It seems appropriate that the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone—radical Christian, father of black liberation theology, soldier against white supremacy, renowned author and longtime academic around the American phenomenon of lynching—would die the same week that the national lynching memorial opened in Montgomery, Ala.
It is a divine nod to a job well done.
Cone, the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, died Saturday. He was 79 years old.
Cone founded black liberation theology, which linked the gospel of Christ to people of color in a white supremacist construct.
Many prominent activists, academics, scholars and theologians took to social media to mourn Cone’s death:
“In so many ways, James Cone has been Union Theological Seminary for the past 50 years,” said seminary President Serene Jones. “To say his death leaves a void is a staggering understatement. His prophetic voice, deep kindness and fierce commitment to black liberation embodied not just the very best of our seminary, but of the theological field as a whole and of American prophetic thought and action.”
Cone is best known as the father of black liberation theology. In his ground-breaking works, Black Theology & Black Power (1969); A Black Theology of Liberation (1970); and God of the Oppressed (1975), Cone upended the theological establishment with his vigorous articulation of God’s radical identification with black people in the United States. His eloquent portrayal of Christ’s blackness shattered dominant white theological paradigms, and ignited a wave of subsequent American liberation theologies.
Through his published works, and in the classroom, Cone shaped generations of scholars, professors, pastors, and activists, kindling in countless people the fire for dismantling white supremacy. Upon news of his passing, Professor Cornel West remarked about his colleague and friend, “James Cone was the theological giant and genius in our midst! He was the greatest liberation theologian to emerge in the American empire—and he never ever sold out.”
Cone’s most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, earned Cone the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, reports Union.
“The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching,” wrote Cone. “Both are symbols of the death of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation, and terror. They both also reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning and demonstrate that God can transform ugliness into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.”
Cone also completed his final book, a memoir, just a few months before his death. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody will be published later this year. His longtime editor, Robert Ellsberg of Orbis Books, shared these words written by Cone for the conclusion of the memoir: “I write because writing is the way I fight. Teaching is the way I resist, doing what I can to subvert white supremacy.”
Newsweek reports that Cone had 13 honorary degrees, including a bachelor’s degree from Philander Smith College (1958), a Master of Divinity degree from Garrett Theological Seminary (1961), and a master’s degree (1963) and a doctorate’s degree (1965) from Northwestern University.
Union has published his obituary in full here.
He is survived by his sons, Michael and Charles; daughters, Robynn and Krystal; and two grandchildren, Jolei and Miles.
Rest in power, divine ancestor. Black liberation is God’s story.