Honoring the Sacred Fire of James Cone

*This post is part of our online forum on the Life and Legacy of Dr. James H. Cone.

Dr. Cone preaches in James Chapel in 1969 (Photo courtesy of Union Theological Seminary).

James Cone, the academic father of Black liberation theology, was the most prolific and prophetic Black religious thinker of our lifetime. The United States has not produced a theologian greater than him. We have much to learn from him, but we are still not yet ready to receive from him the unadorned truth about ourselves, our fellow citizens, and our country. I find it difficult to read Cone’s work without deeply questioning myself and my own commitments. The challenge has motivated my intellectual and entrepreneurial efforts for well over a decade.

Currently, this country and the mainstream media are in a panic about the seemingly conspicuous transition into what is now being called a “post-truth” era, a moment in which settled facts are discounted and disregarded. But Cone never believed that this country or the mainstream media ever possessed truth. Invoking George Orwell’s 1984 nearly thirty-five years ago, Cone warned us that being “[i]n control of the media, [the oppressors] now can make lies sound factual and disseminate them further and faster than ever before” (192). He knew all too well that we have not been living in a democracy. We have been living in the aftermath of democracy. To be more precise, in the aftermath of an attempted democracy, a political experiment that began in peril.

Cone also knew something about us. He cut through our equivocations and boldly articulated what many had yet to conceive, what some might believe, and what few dare to say. He understood that we have made ourselves too comfortable with our investments in whiteness (as something to possess or barter or become). And he understood that we have therefore become too scared to fight for the divestment of whiteness or against its divisive powers to oppose everything that is not itself. Cone’s truth-telling came at a tremendous cost. It impacted his standing within his Black church tradition and reception within many academic disciplines and institutions.

While his rage against injustice emboldened him to speak into the present with an eye toward the past, it also enabled him to create a future where academic Black theology would exist. It is tempting to believe that his rage was incidental to his thinking, but I think rage was integral to his thinking. For Cone, as I understand him, rage is a form of thinking. Cone’s rage forced white theology into the furnace of Blackness, thereby forging a new theology with Black fire. This new theology made of fire became the conduit through which he unleashed the power of his mind.

Although it has become almost fashionable to align oneself with Cones work, not everyone can lay claim to his sacred fire. A growing number of academics, particularly scholars of religion and theologians, cite Cone. Yet they are not committed to liberation and justice in their professional lives, in their hiring practices, in their curriculum choices, in their admission policies, in their tenure processes, in their publishing housings, or in their use of power where they have authority. Many folks who talk about Cone cared little about him when he was alive or the people for whom he stood.

Like “the scramble for Africa,” the scramble for outrage after the recent 2016 presidential election reveals something about the conscience of those who are now outraged. I did not hear them, including academics, defend Cone when he and his Black theology were under attack in the 2008 presidential campaign. I did not hear them turn to Cone for moral and political clarity when ordinary extremists wanted to “take back” their country in that same year. Before the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, Cone published The Cross and the Lynching Tree the year prior that anticipated the rise of public recordings of state-sanctioned lynching. Where was the public interest in and academic demands for his work? It took seven long years for that signature book to receive the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion, only weeks before his death.

Over the last several years, this scramble has expanded as higher education has witnessed widespread campus protest against racial injustices. Many institutions and initiatives are raising and deploying millions of dollars in the name of racial justice – usually called “diversity” – while reproducing racial inequality. To put it crudely, folks out here are making money based upon the hell and death that Black and Brown folks are catching while reinforcing their own power to discriminate and dominate. Such reprehensible acts represent the latest efforts to monetize not only anti-Blackness, but also the lethal effects of it. This amounts to a public self-serving race for moral authority and political relevance that almost always evades taking responsibility for creating or ameliorating the reasons for the outrage.

Cone, however, modeled a higher form of outrage that served the people, not himself. It was devoid of moral grandstanding. It was not about the incisiveness of his social criticism. It did not seek opportunities to receive recognition or reward. His outrage was about just outcomes and liberation for the most vulnerable.

Those who evoke Cones name without teaching in earnest his workat their seminaries, divinity schools, or universities, including Religious Studies and Black Studies departments, dishonor him. Those who evoke Cone’s name (and, by extension, Blackness) as a way to authorize their whiteness dishonor him. Those who evoke Cone’s name while “sing[ing] ‘Glory Hallelujah’ when our people’s blood is flooding in the streets and prisons of this nation”dishonor him (197). They need to take Cone’s name out of their mouths. “Self-satisfaction with job, status, and family,” as Cone warns, “must not be allowed to blind us to injustice or demobilize our responsibility to assume the task of eliminating it” (196-197). In the end, for Cone “excuses for evil serve only to justify its continued existence” (198).

What Cone said of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, we can now say of all three: “[A] true understanding of Martin and Malcolm [and Cone] pushes us beyond them…to the creation of a future for which they died but which they saw only imperfectly. It is our responsibility not to romanticize them but to build upon their wisdom through a critical examination of them. It is our responsibility to promote their ideas by refusing to be imprisoned by them but allowing them to propel us toward the new black future that is linked with the future of all humankind” (194).We need the rage of Cone more than ever before. Those who venture to carry on his legacy must consider the difficulty of the demand lest Black liberation devolves into some variety of Black liberalism.

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Xavier Pickett

Xavier Pickett is a Faculty Fellow in the Religious Studies Program at New York University. He is currently working on two manuscripts. The first reconceptualizes the academic study of Black religion by attending to emotions, literature, and the secular, whereas the second offers a new theory of Black rage. He received his Ph.D. in Religion & Society from Princeton Theological Seminary with a focus on African American studies, ethics, and politics.