Champion for Black Power and All the Oppressed: Dr. Cone, Founder of Black Liberation Theology, Dies

We look at the life and legacy of the founder of black liberation theology, Rev. Dr. James Cone. Starting in the 1960s, he argued for racial justice and interpreted the Christian gospel from the experience of the oppressed. He said he was inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave black theology its Christian identity, and Malcolm X, who gave black theology its black identity. Dr. Cone died Saturday at age 79. We play excerpts of his speeches and speak with Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, where Dr. Cone taught for 50 years; Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School and professor at Union Theological Seminary and a former student of Dr. Cone; and another former student of Dr. Cone, Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, who serves as senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is also the chair of the New Georgia Project, author of The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness, and on the board of Union Theological Seminary.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we spend the rest of the hour looking at the life and legacy of the founder of black liberation theology, Reverend Dr. James Cone. Starting in the 1960s, he argued for racial justice and interpreted the Christian gospel from the experience of the oppressed. He said he was inspired by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave black theology its Christian identity, and Malcolm X, who gave black theology its black identity. Dr. Cone died Saturday at the age of 81 [sic]. This is part of an address he gave in 1971 at the University of Richmond.

REV. JAMES CONE: There can be no reconciliation with masters as long as they are masters, no reconciliation as long as men are in prison. There can be no communication between the masters and the slave, until masters no longer exist as masters, are no longer present as masters. The Christian task is to rebel against all masters, destroying their pretensions to authority and ridiculing the symbols of power. However, it must be remembered that oppressors never take kindly to those who question their authority. They do not like thugs and bums, people who disregard their power. And they will try to silence them any way they can. But if we believe that our humanity transcends them and is not dependent upon their goodwill, then we can fight against them, even though it may mean death.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Dr. James Cone speaking in 1971. And correction: He died at the age of 79. His groundbreaking books include Black Theology & Black Power, published in 1969; A Black Theology of Liberation, published in 1970; Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare?; and God of the Oppressed; and as well as The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which he published in 2011. He had also just completed a forthcoming memoir titled Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. This is Dr. James Cone speaking at Union Theological Seminary in 2016.

REV. JAMES CONE: If I were going to write an authentic black liberation theology, I have to let the suffering of black people speak in and through my theology. My theology came out of the black experience of slavery, segregation and lynching, and not from white American and European theologies that I studied in graduate school. Black liberation theology emerged out of the civil rights and Black Power movements, symbolizing the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Cone joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary here in New York in 1969. He was at the seminary, he was at Union Theological, for a half a century. He was named the Bill and Judith Moyers distinguished professor of systematic theology in 2017. Through his work and in the classroom, he inspired generations of scholars, professors, pastors and activists to work to dismantle white supremacy, and helped give birth to the womanist theology and other liberation theologies. Professor Cornel West called him “the greatest liberation theologian to emerge in the American empire — and he never ever sold out,” West said. One of Dr. Cone’s students made national headlines during the 2008 presidential election, when then Barack Obama’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, made controversial comments on race and other issues.

Well, for more, we’re joined by three guests. Here in New York, the Reverend Dr. Serene Jones is with us, president of Union Theological Seminary, as well as Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School and professor at Union Theological Seminary, a former student of Dr. Cone. And in Atlanta, Georgia, we’re joined by another former student, Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, who serves as senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church there, which was the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Professor Warnock, Dr. Warnock, is also the chair of the New Georgia Project, author of The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness, and on the board of Union Theological Seminary.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Our condolences. I wanted to begin with the Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas. You work so closely with Dr. Cone at Union Theological. You were his student. It’s hard to even talk about him in the past tense.

REV. KELLY BROWN DOUGLAS: Yes, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about his legacy, what he meant to you and what he meant to this country.

REV. KELLY BROWN DOUGLAS: Yes, I think that his legacy is very hard to really quantify, because it will be a very long legacy that will cross generations, because Dr. Cone always said that he didn’t want disciples. He didn’t want students who would come and simply imitate his work and simply carry on the paradigms that he created. He urged us always to find our own voice. And he wanted us to bring our own perspectives, not simply to our understanding of God, but to our understanding of the complexity of injustice, so that we could understand more the meaning of God’s justice and the work that we had to do.

So he wanted committed students. And so he opened the space for us to indeed find our own theological voice. He wanted students who were committed to the work of justice, which is God’s work — he always understood that — and gave us a place, first of all, to study, at a time where we would not be able to find many places to do our work and to do our theology and to do the theology that meant something to us. As we were there, as I said, he encouraged us to critique his work and to move beyond it. And so he opened the space for the emergence of new theologies, new theological voices, hence womanist theology, black women. There weren’t many places for black women to do work in the early ’70s, etc., when I went to Union. He provided us that opportunity. And so, his legacy looms large, because he has inspired a generation of black and other liberation theologians.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Serene Jones, you’re the president of Union Theological. His impact on Union itself and on Christian theology generally?

