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James Cone, ‘founder of black liberation theology,’ dies at 79

The Rev. James Cone, known as the father of black liberation theology, and the Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, died April 28, 2018. Image courtesy of Union Theological Seminary

(RNS) —  The Rev. James H. Cone, the scholar known as the “founder of black liberation theology,” died Saturday (April 28), Union Theological Seminary announced.

He was 79.

The author of such books as “Black Theology & Black Power” and “God of the Oppressed” joined the faculty of the New York City seminary in 1969.

“In so many ways, James Cone has been Union Theological Seminary for the past 50 years,” said Union President Serene Jones. “To say his death leaves a void is a staggering understatement. His prophetic voice, deep kindness, and fierce commitment to black liberation embodied not just the very best of our seminary, but of the theological field as a whole and of American prophetic thought and action.”

His theology contrasted sharply with traditional theological approaches in that he articulated God’s identification with U.S. blacks. In portraying Christ’s blackness, he upended the assumptions of a field dominated by white theologians and helped spawn other theories of liberation.

In the introduction of his most recent book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” Cone noted that he was making connections many others had not.

“Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections,” he wrote.

Cone’s book was honored with the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, a joint award from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville. In April, he was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honor earlier received by former President Barack Obama, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and author and educator Ta-Nehisi Coates.

A native of Fordyce, Ark., Cone was an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was promoted to the position of full professor of theology in 1973 at Union and was named the Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology in 2017. He taught and researched Christian theology at the seminary, focusing on black liberation theology and the liberation theologies of Africa, Latin America and Asia. He also taught about 19th- and 20th-century European-American theologies.

The bishops of the AME Church said Cone “touched, trained and molded generations of Ph.D. trained theologians and prophetic Christian servant leaders serving in pulpits and ministries around the world. Dr. Cone was truly a hero and shero maker.”

Cornel West, Harvard Divinity School professor of the practice of public philosophy, summed up the life of his friend and colleague: “James Cone was the theological giant and genius in our midst! He was the greatest liberation theologian to emerge in the American empire—and he never ever sold out.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

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  • The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha—should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death. But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.

    ~ James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

    James Cone was a man who brought light and brilliance to American theological reflection. May he rest in well-deserved peace.

  • The time will soon come when the earth is actually entirely free of hate, racism, social injustice and prejudice, no matter the race, culture and nation of all its inhabitants (Micah 4:3,4).

    And James Cone may be able to actually see it with his own eyes, since those blessings will only be realized through God’s kingdom (Daniel 2:44), or heavenly government (Matthew 4:17) in the near future.

    I mention that since resurrections back to life on earth after sleeping in death (Ecclessiastes 9:5, 10) will also be evident on a worldwide basis throughout that government’s rule (John 5:28, 29).????☝️

  • “James Cone … never ever sold out”, says Cornel West, but he sure DID shortchange, says James Ellis III! (So said Desmond Tutu too, by the way – look it up! – but I don’t like him enough to care what he thinks. Anyway.)

    According to James Ellis III, “A Critique of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology”, Day 1: A Ministry of the The Alliance for Christian Media, July 9, 2011:

    (1) “Intimately identif[ied] with the struggle of being black in America … [with] persistent racial tensions in my relations to the whites and lingering ambivalence in my feelings toward the blacks … I am unwilling [however] to go as far … as [Cone] does … lift[ing] up blacks as the most oppressed of all of America’s oppressed people. … [And that’s because] non-black Christians are also religiously faithful and yet oppressed in America as well. … [And because] Black people’s oppressors are not white people, but rather any people who aim to enslave and exploit.”

    (2) “His critique … presupposes righteousness on the oppressed, which begs [the] questions … What then does this mean for the non-oppressive white Christian; that he/she is incapable of responsibly representing Christ because of the inherited social privilege that their skin color provides or that doing so outside of an ultra liberal theology is somehow less valuable before the Lord? What does it mean for the black Christian whose racialized social position renders him or her oppressed, but whose lifestyle and behavior nonetheless classifies them as an oppressor just the same? Are we to neglect that within all oppressed communities there exist those who also oppress?”

  • “Th[at] time will soon come”? No, it HAS come.

    All Jehovah’s Witnesses BUT YOU believe that “the birth of God’s Messianic kingdom in the heavens [occurred] at the end of the Gentile Times in 1914. … That 1914 marked the end of the Gentile Times and the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the heavens, as well as the time for Christ’s foretold presence. … In 1914 Jesus was installed as heavenly King, to rule amid his enemies.”

