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James Cone, In Memoriam

Guest entry by Peter Herman, doctoral candidate in Georgetown's Department of Theology

James Cone

καὶ ἐξαπέστειλεν Αμασιας ὁ ἱερεὺς Βαιθηλ πρὸςΙεροβοαμ βασιλέα Ισραηλ λέγων συστροφὰς ποιεῖταικατὰ σοῦ Αμως ἐν μέσῳ οἴκου Ισραηλ οὐ μὴ δύνηται ἡγῆ ὑπενεγκεῖν ἅπαντας τοὺς λόγους αὐτοῦ

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. (Amos 7:10 LXX and NRSV)

Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock is accustomed to filling large, indeed world-historical, shoes. He is the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, the pulpit once held by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another theological giant had tasked Rev. Dr. Warnock with his eulogy. That giant also stood in the long shadow of King and had preached from the same pulpit as King did when he dared question the legitimacy of American involvement in Vietnam. It was the pulpit Warnock was in today at Riverside Church in Manhattan. So, Rev. Dr. Warnock, who is used to life in these “big shoes” gave the eulogy for another Rev. Dr. He spoke for Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone, whose synthesis of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X utterly reshaped theology over the past 50 years.

Sometimes we stand on the shoulders of giants. Sometimes the giants invite us up there in the first place. Such a giant was James H. Cone. I thought it would be hard to find words by which to remember him, and it is. It is almost worse, however, to carry immediately in my heart the touching memorials by The Very Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas, Dr. Cornell West, and Rev. Dr. Warnock’s moving eulogy. How can I do justice to his memory? This has been the theme of mourning for all of us touched by Cone. It was the theme of all the speakers at his funeral today. How do you remember a man who changed the way your field works? It’s easy to lapse into praise and halos. We all must remember, however, that to pay tribute to Cone, we must continue his work.

Rev. Dr. Warnock reminds us, by quoting Amos, that “the land could not bear” all of James Cone’s words. Some fifty years ago, Cone spent five weeks at his brother Cecil’s AME church writing Black Theology and Black Power. To call that work “disruptive” in a post-Facebook, post-Uber, post-Silicon Valley world is to remind us of just what it can mean to disrupt. In Cone’s case, it means that we start over without the presumption that white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and male identities can be overlooked as the unnamed norm of theological inquiry. That’s a hard word to hear, and I need to be clear: when Cone identifies Whiteness as demonic and sinful, he does not mean that those born with European features are per se demonic and sinful. What he means is that accepting—or far worse, perpetuating—a system of values that allows white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men to flourish at the expense of others is sinful. White supremacy is demonic. If White people don’t want to be demonic, we need to tear down the system of supremacy from which we’ve benefited for generations.

I’ve caught myself speaking of Cone’s thought in the present tense above, but I’m going to leave it in. I’m going to leave it in as a reminder that every semester, when I tell my college students that people who look like me need to see themselves not as the Apostles in the Gospel but as the Romans, that’s Cone.