May 30 2024

AAR Presidents Remember Rev. Dr. James Cone

James Cone outside in graduation regalia

Rev. James H. Cone, author of Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, and The Cross and the Lynching Tree; known as the founder of Black liberation theology; a central figure in racial and social justice movements; and dismantler of white supremacist assumptions in ministry and seminary education, died on April 28, 2018.

Obituaries celebrating the life and work of Cone appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on the websites of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and of Union Theological Seminary, where Cone was the Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology. Union has also posted the livestream of his funeral, which took place on May 7 at Riverside Church in New York City.

Cone was a longtime member of the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was awarded AAR’s Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion.

Below, four AAR presidents (Emilie M. Townes, Peter J. Paris, David P. Gushee, and Eddie S. Glaude Jr.) reflect on the legacy of Cone’s work in their scholarship, faith, and teaching.

Emilie M. Townes: As I was completing my BA in religion in 1977, I was growing uncomfortable with an absence I felt in classes that either left out or were dismissive about the religious worldview I grew up in as a Black southern woman-child coming of age in an era when far too many of us thought we had solved the problem of race. I knew that the Black Christian religious worlds I was raised in were left out of the academic conversations about religion or dismissed or considered not worthy of serious intellectual engagement. I knew with every ounce of intellect and emotion in me that this was just flat out wrong. But because I did not have a scholarly reference to substantiate what I knew and experienced, my arguments that the thinkers I was reading were not the objective or universal voices that they were proclaimed to be were met with skepticism, doubt, or even worse—judged invalid. These were not intentionally mean professors who set out to destroy a young Black woman’s questions about the nature of Black religious experience within larger Christian frameworks; they had not considered that perhaps other worldviews had something to say and that their categories of intellectual engagement were a bit more narrow than they realized.

The work of James H. Cone was my lifeline—literally and metaphorically. As I picked up God of the Oppressed because it was recommended by a Black professor at one of the schools I was considering attending, I knew I had entered a different space. No, I did not know much about Barth or the larger theological battles that Jim was fighting—but I knew that he understood how devastating it can be to the mind, soul, and spirit when the religious worldviews that are sanctioned as worthy decidedly say that growing up with the mourners bench or the church nurses dressed in white or choirs that sang in a code that bridged the existential with the eschatological when the sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was a folk religion that was more sociological than theological. This was wrong and downright demonic, and Jim was not afraid to say so, and he kept on saying so until he left us and also left with us with the charge to keep on speaking the truth of what he saw in an American Dream that had been skewed into radical hatred and inauthentic piety that excused incomplete scholarship.

Jim was not always right, but he was definitely more often right than he was wrong. I knew him as a mentor and friend and colleague over the years—one of those rare privileges one has in this academic journey. His legacy—one of intellectual passion for justice and truth in our work—must be carried on by those of us left standing in these times. We do our work with these last words from his The Cross and the Lynching Tree in mind: “If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation there is hope ‘beyond tragedy.’” We work to make this so. Rest in power, Jim.

Peter J. Paris: James H. Cone will always be remembered as the founder of the Black Theology Movement. Like all such founders he was at first out of step with everyone else. Yet, also like them, he was able to attract, inspire, and persuade countless students and colleagues to embrace a new understanding of themselves, their past, present, and future. I was part of that revelatory event which meant that nothing for us would ever be the same again.

Cone’s relevant predecessors, Henry McNeil Turner, Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Foreman, all cleansed from “blackness” the opprobrium that white racism had bestowed upon it long ago. Cone’s use of the term “black” to modify “theology” (the study of God)—which later culminated in the claim that “God is black”—marked the unofficial beginning of a radically new discipline, one that most seminaries have only recently begun to affirm. Both the predominantly white University of Chicago, where I was then studying, and the historic black Howard University School of Religion, where my teaching career began, shunned the term ”Black Theology” for decades. Yet, it was in the latter school that J. Deotis Roberts wrote the first book length response to Cone’s explosive work.

Cone’s work soon gave rise in 1970 to the Society for the Study of Black Religion, not as a substitute for the American Academy of Religion, but as a space devoted to the nurture of scholars in Black religious studies to converse, critique, and encourage one another in their research and publications. In the beginning, several of the charter members were clergy with part-time teaching appointments; then and now, its annual meeting is held the week before Palm Sunday from Thursday to noon on Saturday so as to allow time for the clergy to return to their pulpits on Sunday.

An important part of the annual program was a visit to a black congregation for a dialogue between the academy and the church. A time was also scheduled each year for the participants to discuss the impact of black theology on their respective disciplines. The SSBR has also held several international conferences in Ghana, South Africa, Jamaica, Brazil, and in 2018, “Black” Paris.