    Source: The Watchtower, December 15, 1967, page 753, paragraph 1; April 1, 1986, page 31; and September 1, 1985, page 25, paragraph 15.

  • “I concede, generally speaking, that a certain parallelism rings true between the lynchings of blacks and Jesus’ crucifixion, yet I am unwilling to go as far with it as [James H. Cone] does. In my estimation, it is not helpful to lift up blacks [my people] as the most oppressed of all of America’s oppressed people.”

    I AGREE, you don’t; what else is new.

    Source: James Ellis III, “A Critique of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology”, Day 1: A Ministry of the The Alliance for Christian Media, July 9, 2011.

  • Wrong. They all believe in a gap from the birth of the kingdom until Armageddon. Obviously the gap is longer than they anticipated – when I was a JW 1974/1975 was unofficially predicted. One thing about JWs – they are uniform in belief. Unrepentant issention gets you disfellowshiped. You need to do a little more research before you post.

  • I don’t know. Hopefully not.

    But there is no doubt that his theology, and his view of race relations, was seriously damaged by his personal exposure to Jim Crow racism. The black liberation theology sales-pitch was his response. But that don’t work.

    I would rather buy white Dr. Charles Ryrie’s solidly-Bible-based Basic Theology than any of Dr. James Cone’s works. In fact, I did do so.

    I care about the racism issue; I study racism, but the Bible has the answer for racism, and it’s got healing for those hurt by racism, and it’s got healing for those who are racists (and racists do come in ALL colors.) Cone simply went the wrong way (and Union Seminary is the wrong way too!).

    No disrespect to the late Dr. Cone — it’s just that theology only means a hoot when it’s based directly on what the Bible says. Life is too short for anything else.

  • “Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree…”
    White Guilt………………………….never ends. In a thousand years…..my great, great, great, great grandson will still be inundated with White Guilt.
    No mention of the Whites who were Lynched during that time period as well. As if all of these blacks were “lynched” unjustly. Good grief.
    Are all the blacks incarcerated in prisons…………………..is that racist too?

  • If White Nationalism is deemed Racist…..then so should this guy.
    The problem is that “racism” is not bad. Racism is a good thing. It is survival of a species.
    I’m just pointing out the hypocrisy of the mass media. No one would ever dare claim this black man is racist. But god forbid White students should want to have their own student union!
    Whites organizing collectively = Nazism, racism, bigotry, evil.
    Blacks organizing collectively = Good, natural, healthy and approved.
    Mexicans organizing collectively= Good, natural, healthy and approved.
    Jews organizing collectively = righteous and necessary and will jail you if you speak out against it.

  • Fran’s reference “The time will soon come” – a JWs’ mantra – actually doesn’t have legs to stand on, because although now they, like her, believe in a “kingdom … or heavenly government … in the near future”, that time ORIGINALLY was the year 1914. Any “research”, as you call it, into the history of JWs’ doctrine of 1914, as my citation of their The Watchtower articles proves, shall come to that same conclusion. My years with them discussing the booklet, What the Bible REALLY Teaches, also confirm this claim.

    I suggest you go back to the JW elders you once knew & ask them to prove me wrong. But first the onus is on you to get a handle on that 1914 doctrine’s history.

  • “We all must give voice to the voiceless and fight for justice, but for the Christian that must be on behalf of all people, not only those who represent their particular race or ethnicity. Black people’s oppressors are not white people, but rather any people who aim to enslave and exploit. THOUGH HE DENOUNCES EXCLUSIVIST RHETORIC THAT PROMOTES A ONE-SIDED, RACIST AGENDA, IN SOME WAYS [JAMES H.] CONE HAS PERHAPS BEEN GUILTY OF DOING JUST THAT. In God of the Oppressed Cone writes, ‘Christ’s blackness is both literal and symbolic … The least in America are literally and symbolically present in black people.’. Not so according to psalmist who reminds us, all were born in sin, shaped in iniquity. No matter our social position, Christ died for us insomuch as all. We are all one in Christ.”

    Source: James Ellis III, “A Critique of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology”, Day 1: A Ministry of the The Alliance for Christian Media, July 9, 2011.

  • You say, “Rage in Power [RIP]”, but I say, “Research in Progress [RIP]” – as in:

    Toward A Post-BlackLiberation Theology & A Post-Theology.

    Because: all theologies are the death to the good news of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation – including Cone’s.

