James H. Cone

I woke up this morning to the sad news that the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone has died.

Cone is often credited as the ‘founder’ of Black Liberation Theology (the stream of liberation theology focused particularly on the experience of African Americans), forever disrupting ‘business as usual’ with the publication of his hugely influential Black Theology and Black Power (1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (1970).

Like so many others, I can honestly say that Cone’s work has changed the way I think. He helped me see things that, previously, I was simply unable to see.

As a young, middle-class, white theological student (17 years ago now), I remember my introduction to Liberation Theology well. From what I initially read (notably, and regrettably, not liberation theologians themselves), I began to form the view that, though there was something worthwhile in what was being said (what that ‘something’ is was not often defined), it was a bit dangerous to get ‘too deep into it.’ Liberation Theology, I was told, ends up reducing all ‘sin’ to class structures, or racism, or sexism, and therefore becomes unbalanced.

Of course, this is a poor caricature of what Liberation Theologies actually do, but I didn’t see this for quite some time until my friend and teacher Professor Shane Clifton asked me if I’d actually read some of these theologians for myself. Whether I agreed with them or not, I could at least do them the service of engaging directly with their work.

So I did, and I’m so thankful for it!

It was this process that led me, eventually, to read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree — a book that has had a truly profound influence on me.

I’m not going to go into a full review of the book here (I strongly suggest you read it for yourself), but I would like to note briefly two of what I think are very important points Cone makes in it.

Firstly, Cone makes the (retrospectively glaringly obvious) point that the crucified Christ is identified far more clearly with lynched black bodies than with the white ‘Christians’ who allowed and participated in the lynchings (sometimes smiling for photos with their children next to those broken bodies), and perpetuated the structures that provided a foundation for such abhorrent acts. I’m saddened to say that I simply didn’t have the theological (or emotional) framework to make this connection before reading this book, but the realisation changes everything (and I’m still unpacking the ramifications!). Needless to say, such a realisation also shines a spotlight on the serious deficiencies of the ‘White theology’ in which such questions are never formed, let alone asked (the sort of theological foundation upon which my early theological musings were built).

Secondly, Cone explains in the book how the history of U.S. race relations has left a ‘festering wound’ in the soul of the U.S. which can never be healed unless the nation faces up to the horror of these acts. Though it’s much easier to call for ‘the past to be left in the past,’ the truth is that way towards true healing requires the initially very painful process of owning up to this history. It’s only through truth and deep corporate repentance that justice and reconciliation can be realised.

It was reflection on these points that helped me come to believe strongly that a similar situation is evident in Australia (with our history between Indigenous Australians and white ‘Christian’ settlers), and that it’s going to take similar effort to heal the wound in the soul of our nation. As far as I can see, such work has not even really yet begun. Perhaps we can change that.

The loss of James H. Cone is massive, but he has left us with his prophetic legacy. I certainly hope we take it seriously.

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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

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