I had just returned to New York City from delivering the 2018 Trout Lectures at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, when I received word that my beloved professor, now colleague and friend, Dr. James Hal Cone, had died.
In 2012, Dr. Cone had been invited to lecture at Trinity Lutheran but had to cancel his appearance due to an onslaught of death threats in response to his newest publication at the time, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
Amid the outpouring of “thoughts and prayers” the world over and a host of remembrances held in his honor at divinity schools and theological seminaries across the nation, the truth is that James H. Cone was, in fact, the most hated theologian in America at one time.
The first African American to earn a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Northwestern University in 1963, Cone often recalled how some of his graduate professors refused to shake his hand at his commencement given their racist disbelief in the successful completion of his degree.
Following graduation, it would not take long for Cone to reposition his expertise in the theology of Karl Barth to the God-talk of his mother, Mrs. Lucy Cone, a pillar, he would say, of the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bearden, Ark., spurning him to interrogate the question at the heart of black life in the U.S.: What does God have to say about “why whites treat blacks so terrible?”
Although his specific place in the genealogy of black liberation theology is debatable, Cone is unquestionably its 20th-century systematizer and as such, is noted as the father of liberation theology.
Beginning with his first now-classic monograph, Black Theology & Black Power, immediately followed by three more, A Black Theology of Liberation; The Spirituals and the Blues; and God of the Oppressed, Cone carefully began the work of dismantling a dominant white theology, but further identifying the white church as the Antichrist insofar as it undergirded and perpetuated black suffering as the white supremacist will of God, or worse yet, remained silent in the face of black dehumanization.
He condemned the white, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus—the prominent icon in so many Christian churches and homes—to the auspices of hell with rhetoric that demanded that, “If God is white, kill God.”
Instead, he aligned with the god of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, and asserted that God and God in Christ are black insofar as they stand on the side of the oppressed, acting in history to liberate the suffering “by any means necessary.”
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