  • God’s kingdom was established in 1914 with Jesus as its King, and he has been ruling since then!

    However, that kingdom or heavenly government has not yet put an end to nor replaced all human governments (Daniel 2:44).

    The great tribulation has not yet taken place (Matthew 24:21), nor has Armageddon, or Jehovah’s battle against all the rulers of the world (Revelation 16:14, 16) yet taken place.

    It is only after the great tribulation and Armageddon that Jesus and his 144,000 co-rulers will start their DIRECT millennial rule over mankind on earth who survive (Revelation 7:9; 13-14).

    Only then will there be complete and loving brotherhood of man (Micah 4:3,4), which has not yet taken place worldwide!

  • FRAN (a day ago): “God’s kingdom … or heavenly government [will exist] in the near future. … And James Cone may be able to actually see it with his own eyes”.

    FRAN (41 minutes ago): “God’s kingdom was established in 1914 … [And James Cone may be able to actually see it with his own eyes]”.

  • Only if you have clear examples of black people being culturally, economically and politically dominant in our society. Unlike white people, minorities lack the power to turn racism into public policy or give it color of law.

    Sure racism exists among minorities, but nobody has to care, because it doesn’t affect the rest of the world.

    Minorities organizing collectively to protect themselves from racist white people = Good, natural, healthy and approved.

    Whites organizing collectively to attack everyone else = what you support.

  • “No mention of the Whites who were Lynched during that time period as well.”

    You mean the ones who were lynched for helping out black people.

    “As if all of these blacks were “lynched” unjustly.”

    As if there was justifiable lynching?

  • When I think and remember what books and papers that are important to keep and pass on in my small library, James Cone’s works is in the many. This man’s works, gave me perspectives and critical thinking measures that I am most grateful for. RIP teacher, RIP.

  • Black racism “doesn’t affect the rest of the world”? Seriously now?

    Any person of any race can totally refute that notion using only three words: “Black Lives Matter.”

    In fact, you only need one word: “Ferguson.” A national racist mess, but forner Officer Wilson, who is still in hiding years after Obama’s official DOJ cleared him, was NOT the racist.

    I know of whites who developed racist attitudes towards blacks **because WE practiced racism and bullying towards them first. **

    I’ve actually heard a black person say out loud at the grocery store, “We gotta defend our national color.”

    All I wanted was some Pop-Tarts for lunch. Instead I get to die of embarrassment for lunch.

  • LOL. BLM would not exist if not for overmilitarized police forces and the predatory (and racist) system in Ferguson Missouri. One designed to shake down people of color.

    Considering the feeling that it’s open season on black youth, its tough to make a case for it being anything but a reaction to intolerable conditions. Racism under the color of law by whites provoking defensive positions.

  • What about those “claiming it taught [Capitalist, or Anarchist, or Communitarian] principles”? They, too, “abused the Bible”, then?

  • We can discuss those other issues another time. Cone taught that society needs to change by government coercion according to the Gospels but that is not the Gospel message. He was a heretic. The Bible does not teach that a centralized government needs to take wealth away from white people and redistribute it to blacks.

  • Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”
    John 18:36 NLT

  • “Proves”, you say? Alright, so let’s have it. Give me at least 2 proofs that what Cone had prophesied about Trump is now the reality. Cross-reference them so I can verify.

  • On the scale of socio-historical critical thoughts & practices, Marxism & Liberation Theology are considered bottom-feeders, anachronism & has-beens. Jurgen Habermas has the explanation for that as well as the alternatives. Those 2 disciplines reached an impasse and a point of no return in the late 1980s.

    I gave up on them, then stick only to Jesus & His gospel ever since. You ought to yourself.

  • ONLY WORSE.

    “I have estimated that about 2.4 million people have been killed as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, while about 1.2 million have been killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. … How many people have been killed as a result of U.S. military and CIA interventions in Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen [is the total of the following.] … I estimate that about 250,000 Libyans have been killed in the war, violence and chaos that the U.S. and its allies unleashed in Libya in February 2011, and which continues to the present day. Taking 5:1 and 12:1 ratios to passively counted deaths as outer limits, the minimum number of people that have been killed would be 150,000 and the maximum would be 360,000. … I estimate that about 1.5 million people have been killed in Syria … [although] as many as 2 million people may well have been killed. … I estimate that the true number of people killed in Somalia since 2006 must be somewhere between 500,000 and 850,000, with most likely about 650,000 violent deaths. … I estimate that about 175,000 people have been killed [in Yemen] … with a minimum of 120,000 and a maximum of 240,000. … Altogether, in the three parts of this report, I have estimated that America’s post-9/11 wars have killed about 6 million people. Maybe the true number is only 5 million. Or maybe it is 7 million. But I am quite certain that it is several millions.”