REV. SERENE JONES: Well, his impact on Union is inestimable. Imagine a single powerful voice showing up in classrooms and preaching in the pulpit for 50 years, 50 years in one place. He won’t walk our halls anymore. His voice won’t be heard in our classrooms. And it wasn’t just any voice. It was the voice of a man whose deep faith was manifest in this forceful, fierce commitment to the liberation of black people and the liberation of people everywhere. That can’t be replicated. But as Dr. Douglas said, for Jim, the best replication was for new generations of students to find that commitment to speaking on behalf and with and in solidarity beside the oppressed of the world in the face of grave injustice.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact that he had on Christian theology, in general, in the United States?

REV. SERENE JONES: Well, so, his impact on Christian theology — I read Jim Cone in 1981 in my first class in seminary, just a few years ago. It was the first theological book I read in seminary. And here I was, reading a man who, in a sense, sent a torpedo right at the heart of the whiteness of Christian theology as it had been manifest in churches in the United States, since the beginning, and supported chattel slavery and Jim Crow. And he said no. He said, “God is not white. God is not even no color. God is black. And Jesus is black. And Jesus seeks the empowerment of black people, and that the masters need to walk away.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go for a minute to Jim Cone in his own words, Reverend Dr. Cone’s 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. He called the crucifixion of Jesus a “first-century lynching.” I want to turn to Dr. James Cone being interviewed by Bill Moyers in 2007.

REV. JAMES CONE: The lynching tree interprets the cross. It keeps the cross out of the hands of those who are dominant. Nobody who is lynching anybody can understand the cross. That’s why it’s so important to place the cross and the lynching tree together, because the cross, or the crucifixion, was analogous to a first-century lynching. In fact, biblical scholars, when they want to describe what was happening to Jesus, many of them says it was a lynching.

And all I want to suggest is, if American Christians say they want to identify with that cross, they have to see the cross as a lynching. Any time your empathy, your solidarity, is with the little people, you’re with the cross. If you identify with the lynchers, then, no, you can’t understand what’s happening. That, in the sense of resistance, what resistance means for helpless people. Power in the powerless is not something that we are accustomed to listening to and understanding. It’s not a part of our historical experience. America always wants to think it’s going to win everything. Well, black people have a history in which we didn’t win. We did not win. See, our resistance is a resistance against the odds. That’s why we can understand the cross.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. James Cone, about a decade ago, being interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS. Let’s turn to Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock in Atlanta, senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He did his Ph.D. under Dr. Cone at Union Theological Seminary. Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, explain what black liberation theology is, further, and what he meant to you.

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Thank you so much, Amy. It’s great to be here with you and, of course, with the president of Union, my alma mater, Serene Jones and Kelly Brown Douglas, who also did her doctorate under Jim Cone.

Listen, all of us really are reeling in the death of this man who was larger than life. He really created something for which there were no models for what he did. This black theology of liberation comes really from the depth of his experience. James Cone was an academic theologian who spoke with the power and moral authority of a prophet. And the reason he was able to do this is because his thinking was immersed deeply in the suffering and the experience of black people.

And so, black theology really can be reduced to one statement, that God is the liberator and that liberation is the central message of the gospel, and any gospel that is not committed to the liberation of the oppressed is a heresy, it is a false gospel. And so, what Dr. King did was that he really — he really decentered those voices that were at the center of the discourse, and took those who were on the margins and made them the center of the discourse. And he said that, in a real sense, this is what Christian faith is all about.

We have to remember the context out of which black theology emerged. It was the riots — or the uprisings, I should say, really — in Detroit, in Newark, here in the wake of the death of Dr. King, this man who spoke with such love and deep commitment to this idea of liberation. He inspired Dr. King — Dr. Cone, along with Malcolm X. And Dr. Cone has inspired countless generations, theologians, preachers, pastors. So many of us would not be doing what we do, were it not for the incredible impact of his voice on the American religious landscape.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Again, over the weekend, the Reverend Dr. James Cone died, at Union Theological Seminary for half a century, considered the father of black liberation theology. We’re joined by two of his students, Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas and Dr. Raphael Warnock — Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas at Union Theological, Dr. Warnock, a senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church — as well as the head of Union Theological Seminary, Dr. Serene Jones. This is Democracy Now! Back on Dr. Cone in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” sung by Mahalia Jackson. One of Reverend Dr. James Cone’s books was titled The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. He wrote in his book, “No black person could escape the reality they expressed. B.B. King, Johnny Lee Hooker, and Mahalia Jackson created essential structures that defined my blackness.” Those, the words of the late Dr. Cone. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we continue our look at the life and legacy of the founder of black liberation theology, Reverend Dr. James Cone. Starting in the 1960s, he argued for racial justice and interpreted the Christian gospel from the experience of the oppressed. He said he was inspired by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave black theology its Christian identity, and Malcolm X, who gave black theology its black identity. Dr. Cone died Saturday at the age of 79. This is Dr. Cone speaking at the 2012 general conference of the United Methodist Church.

