Auburn Senior Fellows Honor James H. Cone, Father of Black Liberation Theology

By Rev. Traci Blackmon, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III, Lisa Sharon Harper, Bishop Yvette Flunder, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Rev. Jen Butler, Rev. Dr. Peter Helzel 

Dr. James Cone died on April 28.  Dr. Cone was a professor at Union Theological Seminary and known to many as the father of Black Liberation Theology.  An ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Dr. Cone wrote his first book Black Theology, Black Power in 1969 in the months after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and followed it up the following year with Black Theology of Liberation in 1970.  Dr. Cone continued to write major works throughout his life including Martin & Malcolm & America: Dream or a Nightmare, and his latest The Cross and the Lynching Tree.   

Dr. Cone influenced generations of pastors, scholars and activists with his powerful vision and scholarly work.   Dr. Cone’s life will be honored at a Memorial service on Monday, May 7, at 11:00 am at The Riverside Church.  The sermon will be delivered by Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock , Senior Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. who was a student of Dr. Cones and is an Auburn Senior Fellow. The funeral will be livestreamed here.

The following is a collection of reflections by leading faith leaders who are part of the Auburn Senior Fellows cohort.

Rev. Traci Blackmon

Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. Ezekiel 2:5

A prophet bid farewell today.

Not with a casual wave of hand but rather with a massive wave of transference that should make every pastor, theologian, activist, and preacher who recognizes God in the places and faces we are collectively less apt to serve, stand a little taller, proclaim a little louder, and study a little harder to grab firm hold of the whirlwind that has passed our way.

Since hearing of the death of the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone, my heart has been deeply grieved. I’ve searched for words to pay proper tribute to a master scholar who loved the Christian church enough to dare dig beneath its carefully coifed soil and disturb its racist roots. He is rightfully known as the Founder of Black Liberation Theology and while I honor this designation that Dr. Cone so rightfully deserves, somehow today it seems woefully inadequate for the prophet who walked among us, shaping and giving voice to a theological understanding of God that serves as an anecdote to the intoxicating idolatry of white supremacy infecting both church and academy far too long.

It is Dr. Cone who dared to remind us God is not made in the image of whiteness but rather it is we, all of us, who are made in the image of God. Therefore, if one cannot see God in black bodies, in LGBTQ bodies, in economically deprived bodies, in migrant bodies, in disabled bodies, in “othered” bodies, and worship God there, then one is incapable of seeing God at all. Dr. Cone reminds us God loves Blackness and the message of the Gospel is a love letter to the oppressed. “To be Christian,” Dr. Cone says, “is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people.”

Today I honor Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone as prophet. I honor him as the Founder of Black Liberation Theology. And I honor him as a spiritual doula because that is what Dr. Cone is to me. A doula. I did not have an intimate relationship with his person. I was not privileged to sit in his classes or benefit from his mentorship, and yet his work has shaped me in undeniable ways. His wisdom. His clarity. His blackness. His unapologetic love for the black church and his hope for the church to come. His unrelenting understanding of a God who includes all…helped me to push! And I’m still pushing because of a prophet named Dr. James Hal Cone who helped me give birth to the voice of God in me.

This prophet who walked among us, Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone.

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III

Our world was diminished and the heavens were enhanced with the passing of Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone.

Rev. Cone was an absolute scholarly giant; the founder of Black Liberation Theology,
 and a teacher extraordinaire, responsible for
 shaping the hearts and minds of preachers and
 scholars over generations. Rev. Cone endlessly
challenged Christians to be drawn to the liberating character of Christ, to the parallels between the cross on which Jesus died and the lampposts and trees that served as the tools of assassination of so many of our ancestors.

I recently witnessed the presence and power of the new National Museum for Peace and Justice, a memorial to the more than 4,400 African Americans – men, women, and children – that suffered from all forms of racial terrorism. They were lynched, burned, shot, drowned and beaten to death by white mobs. Of course, those very same people, the ones directly involved in the killings, those that witnessed and even celebrated them, and those that might have felt a tinge of guilt, but did nothing to stop the killings, the vast majority would most fervently attest that they were Christians. Rev. Cone and his teachings stood in defiance of this disturbed thinking.

Black Liberation Theology makes clear that the bible was written from the perspective of the oppressed, and that Jesus himself was a liberating force. “Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology,” is one of his most referenced quotes.

As I consider his passing, the vacuum create by his absence is considerable. I am, however, comforted by the incredible pool of scholars, activists, preachers, and theologians that he has trained and influenced over the many years that God gave him.

May the spirit of Rev. Cone rest well, after a life truly well lived as a blessing to us all.

Lisa Sharon Harper

In the early years of my evangelical faith my mother, who helped open the SNCC office in Philadelphia when the struggle moved north, challenged my understanding of faith’s focus.

“Why,” she pressed, “do you think White people focus on forgiveness while Black people focus on liberation? Could White faith be the answer to White souls’ cries for forgiveness while Black faith answers our cries for liberation from the sin levied against us?”

