The centuries-old freedom struggle in the United States has produced a remarkable crop of civic leaders. Some of them, such as Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr., are instantly recognized. Others have played supporting roles, generating intellectual capital necessary to the civil rights movement.
One such leader is James Cone, father of what’s called “black liberation theology” who currently teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I speak and write out of a deep theological conviction that the true power of the Christian gospel is its unambiguous call for liberation from the forces of oppression and a fierce and uncompromising condemnation of those who oppress,” he once said.
That’s Cone in a nutshell.
He was born in a small Arkansas town and grew up in the AME Church, deciding he would become a preacher at age 16. But a restless mind stimulated by the harsh realities of segregated life in the South prompted Cone to do much more. He published his first book, “Black Theology and Black Power,” in 1969, then wrote 10 more over subsequent decades, including an analysis of the overlap between black theology and Marxism, an explanation of the theological underpinnings of the freedom struggle, a study of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and a comparison of Jesus’ cross (representing hope) and the lynching tree (representing the negation of hope).
His work, which derives from the liberation theology that took root in Latin America during the 1950s, has inspired many religious thinkers and civic leaders, not least of whom are the philosophical Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, and the activist Rev. Nelson Rivers, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston.
The two local pastors have been teaming up a lot lately to explore issues of race and community. They conspired once again to get Cone to Charleston for a pair of talks, at 7 p.m. Friday at Circular and 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Charity, inviting the famed theologian before the Walter Scott and Emanuel AME Church shootings.
Both of the talks are free but require tickets. Priority goes to church members, but the public is welcome to join, space permitting. Call the churches for more information.
“Dr. Cone has been my greatest influence in understanding liberation theology as the only relevant theology for my community of faith,” Rivers said. “His writing helped me to understand what I call the ‘liberating good news of Jesus the Christ.’ ”
He added that, working with Rutledge and the Circular flock has offered a rewarding opportunity “to move from cheap grace to truth telling.”
In a telephone interview, Cone reiterated his central argument: God is always on the side of the oppressed, and Christian Scripture, which must be understood within a changing historical context, makes this abundantly clear.
Cone grew up in the era of lynching. He remembers the terrible murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the immediate reaction deep within himself: That could have been me.
Something else occurred to him at that time. “You have to find a way not to let people with political and social power take away your humanity.”
But how? If you are black and powerless, shunted aside or worse, if your physical well-being is always at risk and examples of violence surround you every day, how can you affirm your inherent humanity?
Quickly he settled on an answer: Through resistance. In Cone’s case, resistance took the form of writing and learning. He would resist by becoming an intellectual force that sought higher truths.
One of those higher truths is the notion that forgiveness, in the context of the black experience, is a form of rebellion, not only an expression of generosity or grace, he said.
One forgives the oppressor in order to transform anger into something that nourishes the soul, enabling the injured party to survive another day. This happened recently in Charleston when Nadine Collier and others publicly forgave Dylann Roof, the who has been indicted in the Emanuel AME Church shootings. Roof posted an online manifesto about white supremacist beliefs before the June 17 attack that killed nine people.
“What’s happening in Charleston and all over in black communities is deep spiritual resistance,” Cone said. “It surprises people. It intimidates white people. ‘How come you don’t fight back, how come you’re not angry?’ The power of forgiveness comes from somewhere else. That’s what the cross is about. African Americans had to know something deeply existential about that because they were living with many crosses themselves: slavery, segregation, lynching, the cross of knowing that you could be killed at any moment. To get angry, that would destroy you, destroy you on the inside, let someone define who you are on the inside.”
Cone has never let others define him.
“I had no power in Arkansas. But I never lost who I was because that spirituality in the church and the community somehow was a transcendence over the white supremacy I encountered in the white community.”
He enrolled in Shorter College in North Little Rock, and that gave him a place to express himself safely, to understand himself better, he said. His life as a public intellectual (who drew inspiration from the AME Church) had begun.
Scripture tells him one thing above all other things: that morality, which stems from the Bible’s narrative through-line, is a result of the weak-vs.-strong scenario in which the weak ultimately prevail.
Any preacher who promotes the view that the church is meant for the strong, that it provides fuel for the sort of earthly success that subjugates others, directly or indirectly, is not preaching the true Gospel.
“I have to keep writing against that, and talking against that,” he said. “They know that won’t go, that won’t fly.”
And don’t suggest to Cone that, little by little, human society is “making progress.”
“Not progress. The world is not getting better and better, it’s not that kind of progress. What it is is a kind of hope, that comes out of a kind of defeat, a kind of tragedy.”
So the experience of the world, from a Christian point of view, is rooted in suffering — the suffering of Jesus.
“Jesus was crucified, that’s tragedy,” Cone said. “The question is, how do you get beyond that tragedy and know that that cross is not the last word? That’s the Gospel.” Progress, he said, is not what was promised by God. “What was promised was, ‘I’ll be with you in that tragedy.’ And that’s where forgiveness comes from, because tragedy is not the last word.”
Rutledge said his generation of Christian thinkers is intimately familiar with the teachings of Cone and the concept that God’s love takes the side of the sufferer.
Cone did more than anyone else to adapt the Catholic Church’s brand of liberation theology in Latin America to the sociopolitical realities of life in the U.S., Rutledge said.
“His liberation theology is a uniquely American kind of Christianity, drawing on stories that are hardest to tell,” he said. Yet in telling those stories, Christian faith leads to resilience. “What appealed to me most was when he said, ‘Christianity’s great sin is silence in the face of white supremacy.’ It rang true.”
And partly because of Cone’s teachings, Rutledge has devoted himself to a ministry of justice.
“Our obligation is to help him break that silence.”
Reach Adam Parker at (843) 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.