James Cone Reflection
By Tisha Brooks
I first discovered James Cone in my sophomore year of college in my African American Religious Experience Course. During the semester, I had the privilege of reading three of Cone’s foundational books: Black Theology and Black Power (1969), A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), and Martin and Malcolm and America (1972). Inspired, encouraged, and empowered by his writing, I would go on to read several more of his books in graduate school. Encountering James Cone’s work had a profound impact on me spiritually and professionally. As someone who has inhabited predominantly white institutions her entire life, my engagement with Cone’s writing offered a way out of the alienation and disconnection that I often experienced in white churches and within white universities—spaces that were not made with me in mind and that were, at times, hostile to the presence of black people. James Cone, however, made it possible for me to be both unequivocally black and Christian, unequivocally black and an academic. More than that, Cone demanded that my blackness inform my spiritual and vocational life in order for me to live in my full God-given humanity as a beloved child of God. This is a message that everyone in this country needs to hear, but especially young black folk, which is why I teach Cone’s writing in my undergraduate and graduate courses every year. I cannot imagine teaching, writing, living without Cone’s wide and varied body of work, his testimony and ministry. For this reason, I am grateful that although he has passed on, his legacy continues through his writing and through the lives of those readers, like myself and my students, whose lives he has profoundly changed.
Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Cornel West speak at an event, during which he described James Cone as a love warrior. I cannot think of a better word to describe Cone’s way of being in the world. Isn’t this what the life and ministry of Jesus calls us to? Anyone who has read Cone’s work knows that the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” With his passing, then, may we all answer God’s call to be warriors of love—running the race that Jesus has set before us. And in doing so, may we set the world ablaze with the power of God’s transformative, healing, and redemptive love.
By Melissa Littlepage
There is so much to be said about the influence, impact, and indelibility of James Cone’s life and work. As I reflect, I am struck by three primary ways I’ve been forever shaped by this faithful man, through three of his works.
The first is The Spirituals and The Blues. I picked this book up because I’m a musician and at the time, I thought, “Oh I’d like to know more about the spirituals and the blues!” I was not prepared for what came upon reading. I was humbled, and profoundly shaped both as a musician—gaining a new understanding of music’s cultural and psychological loci—and as a Christian who deeply needed to be shaped by an expression other than my own to see the heart of God. This is one of the ways I’ve been formed by Cone’s work—a musician, humbled to understand artistic expressions as they profoundly testify to cultural and psychological realities, and ultimately to the person of God altogether.
Secondly, I encountered Cone as a historian in Martin and Malcolm and America. Humbled again, I learned to *always* doubt my white-woman-presuppositions about race in America, and more specifically, the Civil Rights Movement in America. I simply cannot trust my “instinctual” narrative as fact, and Cone showed me why and how. This is another way I was formed by Cone’s work—a citizen, shepherded to a place where I could listen in true and loving deference about a history I thought I knew but did not know.
Finally, as a masterful liturgist, Cone led me to revelatory worship in The Cross and The Lynching Tree. As painful and honest as this work is about America’s horrific sins, Cone offered to me a vision of Christ as triumphant with a redemptive beauty beyond my imagination. This is the third way I’ve been formed by James Cone—a worshiper, seeing Christ’s beauty and victory revealed ever more clearly and shaken awake if ever tempted to “doze” in the “worship service.”
Dr. James Hal Cone—the theologian, the historian, the liturgist—is forever etched into how I go about being a musician, citizen, and worshiper. His bodily absence from our world now is an acute loss. But we grieve with hope, and honor him in our labors for liberation and towards the coming Kingdom, remembering his words, that “Indeed our survival and liberation depend upon our recognition of the truth when it is spoken and lived by the people. If we cannot recognize the truth, then it cannot liberate us from untruth.” Thank you, Dr. Cone, for speaking and living the truth, and helping us to do the same.
By Mike Higgins
I am waiting to be challenged on mentioning James Cone, Black Liberation Theology, and his writings, especially The Cross and The Lynching Tree yesterday in a Presbyterian Church in America worship service. I am actually hoping to be challenged on that. I think it would be an opening to a very necessary discussion on why Cone was/is just as relevant in the Spirit led struggle of the Church to understand the gospel’s call to love our neighbor. A call defined by a courageous consciousness that will not rest until there is love, mercy and justice for women, minorities, the poor, the urban, the stranger, the assaulted, the oppressed, and the oppressor. This continual understanding will also answer the plea to obstruct and deconstruct the idea that white evangelical theology is superior to the theology a black churchman who dares serve notice on those who think that the Black race and its struggles can be overcome by white evangelicalism. An evangelicalism that has become less and less evangelical and more and more racial, socio-economical, political and national. Cone says “No” to those who think that black people may in fact suffer because they are the children of a lesser god who simply must embrace a superior view of Jesus. Do I embrace everything that Cone affirmed? No. But I don’t embrace everything that any theologian affirms. My hope is that more evangelicals would dare to read Cone and evaluate his theology on their own. They should give Cone a chance. If they can eat a drumstick, they read Cone. Is there a bone in Cone’s theology? Yes. But there is a lot of meat.
Remembering James Cone
By Brittíni “Ree Belle” Gray
(reposted with permission)
Sometimes we are called to places, other times to people, to either, it is at appointed seasons. In 2012 I knew I was called to St. Louis, so I would not be studying at Union as I had once imagined I would be, during the time my theological deepening, exploration and formal education was taking place. But I knew that Dr. Cone would undoubtedly have to be part of my journey. When I took a year off, prompted by the Ferguson Uprising, I waited to return to seminary until I knew Black Theology would have its place in the curriculum at Eden Seminary.
I’ve only met Dr. Cone once, but my mentors have been his mentees. I returned to Eden in the fall of 2015, once Dr. Ben Sanders III joined the faculty. In his first semester, he taught the course “Black Theology”, dedicated to Dr. Cone and the field that grew out of his body of work. It was here that I explored Womanism for the first time and the breadth of what Black Theology has represented and become over the past 50 plus years. Dr. Sanders in the classroom and Dr. Charlene Sinclair in the field as a mentor and colleague in organizing spaces was the closest I would get to Cone, and that was fine by me…Because, while I began with Cone’s theology to ground my own reflections, both about movement and faith over these past few years, absorbing from my mentors as they did from Cone, I was careful to heed his warning and prompting to discover my own theological voice and position, which I am continuing to do today.
This month, I have honored (and shall continue to honor) his journey and the gift he was to us in this realm. I proudly proclaim myself as a womanist, even as I find tension and fault with the faith I was raised in… For Cone’s life was one that exhibited and demonstrated how to be faithful and critical, fruitful and contemplative, fervent and still compassionate. May we all find that balance where beauty resides and where hope is found, giving us just a little bit more strength to sustain the tribulations of our day.