I was 18 years old. Before that moment I had no idea my mother thought about issues of faith. Yet, with that pointed question she introduced me to Dr. James Cone, whose work comforted and guided her when the movement dissolved. Dr. Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation sat at eye level on the book shelf in my White pastor’s study when I came to him in my waking up years and challenged the faithfulness of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that hung high above our Nazarene heads every Sunday morning. And years later I had the profound fortune to offer reflections on Black Liberation Theology at an American Academy of Religion (AAR) Kinetics Live forum where South African theologian Dr. Allan Boesak offered the keynote address. Dr. Cone stopped through to lend his support for the conversation. He beamed. He was both grandfather and midwife to our conversation.

Dr. Cone’s gifts to the world were always presented wrapped between two covers. Through The Cross and The Lynching Tree, in particular, Dr. Cone taught me what it looks like to interrogate the most basic assumptions of colonized faith. Each book pressed us to think differently, to resist the oppressors’ view of subjugated flesh; rather to see the world and faith and God and each other and our current condition through woke eyes embedded within that flesh–eyes closer to the social location of the original writers and hearers of the Biblical text than of any theologian interpreting that text from the social location of Caesar.

We say, “Thank you, Dr. James Cone. Thank you for bearing your particular burden–to help us see Jesus…better.”

Rev. Jen Butler

Growing up in the Bible Belt as a white girl I was taught white history and white theology. It has and will take a lifetime to undo my white privilege.

As I came of age, I felt challenged as I saw racism around me. I read about Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4:18 “I have come to free the oppressed.” And I began to wrestle– who was Jesus?  It wasn’t until I read Dr. James Cone’s work that I had words to express my growing faith. Cone gave me words for what I knew spiritually but could not articulate theologically.

I had to fight to be taught about Cone in graduate school. This made the class all the more delicious. I was attending seminary in the nineties when a group of us challenged the administration to offer liberation theologies. It helped that one of the professors, who had been a student of Cone’s, stepped up and offered to teach it. It often seemed as though only theologies taught from a Western, white, male perspective were considered “legitimate.”

Cone wrote, “Any talk about God that fails to make God’s liberation of the oppressed its starting point is not Christian.” He said that Jesus was black. This was beautifully earth-shattering for the class of majority white students accustomed to white cultural power.  Cone explained further that “being black in America has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”

There was a time I almost left the church. Now I lead a network of tens of thousands of leaders seeking to live out the biblical call to free the oppressed. I owe that to James Cone.

Bishop Yvette A. Flunder

Dr. James H. Cone introduced me to Black Liberation and Liberating Theology at a time in my life when I was emerging from an apolitical, theologically ultra conservative Church environment. My experience with Dr. Cone, both in the classroom and reading his books, gave me a fresh vision of Jesus as Liberator and our responsibility to DO justice. Dr. Cone’s presence in my theological formation was the soil for my evolution to Womanist and LGBTQ Liberation Theology.

Our encounter shifted my whole life narrative.

Every day, as a Black same gender-loving woman of faith, I see and embody the parallel between the Cross and the lynching tree. Anyone who has been liberated by my writing, teaching or preaching, owes this great Mentor a debt of gratitude.

Dr. Cone you have moved on to your next assignment. You will live on in us who were elevated, inspired, and empowered by your words, your life, and your immortal legacy.

Rest well, Sir.

Rev. Dr. Peter G. Heltzel

I was heart-broken to hear of the passing of Dr. James Cone, a legendary theological professor. Having taken many classes with him at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and having taught his work at New York Theological Seminary, Cone’s theological vision has permeated my own evangelical theology.

Theology is not primarily about interpreting the world, but about constructing a more just and equitable world through bearing prophetic witness to Christ and the Kingdom. Forged in the fires of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, James Cone’s Black Liberation Theology offers a courageous critique of the whiteness of American evangelical theology, a prophetic Christian theology relevant to black existence in a nation dominated by white supremacy. After Cone, evangelical Christians can and should be unapologetically Black and unapologetically Christian.

Liberation is the heart and soul of the Gospel. White evangelicals have demonstrated a commitment to thinking carefully about Christ and culture; now is the time to have an honest conversation about race in American society that includes the Evangelical Church, and Cone’s life’s work and death offer us the opportunity to reflect more deeply and deliberately during difficult days

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

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 liberation is not Christian theology.

Jesus is anointed to preach good news to the poor, to liberate the captives, to give sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. That’s his call and the call of the Church everywhere. If we aren’t doing that, we are not the Church. If we participate in the suffering of the marginalized with our indifference, we are not the church. If we are not disrupting the myth of white supremacy and manifest destiny, we are not the Church. This is our vocation. Disruption is a holy act, passivity a sin. Christianity herself must be liberated from white supremacy, greed, ego and the lie of manifest destiny.

This is where it started for me. I’d earned my M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and Dr. Cone was my personal adjunct professor of soul transformation. I fed my growing discontent with the churchy-ness of American “Christianity” on his brilliant fire, particular mind, and prophetic truth telling. His tutelage gave me the courage to stay in the church, to go back to graduate school, to gain more tools of disruption, and to work to free her and her people from broken theology, warped by hegemony. He inspired me to preach and teach outside of the box, to create new theology—womanist, liberation, universalist and Christian.

The Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone helped me to find a grown-up God of liberation and Revolutionary Love.

God bless you, professor to my soul. We who believe in freedom are your legacy; we will not rest until freedom comes.

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