Arkansas native James H. Cone, an Arkansas native often considered the father of black liberation theology, died today. He was 81.
Cone, a giant in American theology and one of the nation’s most bracing thinkers on race, had been the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he had taught since 1970. Cone was also an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
One of the most consistent themes in the Hebrew Bible as well as the Gospels is reversal, an overturning of the present order. Isaiah prophesied to “send good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Jesus told his followers, “so the last will be first, and the first will be last.” In the longings of the ancients, practitioners of liberation theology heard a message of revolution and hope for oppressed people in the modern world.
“Jesus himself has defined humanity’s liberation in the context of what happens to the little ones,” wrote Cone in “God of the Oppressed.”
“[T]he gospel means liberation … this liberation comes to the poor, and it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.”
Beginning in the 1960s, Cone used the perspective of liberation theology to examine the black experience in the United States. In the 1969 classic “Black Theology and Black Power” Cone wrote, “It is ironic that America, with its history of injustice to the poor, especially the black man and the Indian, prides itself on being a Christian nation.”
Later, in his 2011 best-selling and award-winning book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” Cone wrote, “The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. Both are symbols of the death of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation, and terror. They both also reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning and demonstrate that God can transform ugliness into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.”
Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas and grew up in Bearden, where he attended the Macedonia Methodist Epsicopal Chuch. He attended Shorter College in North Little Rock and Philander Smith College in Little Rock, before earning his Master of Divinity from Garrett Theological Seminary and his doctorate from Northwestern University.
Cone’s work was heavily influenced by his experiences growing up in Arkansas. He was in college during the 1957 desegregation crisis at Central High. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Karl Barth, but later commented, regarding his experience teaching theology at Philander Smith, “What could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structure of their lives in a society that had defined black as non-being?” One might see his work as an effort to provide a lens and a theology to anchor that seeking.
From his biography at the Union Theological Seminary’s website:
Dr. Cone is best known for his ground-breaking works, Black Theology & Black Power (1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (1970); he is also the author of the highly acclaimed God of the Oppressed (1975), and of Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (1991); all of which works have been translated into nine languages. The 30th Anniversary of the publication of Black Theology & Black Power was celebrated at the University of Chicago Divinity School (April 1998), and a similar event was held for A Black Theology of Liberation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (April 2000) and at the Catholic Theological Society of America (June 2001). His research and teaching are in Christian theology, with special attention to black liberation theology and the liberation theologies of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He also teaches 19th & 20th century European-American theologies. His latest book is entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree and received the 2012 Nautilus Silver Award in Religion/Spirituality-Western Traditions. It was an Amazon.com #1 best seller in religion in February 2012. Naming it one of the top religion books of 2011, Huffington Post editors said: “One of the great theologians of the late 20th century, Cone forces us to look hard at suffering, oppression and, ultimately, redemption.