Cone’s fifty year sojourn on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary ended with his funeral at the Riverside Church in New York that was filled to capacity with scholars, clergy, and others dedicated to the mission of transmitting his legacy into the future. We who knew him as a colleague and friend are grateful for having had that privilege.

David P. Gushee: My first encounter with Dr. James Cone was painful and unforgettable.

I came to Union Seminary in 1987 after three years and a master of divinity at Southern Baptist Seminary. I chose to make the long ideological leap from Southern to Union in part because I felt ready to be challenged in my Southern, Baptist, and evangelical presuppositions. What I did not understand until I met James Cone was that it was my casually hegemonic white-male-Americanism that would really be challenged.

On the very first class session of my very first day at Union I found myself in Dr. Cone's third world liberation theology class, receiving an opening lecture that I heard as a highly militant call for global revolution against oppression. After Dr. Cone finished, he opened the floor for questions. I raised my hand first. I said: "It sure sounds like you are calling for violence. Does that fit with the message of Jesus?"

Dr. Cone essentially said the following: “In situations of oppression, violence is a daily reality. It is often invisible to the oppressor but certainly not to those who are being trampled upon. In such situations a response must be made. Whether or not that response is or should be violent is a matter for discussion. But let no one suggest that it is the oppressed who is introducing violence into that situation.”

So far, so good. I was challenged intellectually. But then Dr. Cone said: “This is a class on third world liberation theology. It is intended to privilege the voices of people of color, people from the Third World, people who have been rendered voiceless. This class will work best if our white male brothers mainly listen and do not talk.”

What I have made of that moment has changed over the ensuing three decades. At the time, I felt censored, embarrassed, and outraged. I have often told the story as an illustration of what a shock to the system Union turned out to be for a young Southern Baptist kid like me.

But now I see it as being about all about undercutting white (male) supremacism and therefore of a piece with James Cone's entire career. He saw the mountain of white supremacism for what it was, and he devoted his career to attacking its oppressive power. He wanted to make his classroom a space where white men would not be able to enact our casual assumption of superiority or dominance over the terms of the conversation. There would be at least one place in Christendom where we would learn to listen humbly rather than declaim confidently—his space, his classroom.

Dr. James Cone told the truth about white supremacism and its disastrous effects on the development of European and American Christianity. He also told the truth about the grandeur and power of alternative African American renderings of Christianity and developed his own especially profound account of black theology. Here in 2018, in white backlash America, some of us white folks are finally seeing exactly how right he was all along. I will be devoting my AAR presidential address to this theme in Denver, and I will dedicate it to my esteemed teacher, Dr. James Cone.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.: James Cone had a unique voice. He spoke (and wrote) passionately. Each sentence carried with it a depth of reading and thoughtfulness that forced his interlocutor to sit down with the formulation. He challenged your unspoken assumptions and demanded a kind of self-reflection that is quite rare in the academy. We often stand at a distance from the work. Parsing arguments and assessing claims. It is that rare experience, more often had in reading literature, which forces one to turn inward—to explore what’s on the inside in the full light of the ugliness of what is out here, in the actual world we inhabit.

And yet there was (and is) something, at least to me, wholly familiar in James Cone’s voice. Maybe it was the sound and cadence of Bearden, Arkansas, and the experience of growing up in the South that saturated his writings? For this southern boy, born and raised in Moss Point, Mississippi, I loved those moments when the South peaked through his expansive intellect—when he pronounced his “r’s” like the folk back home.

But what I am reaching for is much more than the simple fact that Cone was southern, or what we might call “country.” What made him unique, at least to me, was the way he inhabited that particular iteration of blackness on the page and in life. All too often, and it is a distinctive and pressing feature of being black in the academy, we are forced to work in ways that leave who we are at the door and away from our analysis. Rigor, we are told and trained to believe, requires dispassionate engagement. It is a disfiguring demand. James Baldwin’s words in “Many Thousands Gone” come to mind:

Time has made some changes in the Negro face. Nothing has succeeded in making it exactly like our own, though the general desire seems to be to make it blank if one cannot make it white. When it has become blank, the past as thoroughly washed from the black face as it has been from ours, our guilt will be finished—at least it will have ceased to be visible, which we imagine to be the same thing.

James Cone refused to make his face blank; he refused to offer absolution. His life and work required of his readers, no matter who they were, a confrontation with blackness and its theological implication. One could argue with him about the particulars (as I did), but who we are, what we have suffered, and what that says about the human endeavor remained at the center of the enterprise. In that sense, and I have come to learn this the more I read him, James Cone modeled in his work and in his life what it means to be truly free.

Emilie M. Townes is dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School where she is also the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society. She was president of the AAR in 2008.

Peter J. Paris is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was president of the AAR in 1995.

David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the 2018 president of the AAR.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies and the chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. He was president of the AAR in 2017.