Friday, November 13, 2009

Why Listen to Dr. Cone?

James Cone is an extremist. But that is probably OK. As has often been said, some people have to go too far [to an extreme] to get other people to go far enough. And most of us middle-class white people in America have not gone far enough toward working for a just and equitable society for all people.

Dr. James Cone (b. 1938), professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York since 1970, gave two public talks at William Jewell College last week, and I was happy to be among those who heard those talks--although they were not particularly easy to listen to. He continues to be harsh in his criticism of American whites. One to one, though, he was very friendly and cordial, and you get some indication of his warmth in the picture.

In preparation for Dr. Cone's coming, I read much of his book "God of the Oppressed," first published in 1975 and re-issued in 1997 with an important preface but with few changes in the original book. In Milton Horne's "Bible study" class at Second Baptist Church we discussed Dr. Cone's book for five weeks before his coming. It is a tough book. In spite of considerable talk now about the importance of building bridges rather than driving wedges, bridge building was not was what Dr. Cone was about, especially in 1975.

Since Dr. Cone's voice is so strident, we comfortable, middle-class white people naturally ask, "Why listen to Dr. Cone?" There are some good reasons: (1) Most African-Americans in this country are descendants of people who were grossly oppressed by the insidious institution of slavery. While that doesn't excuse aberrant behavior in the present, the woeful effects of past oppression must be recognized. Listening to Dr. Cone helps us grasp some of how that oppression continues to maim many in that tradition.

(2) Many of us white people, in spite of our attitudes toward African Americans now, are descendants of those who were slaveholders. Littleon Seat was my first grandfather to live in Missouri. His father, Hartwell, was a slaveholder. Two years before Littleton was born in Virginia in 1788, two of his older brothers were killed by a young slave. (I have always wished there was some way to get more information about that incident.) When the Hartwell Seat family moved to Tennessee, they brought slaves with them. (Years ago I saw Seats Chapel, a black church building in central Tennessee that was probably formed by former slaves of Hartwell, my grandfather.) Thus, listening to Dr. Cone helps me to come to the painful realization that I have come from a family of oppressors. I, and others like me, should use that realization not as a cause for feeling guilt, but as a spur to greater efforts in working for racial justice.

(3) As I wrote before, by necessity we all are either on the side of the oppressor or on the side of the oppressed. Listening to Dr. Cone helps to clarify the chasm between the two racial groups and challenges us all to choose to be in solidarity with the oppressed.

P.S. After posting this, I received an e-mail from a Korean friend who shared the following picture taken of Dr. Cone in Tokyo in 1978 or 1979.


  1. Dr. Cone told of sharing his story with Koreans in Japan. They did not want his advice, just his story. And he told of breaking free from the theologians who tried to direct him, and in the process of finding his own theological voice, coming to realize the power of the experience of Karl Barth in breaking free from liberal theology to find his own neo-orthodoxy. And in all this is his challenge to the middle-class whites in Milton's class, trying to figure out what to make of Dr. Cone's book. We are challenged to find our own voices, to find them with a clarity that makes us sing with authentic evangelical zeal. No cheap grace, no ready-made answers.

    As if the challenge of black and white were not enough, our discussions have shown how deeply these questions also affect native Americans, women, gays and lesbians, Jews, Muslims and even secular humanists. A lot of "strange fruit" has hung on too many trees. Yet even as we list them, some may cringe at being on the list with some of the others.

    Which gets us back to our middle-class white dilemma. We have invested a fair amount of time and energy on being a marginal class in a marginal church. Perhaps Dr. Cone can give us a new perspective on being the church that got kicked out of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Some people got fired, a lot of people got frustrated, but what did we really lose? Perhaps our challenge is that we have not been marginal enough. Perhaps it is time to pick up our cross and follow Jesus--even if in the process we leave the Southern Baptist Convention really finally behind.

    When Dr. Cone finished, he got a standing ovation from William Jewell College. Now, he may have been thinking of all the praise Jesus got on Palm Sunday. I do not know. I hope the echoes last longer than that week. At least we saw this, Jesus is a lot more radical than any church that tries to follow him. Or any sinner, either. And He has come to set the captives free. Free from narrow minds, narrow hearts, and narrow creeds. Free from narrow lives. Even free from narrow masters.

    The next night I finally caught up with the last episode of Ken Burn's new series on the National Parks. It discussed how the parks have expanded beyond natural settings to include certain great public spaces, such as the Lincoln Memorial. And then it showed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the march on Washington. He said, "In the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last. Free at last. I thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!'"

  2. Leroy,
    You have such provocative postings. I'm glad that you got to hear Cone at WJC, and I'm glad they had him. He's certainly a foundational figure in Black Theology, but he's not all there is. The major alternative to Cone is J. Deotis Roberts, who used to teach at Howard, Duke, ITC, and others. He's now retired in the DC area. See Methodologies in Black Theology by Fred Ware, who now teaches at Howard and is writing an updated edition of that book, which was his dissertation at Vandy.

  3. Cone has an interesting article of about 10 years ago in which he talks about the connection between racism and environmental devastation. I don't think that he's followed that up. I'll try to look up that article and pass on the biblio info.