Remembering James Cone: Trouble Don’t Last Always
By: Cam Triggs
Sunrise: August 5, 1936
Sunset: April 28, 2018
We have been witnesses. Black people. We have seen it all. Kingdoms and world wonders. New shores and slave blocks. Slavery and the struggle for freedom. Kings slain and prophets betrayed. Strewn from lynching trees, yet builders of the Capital.
America’s original sin was sinned upon us. Yet, we embraced the Christ figure we saw in scripture, while still rejecting the religion of kidnappers, rapist, and evil hypocrites. We watched Great Awakenings pass over our chained bodies yet endorse the institution of slavery. We heard America’s greatest theologians exegete difficult biblical passages and pontificate on abstract philosophical principles, all the while owning, selling, and oppressing black bodies. We read the fine print that exempted us from Evangelical schools. We tasted the bitterness of the Curse of Ham, the career of Jim Crow, and white-washed text.
The traumatic experience of African Americans throughout the history of America is a vicious example of the Problem of Evil. Even more, the existence and persistence of black faith through these gratuitous and gruesome realities is a theodicy in and of itself. The prominence of the black Christian and the survival of the black church is an evidence for God’s existence. We have been believers that persevered, and believed “trouble don’t last always.”
Yet, we had profound theological questions even in the midst of our hope. How does faith in the African American community answer questions of injustice, in an American context that normalizes and indeed endorses a cultural supremacy, that consistently demeans people of color? How can black and brown readers trust the theological writings of slave owners, segregationist, and white supremacist? How can faith in communities of color thrive when their expression of faith is stigmatized, ostracized, and ignored?
Enter James Cone. The angry prophet. The righteous prophet. Like many prophets, they are often misunderstood during their lifetime; but Dr. Cone demonstrated that God is with us. He came into our theological disparity and profoundly articulated that “trouble don’t last always.”
James Cone was first and foremost a theologian. In my estimation, his influence is largely unrealized in the evangelical world, and indeed in Christianity as a whole. James Cone is an established theologian with a Ph. D from Northwestern University. He was skilled in the areas of systematic theology, African American studies, political economics, and philosophy. James Cone could quote Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, James Baldwin, and W.E.B. Du Bois with ease. He was a recipient of numerous honorary degrees and is an author of a dozen substantial scholarly books, such as God of the Oppressed and The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
He was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City for fifty years. In addition to his talents and accolades, Dr. Cone has influenced a host of theologians and scholars such as bell hooks, Dwight Hopkins, and numerous seminaries utilize his writings as textbooks. He has influenced prominent African American preachers from Freddy D. Haynes to Jeremiah Wright.
Cone was a founding father of Black Liberation Theology. Black Liberation Theology is one of the few and new indigenous theological developments of North America. It is a theology that was formed in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Cone strived to bring together the love ethic of Martin Luther King Jr. and the robust affirmation of black identity found in Malcolm X.
Cone utilized Black Liberation to leverage the black experience of oppression as an exhaustive hermeneutic, to engage in the liberation of black people through the discipline of theology and social engagement. Speaking of liberation theology as a whole, Douglas D. Webster, professor of Divinity at Beeson, states “the strength of liberation theology is in its compassion for the poor and its conviction that the Christian should not remain passive and indifferent to their plight. Man’s inhumanity to man is sin and deserves the judgment of God and Christian resistance. Liberation theology is a plea for costly discipleship and a reminder that following Jesus has a practical, social, and political consequences.”
Dr. Cone also challenged the inconsistency of many white Christian authors, theologians, and traditions. To him, there was a great gulf fixed between their orthodoxy and their orthopraxy. Dr. Cone questioned how could they proclaim love for God, whom was invisible, yet hate their melanin-blessed neighbors. He was perplexed that many white theologians ignored and even worse, defended the gross institution of slavery. This blind spot was spiritual wickedness to Dr. Cone, indeed all people of color.
The issue continues today. Many Evangelicals are quick to bid farewell to preachers and theologians who error on normative perspectives like hell, the Trinity, and biblical inerrancy. We will question the salvation of those who error on the ethical perspectives of theology like abortion and marriage. However, silence is golden when police brutality, mass incarceration, and injustice parade in our communities.
Prophetically, Cone critiqued conservatives and liberals with equal precision. “Unfortunately, American theologians from Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards to Reinhold Niebuhr and Schubert Ogden, including radicals and conservatives, have interpreted the gospel according to the cultural and political interest of white people. They have rarely attempted to transcend the social interest of their group by seeking an analysis of the gospel in the light of the consciousness of black people struggling for liberation. White theologians, because of their identity with the dominant power structure, are largely boxed within their own cultural history.”
Cone was not merely against white people. He was against white supremacy clothed in theological disguise. This is the lasting contribution, for which we must be grateful. Without a doubt, we must appreciate the critical challenges presented to white normativity that oppressed black theological imaginations and engagement. We must celebrate the many criticisms Cone courageously made against white supremacy and racist tendencies that have historically and presently crippled the consciousness of Christianity.
Yes, I admit there are theological errors and pragmatic deficiencies found in some of Cone’s conclusions. With biblical fidelity, black liberation theology warrants a robust reformation that affirms biblical authority, the image of God, divine Christology, and essentially a gospel-centered pursuit for reconciliation between ethnic communities. Conversely, we must realize any criticism of Cone’s theological development cannot be a product of imperialized or colonized cultures not willing to first critique the clay feet of their cultural and theological heroes.
That’s why we remember him. We remember Dr. Cone because he was bold and courageous. James Cone snatched Christianity out of the grips of white supremacy and cultural normativity. He single handedly deconstructed the notion that Christianity was the white man’s religion. Lisa Fields, founder of Jude 3 Project stated, “Cone was a type of apologist. He was attempting to defend the faith to a marginalized group who’ve had the gospel misrepresented by racist white Christians.”
James Cone was our C.S. Lewis. Did we always agree with him? No. But he was our poet. He melodically and doctrinally spelled out the problem of our pain. He helped us see hope and our suffering redeemed in the biblical narrative. He showed us Aslan was on our side; saving his people. He was the uncle at the BBQ who said what we all were thinking but too afraid to say. He was gallant. He was wise. He was flawed. He was James, and he showed us; “trouble don’t last always.”
Cam Triggs is the Lead Pastor of Grace Alive in Orlando, FL and the Director of Urban Apologetics for Jude 3 Project. He is a proud graduate of the University of Central Florida and Reformed Theological Seminary. More importantly, he is the husband to his amazing wife Tymara and they are raising two phenomenal kids.