“One of the great theologians of the late 20th century, Cone forces us to look hard at suffering, oppression and, ultimately, redemption.”
—The Huffington Post
James Hal Cone, the theologian credited with aligning Christianity with the social reforms of the 20th century, passed away this past April 28 at 79. A professor at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary since 1969, he died in Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of unspecific causes.
The Arkansas native remembered the White hierarchy subscribed to the adage that “…God created Black people to be White people’s servants.” An ordained minister by the time he entered college, Cone came of age with the 1954 decree of school integration by the Supreme Court, and the desegregation of Little Rock’s (Arkansas) Central High School in 1957. Earning his doctorate in divinity in 1963, he went on to teach or lecture at some 1000 colleges during his career, and received 13 honorary degrees. The racial conflict of the 1960s forced him to reconcile the tenets of his faith with the grinding persecution of his race in the United States. A key motivation was Malcolm X’s declaration that Christianity was “the White man’s religion,” tailored for the oppression of what were then called Negroes.
The 1967 Detroit riots prompted his 1969 title “Black Theology and Black Power,” and it’s follow up, “A Black Theory of Liberation (downloadable on line at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/250013620_A_Black_Theology_of_Liberation,” which intertwined liberation with the gospel. Cone would go on to parallel the crucifixion of Jesus with the oppression of Africa’s descendants in America. This and following writings promote Christianity as the catalyst for freeing oppressed people from economic, political, and social subjugation. These concepts informed the liberation movements of South Africa and Palestine in the Middle East. Catholic activists and theoreticians in Central and South America adopted the precepts of what became “Liberation Theology” as a rallying cry for the struggles of impoverished people throughout Latin America. Among those who embraced this tool of resistance (occasionally meshed with Marxist precepts) were Leonardo Boff of Brazil, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, and Uruguay’s Juan Luis Segundo.
Liberation theology has been embraced by oppressed populaces among the Dalit caste system (better known as the “untouchables”) of India, and in South Korea (dubbed “Minjung theology”), introducing principles of Christianity into traditionally non-Christian domains as part of the push for global justice.
Among the titles authored by James Cone are “God of the Oppressed (1975),” and Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (1991), 1992’s “The Spirituals and the Blues,” “The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2013), and “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” which is to be published this year.
Among the many tributes submitted since Cone’s demise include the following accolade from Harvard professor, activist, and social critic Cornell West: “He was the greatest liberation theologian to emerge in the American empire—and he never ever sold out.”