    Sources: (1) Nicolas J.S. Davies, “How Many Millions of People Have Been Killed in America’s Post-9/11 Wars? – Part One: Iraq”, Consortium News, March 22, 2018. (2) Nicolas J.S. Davies, “How Many People Has the U.S. Killed in its Post-9/11 Wars? Part 2: Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Consortium News, April 3, 2018. (3) Nicolas J S Davies, “How Many Millions Have Been Killed in America’s Post-9/11 Wars? Part 3: Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen”, Consortium News, April 25, 2018.

  • What has been proven (again) is that power concedes nothing without a demand. Minorities are in deep doo-doo for a long time forward as a result of losing both the tax code and the Supreme Court.

  • “You ought to yourself”?…I ought to be mature Black woman and leave people alone in social media, that are disrespectful and rude (with the understandings of all the definitions of ‘rude’.

  • Neither Marxism or “Black liberation tyranny theology bull crap” as you stupidly called it, had anything to do with “America’s post-9/11 wars … kill[ing] about 6 million people.”

    Stupidly, because you believe that “America is not about tyranny.”

  • That’s right, those wars have nothing to do with black liberation tyranny.

  • Another left-wing fraud who helped imprison blacks intellectually.

    No wonder blacks are at the bottom of the American economic ladder.

    Sad…………

  • Marxists & Liberation Theologians, the people you accuse of “tyranny”, did not massacre “6 million people” after 9/11. They’re not the tyrants here, for it’s the U.S. government & warriors, on whose behalf you testify, “America is not about tyranny”, who have, in fact, “killed 6 million people” since 9/11.

    That can only mean you prefer massacre to tyranny, despite your Christian religion. How un-American of you. Don’t you know that tyranny & massacre go hand in hand since the era of U.S. President Andrew Jackson? May I remind you:

    “Andrew Jackson was a slaver, ethnic cleanser, and tyrant. … Jackson’s role in American Indian removal – the forced, bloody transfer of tens of thousands of Native Americans from the South – … [was a] crime [that became] the core of his legacy. … Indian removal … was a crime against humanity intended to abet another crime against humanity: By clearing the Cherokee from the American South, Jackson hoped to open up more land for cultivation by slave plantations. … Once Jackson’s administration secured its fraudulent treaties, it set about the actual process of removal. From the very beginning, the process was deadly. About four thousand Choctaws died of cholera, and hundreds more died from hunger, exposure, and accidents, per Wallace. A steamboat carrying 611 Creeks up the Mississippi collided with another boat and was cut in two, killing 311 Indian passengers. Anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of Eastern Cherokees died either being rounded up or transported West. The problem was not one of faulty implementation; Jackson’s own actions made the process of removal bloodier and crueler. ‘During the Removal process the president personally intervened frequently, always on behalf of haste, sometimes on behalf of the economy, but never on behalf of humanity, honesty, or careful planning’ … The actual death toll of removal is uncertain. The toll for Cherokees alone is typically given as 4,000 to 8,000, per Amy Sturgis’s book, The Trail of Tears and Indian Removal. But thousands more Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and other Indians died in the process as well, direct victims of the signature policy of the Jackson administration.”

    Source: Dylan Matthews, “Andrew Jackson was a slaver, ethnic cleanser, and tyrant. He deserves no place on our money”, Vox, April 20, 2016.

  • “massacre 6 million people since 9/11”. Where did you get that from poopforbrains.com?

  • As previously posted (or can’t you read?):

    ‘Sources: (1) Nicolas J.S. Davies, “How Many Millions of People Have Been Killed in America’s Post-9/11 Wars? – Part One: Iraq”, Consortium News, March 22, 2018. (2) Nicolas J.S. Davies, “How Many People Has the U.S. Killed in its Post-9/11 Wars? Part 2: Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Consortium News, April 3, 2018. (3) Nicolas J S Davies, “How Many Millions Have Been Killed in America’s Post-9/11 Wars? Part 3: Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen”, Consortium News, April 25, 2018.’

  • Doesn’t like Christianity, huh ?

    He probably would have been happier with a bone in his nose, banging on a drum, eating monkey skins in the jungle I guess.

