“I write because writing is the way I fight. Teaching is the way I resist, doing what I can to subvert white supremacy.” – Dr. James H. Cone
With the passing of the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, the “father of black liberation theology,” we have lost “a beloved friend and north star to our board members and to so many clergy in the SDPC family,” said SDPC General Secretary Rev. Dr. Iva Carruthers.
Dr. Cone, a 2007 recipient of the SDPC’s “Beautiful Are Their Feet” award, transitioned to take his place among the elders on Saturday, April 28, 2018.
Dr. Cone was one of the presenters at the inaugural convening of the annual SDPC conference and provided ongoing support for the work and mission of the SDPC spiritually, financially, and programmatically.
“His contribution and participation in the Black Theology Project in many ways also served as the womb for the SDPC,” said Dr. Carruthers.
Born in Arkansas, Dr. Cone earned his undergraduate degree from Philander Smith College in that state in 1958. At the time of his death, he was the Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York and was also named the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at the seminary in 2017. Tenured at Union since 1973, he began his work there after receiving his BD at Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1961, eventually earning his M.A. and PhD in theology at Northwestern University in 1963 and 1965, respectively.
Thoroughly steeped in the words and scholarship of white theologians, Dr. Cone found himself at odds with his own education as the racial unrest of the 60s erupted. The son of sharecroppers, he had known and experienced racial hatred and heard racist rhetoric – too often justified by religious rhetoric – his whole life. The conflict he felt between his understanding of the Gospel and what he saw practiced and taught by white theologians resulted in his rejection of any theology or religion which did not recognize the worth of African Americans.
“How can any person pledge allegiance to a country which has not pledged allegiance to you?” he asked. “How can one trust any religion which defines and discriminates against people on the basis of the color of their skin?” he asked.
He concluded that he and all who had studied white theology had been getting a skewed message. He began to write; he was so moved and inspired by his emerging revelation of the theological landscape concerning black people that he sat and wrote nonstop until his first book, Black Theology and Black Power was completed. He believed that the message of the Gospel had been compromised and said that until he came to that conclusion he had lived and taught with “white theological cataracts.”
“We all have them,” he said.
Dr. Cone shared and taught that black theology is biblical theology, a message which resonated with the preachers, pastors and scholars who flocked to the SDPC, and denounced traditional Eurocentric Christianity which was too invested in protecting white supremacy using God as the author of that belief system.
Dr. Cone rejected that worldview and taught that if one wanted to be a Christian, one had to “identify with the powerless.” Along with good friend and colleague Dr. Gayraud Wilmore, he systematically deconstructed the white theological foundation which had informed black preachers, scholars and church-goers for too long. An ordained AME minister, he drew from the words of both Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X to shape his theological construct. “Dr. King provided my Christian identity and Malcolm provided my black identity,” he said.
His most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree earned him the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion in April of this year. His earlier books include God of the Oppressed, A Black Theology of Liberation, and For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church, all of which have been translated into nine languages and are studied all over the world.
The SDPC has been flooded with comments from those who experienced Dr. Cone’s presence, preaching and scholarship over the years, said Dr. Carruthers. “He was a friend and a mentor to many who have been deeply affected by his work. We were honored that he was a part of our formation and of our continued existence,” she said. “Those in our immediate and expanded network have expressed a deep and profound sense of loss,” she said.
Dr. Carruthers, whose mother “Mama Lois” (Johnson) died just last year, said that she is sure her mother is greeting another “son” in the ministry whom she and other church mothers met and fed while he was yet a student at Garrett. “My mother respected him and his work,” she said, recalling that “the two of them would banter back and forth about his hand of imagination in the Bible and on his hip when he preached and taught.”
That “hand of imagination,” coupled with Dr. Cone’s passion, prophetic voice and outstanding scholarship, has set people free to do the work of God on earth, confronting a religious belief system shaped by white supremacy.
2007 Beautiful Are The Feet Honoree
The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference Family
Rev. Dr.James Hal Cone, the “father of black liberation theology” went from labor to reward on Saturday April 28, 2018, New York, NY
We have received many requests to submit written tributes to Dr. Cone for sharing. Please submit your tribute in a Word document or PDF format to Media@sdpconference.info that we may create and distribute an e-album of tributes honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Cone.