REV. JAMES CONE: I write for those who are penniless and jobless, landless, and those who have no political or social power. I speak and I write for gays, for lesbians, bisexuals and those who are transgender, the queer people of this world. I write for the undocumented farmworkers toiling in misery in our nation’s agricultural fields. I write and speak for Muslims who live under the terror of war and empire in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I speak and write for all people who care about humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Cone speaking in 2012. I remember sitting next to him the night that Michelle Alexander gave a major address here in New York, the author of The New Jim Crow. We continue with our three guests, all linked to Union Theological Seminary, where he worked and served for half a century. Dr. Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School and professor at Union Theological Seminary, a former student of Dr. Cone. And in Atlanta, Georgia, another former student, did his Ph.D. under Dr. Cone, Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, who is senior pastor of Dr. King’s church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church there. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask Dr. Raphael Warnock about his seminal book, Black Theology & Black Power. It came in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And your sense of the impact that that book had, in terms of beginning to — and also how he was shaped. The Detroit riot, of course, he often referred to as a major shaper of his own consciousness. But how his book affected the theology, especially black liberation theology, across the country?

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Yeah, you have to remember the context out of which this book emerged. Black Power was the theme in the moment, and there were a number of people who were upset about this whole theme of Black Power. And, in fact, white liberals, in a real sense, felt betrayed. And people were saying that this represents violence, that this is a turn in the wrong direction, that somehow Black Power is the Antichrist. And Dr. Cone emerged in that setting. He talks about writing this book in his brother’s church. It took about 30 days or so. It was like he was possessed with this deep kind of passion and concern for the humanity of black people, the struggles not just of that moment, but of the last 300 years. And so he writes that book out of that context.

It comes from the experience of black suffering. He insists that that has to be the central place, the point of departure, and that any Christian theology that does not affirm the humanity of those on the bottom is not a Christian theology. And so, this book really did shake the whole academic world. It shook the church world. As he said, that if you want to know where the message of Jesus Christ is in 20th century America, it is Black Power. It is this affirmation of black humanity in a country that says that everything that’s black is negative. And so, it was a kind of transvaluative move, lifting that — taking that which was at the bottom and saying that this is where God is in the world. And it’s really hard to overstate its impact on the discourse at that moment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dr. Kelly Brown?

REV. KELLY BROWN DOUGLAS: Yes, I can only affirm what Dr. Warnock said. And what one must understand is that Dr. Cone could not understand how anyone could be doing any kind of Christian theology at that time, this time when black people are simply fighting for their dignity, at a time when, of course, Dr. King had been assassinated, and you have Christian theologians doing theology not even talking about the black struggle for liberation. He said, “How can you be Christian and not do that?” Not only did you have Christian theologians not talking about it, but you had pastors ignoring what was going on. I mean, you know, Dr. King said that these pastors were being silent, and he indicted them for that in his, of course, Letter from the Birmingham Jail. That never ended. So, for Dr. Cone, this was blasphemous. How can you be a member of a religious tradition, with the cross at its center, and you not even speak of the black people who are struggling and fighting just for their human dignity?

So, for Cone, it was urgent. There was — he was compelled to say something, because not to speak was in fact to betray the very faith with which he grew up in. And so, he knew the faith, and so his theology didn’t start in his head. His theology started from inside of him, because he was raised in a church in Bearden, Arkansas. He knew the faith of that church. And so, what he was articulating for the world to hear was the faith of that church and saying that God’s story was the black story. Again, the black story was God’s story. And if you’re going to be Christian in America, you need to know the black story, because if you don’t, then you aren’t going to know God’s story.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Serene Jones, yours is a Christian seminary, the Union Theological Seminary, but Dr. Cone did not just teach Christian students.

REV. SERENE JONES: Yes. And it’s interesting to trace his own evolution over time. At Union now, we have a large number of students who come with no religious affiliation. We continue to have students coming out of the Christian tradition. But he also has in his classes now Buddhists and Muslims and a wide variety of faith backgrounds. And Dr. Cone stepped into that space with a great sense of grace and vitality. And as he grew, so his own message grew more expansive. As he traveled the world and saw the suffering and oppressions of peoples everywhere, in many different faith traditions, his own vision of what faith is and what social justice consists of continued to expand.

AMY GOODMAN: And his feelings about President Trump, as his last year of his life was under the current president?

REV. SERENE JONES: Well, of course, he thought, of all the words that Cone could use that would be the most serious was, that he was blasphemous, blasphemous and heretical, to even claim to stand in anywhere near the Christian tradition and justify the horrors that his administration and him have supported. Cone was vehemently outspoken against him and would have been absolutely certain and clear on that point.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, and Dr. Cone’s former students, the Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, professor at Union Theological Seminary, and former student Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor now of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. James Cone, the Reverend Dr. James Cone, has died at the age of 79. He served at Union Theological Seminary for a half a century.