinary gift of his humanity. Responsive to audience and circumstance but unwavering in his orientation to liberation, it was Cone the man that gave life to so many. With the intellectual agility to incorporate multiform and intersecting modes of domination into his analysis over the years, from race in the United States to colonialism, poverty, gender, and sexuality, Cone oriented his readers and auditors beyond the liberation of themselves and their communities toward the liberation of all, toward the end of all domination.

What gave Cone’s thought and life such compelling force was the way he grappled with the apparent tension between the two essential Christian-ethical imperatives. On the one hand, Christians are to love not only the neighbor but also the enemy. On the other hand, Christians are to denounce sin and renounce affiliation with the powers that be. Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers and proclaimed that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

The usual way to reconcile these imperatives is: love the sinner, hate the sin. But this makes sin too easy. It makes sin a bad choice we make, to tell a fib or pilfer a scarf or covet a Harley. To use a racist word or to parrot stereotypes. But sin is deeper and more insidious. Jesus knew it, James Cone knew it, and we know it in our more reflective moments. The problem with the rich man is that wealth distorts all of his being, not only his choices but also his feelings, his reasoning, and even his perception of the world. This is the problem with privilege, and in the United States, for Cone, this is the problem of whiteness. The feelings, reasoning, and perception that go along with being rich, or white, orient you away from God, toward the world. No amount of Christian talking or singing or theologizing will turn you toward God, will make you a Christian, if you remain rich, or white.

Such a claim sounds dramatic, some would say racist. When it is accompanied by Cone’s professions of anger directed at privilege, at whiteness, Cone’s bold claims about sin make many (with privilege) squirmy or dismissive. But it is the calling of the prophet, and the Christian, to be angry with sin. And we are all sinners. We are all formed in ways that orient us toward the world and away from God, if not through whiteness then through patriarchy, homophobia, nationalism, colonialism, militarism, and of course capitalism. We are all in need of grace, and we all must interrogate and strip our privilege if we wish to hear the message of salvation.

But what of love, the heart of the Christian message, the name of God? “Those who oppress others are in no position to define what love is,” writes Cone. Those who are formed by privilege twist Christian language to authorize and secure their privilege. God is love and God is black: love is black. Blackness loving blackness, affirming blackness without bounds: this is God. Jesus is to be found among “the least of these,” the poor, the hungry, the sick, the foreigner, the imprisoned. To love God is to love the neighbor as neighbor, stripped of privilege, in her meekness, in her blackness.

Cone’s solution to the great challenge of Christian ethics, the challenge to combine universal love and hatred of sin, is a call to convert to blackness. For Cone this applies to all, regardless of skin color, regardless of wealth. It is not enough to care about the least of these, or to text a donation, or to go on a mission trip, or to studiously attend your parish’s social justice committee meetings. To love and be loved, fully and truly, is only possible once privilege is renounced. But the more privilege is renounced, the more oppression is felt, as the powers that be assert themselves on bodies and minds.

It is not enough to wallow in the discomfort of marginalization, says Cone. Jesus does not wallow, he fights. He overturns tables, organizes a community, and imagines otherwise. In this world, there is no place beyond the reach of the powers that be, no community free of sin. The more we struggle together against domination, the more we notice insidious forms of domination, motivating us to struggle even more, since what we notice runs against the God in whom we have faith.

One question Cone could never escape. Is the blackness of which he speaks, in which he has faith, literal or metaphorical? Is it that Jesus, if he appeared in the United States in 2018, would be black, but if he appeared somewhere else, at some other time, would appear some other color? This would provide comfort, and ease Cone’s incorporation into the liberal Christian canon as a great spiritual leader who speaks to all. But Cone continually insists on the specificity of blackness, on the unequivocal holiness of concrete black flesh, the beauty of black songs, the goodness of black life.

Paradox is the ground of faith: this is Cone’s great insight, and his orthodoxy. A life dedicated wholeheartedly to paradox, necessarily lived in opposition to the ways of the world: this is what we have lost.

Lloyd’s editorial appeared first in the journal and can be found, along with the rest of the issue here

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