  • No, white minorities stopping the attacks on their civil and constitutional rights like racial quotas and affirmative action.

  • You have none. White people are hardly a minority nor a group which has its civil liberties attacked.

    AA only affects the most useless or mediocre white kids. Those who fail to distinguish themselves despite having cultural and economic advantages at their disposal.

    Racism only really benefits the most useless white people. Those who have skills, education and achievements don’t need such a crutch. To quote the great fictional Reverend Jesse Custer, “the self styled defenders of the white race are always the most useless examples of it”.

  • White MINORITIES are discriminated against every day.

    Thanks to Trump and Sessions, it’s ending. The black Left knows they can’t win a race war, the last thing the Democrats want is race sludge on TV come election time.

  • Poor little useless person thinks they are being persecuted because their posterior isn’t being kissed on the basis of his complexion. How funny!

    Good to know that your support for the current president is based on being a racist dbag. It saves us all the trouble of silly denial games or pretending he is someone worthy of respect.

    Hillary’s big mistake was taking back the “Deplorable” label for Trump supporters. It was an understatement to describe the racist, seditious, corrupt, and dishonest sort who flock to him.

  • How’s that Congressional Black Toilet working out for ya ? Ellison, Conyers, Rangel, Waters, etc.

    A real racial cesspool.

    Any time you libs want to challenge the GOP to a race war, be my guest.

  • People of color achieving positions of public power annoys you. How infantile. Jealous much?

    “Any time you libs want to challenge the GOP to a race war, be my guest”

    Get back to me when you graduate middle school. In the meantime lay off huffing paint. It is making you post silly stuff.

  • I have no problem with blacks achiveing positions of power. I have a problem when they engage in race-baiting and racial demagoguery to achieve that position as we have seen with Tawana Brawley, Michael Brown, and now The Waffle House Incident.

  • … that you can’t read, or too afraid to, or too Americanized and hardly Holy-Spirit-led to.

    It’s to your spiritual loss, to be sure, brother in Christ Jesus.

  • https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/sep/03/worlddispatch.iraq
    The “skittles theory” of the Middle East – that one ball aimed at Iraq can knock down several regimes. Its roots can be traced, at least in part, to a paper intended as a political blueprint for the incoming government of Israel’s NETANYAHU. The paper was published in 1996 by Israeli thinktank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, and entitled: “A CLEAN BREAK: A NEW STRATEGY FOR SECURING THE REALM.” http://www.dougfeith.com/docs/Clean_Break.pdf
    Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.

    You might also want to check out the article entitled, “Greater Israel”: The Zionist Plan for the Middle East. The Infamous “Oded Yinon Plan”. http://www.globalresearch.ca/greater-israel-the-zionist-plan-for-the-middle-east/5324815

  • The Jewish people as a whole will be its own Messiah. It will attain world domination by the dissolution of other races…and by the establishment of a world republic in which everywhere the Jews will exercise the privilege of citizenship. In this New World Order the Children of Israel…will furnish all the leaders without encountering opposition…” – [Karl Marx in a letter to Baruch Levy, Reprinted in the Review de Paris, June 1, 1928] P.S. Karl Marx was ancestrally Jewish; his maternal grandfather was a Dutch rabbi, while his paternal line had supplied Trier’s rabbis since 1723, a role taken by his grandfather Meier Halevi Marx. 

    http://www.jta.org/1962/01/04/archive/ben-gurion-foresees-gradual-democratization-of-the-soviet-union
    “In Jerusalem, the United Nations (a truly United Nations) will build a Shrine of the Prophets to serve the federated union of all continents; this will be the seat of the Supreme Court of Mankind.” ~ (David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, Look magazine, 1962).

    “federated union of all continents” — A very clear description of globalist union, global order!
    “this will be the seat of the Supreme Court of Mankind.” — pretty clear that this is where the “federated union of all continents” will be governed from, the seat of the Antichrist.
    “Jerusalem” — So we know the city where this “Supreme Court of Mankind,” i.e. the central government overseeing the “federated union of all continents” will be based.

  • If so all the above, then why would those same “nations … tread under foot that holy city Jerusalem for forty-two months” (Revelation 11:2)

  • Good to know I’m not the only one at RNS who’s a Michel Chossudovsky reader and a regular visitor at Global Research.

    I’m convinced, however, that “nations …will tread under foot that holy city Jerusalem for forty-two months” (Revelation 11:2). What Trump did, moving the US embassy there, is just the beginning.

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