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James H. Cone
James H. Cone, Photo by Robin Holland
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November 23, 2007

"Black churches are very powerful forces in the African American community and always have been. Because religion has been that one place where you have an imagination that no one can control. And so, as long as you know that you are a human being and nobody can take that away from you, then God is that reality in your life that enables you to know that."
--James H. Cone

Professor James H. Cone is the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. Dr. Cone is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He is the author of eleven books and over 150 articles and has lectured at more than 1,000 universities and community organizations throughout the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Watch Dr. Cone's lecture, "Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree," at Harvard Divinity School

Dr. Cone is best known for his ground breaking works, BLACK THEOLOGY & BLACK POWER (1969) and A BLACK THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION (1970); he is also the author of the highly acclaimed GOD OF THE OPPRESSED (1975), and of MARTIN & MALCOLM & AMERICA: A DREAM OR A NIGHTMARE? (1991); all of which have been translated into nine languages. His most recent publication is RISKS OF FAITH (1999). His research and teaching are in Christian theology, with special attention to black theology and the theologies of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as twentieth century European-American theologies. Dr. Cone has also written on faith and music in THE SPIRITUAL AND THE BLUES: AN INTERPRETATION. His current research focuses on THE CROSS AND THE LYNCHING TREE, exploring the relationship between the two theologically.

James H. Cone and Black Theology

Books by James H. Cone Divinity schools and universities around the world include James Cone on their reading lists. Cone is known as the founder of black theology — a philosophy Cone first laid out in BLACK POWER AND BLACK THEOLOGY in 1969:
As we examine what contemporary theologians are saying, we find that they are silent about the enslaved condition of black people. Evidently they see no relationship between black slavery and the Christian gospel. Consequently there has been no sharp confrontation of the gospel with white racism. There is, then, a desperate need for a black theology, a theology whose sole purpose is to apply the freeing power of the gospel to black people under white oppression.
Cone furthered the idea with A BLACK THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION, which stated: "Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ's message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology. Liberation theology became and remains, a powerful philosophy and movement throughout the world.

Reinhold Niebuhr

In their conversation James Cone and Bill Moyers reflect on the impact of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose 20th century work related theology to modern society and politics. In 2005, famed historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. lamented the disappearance of Niebuhr from modern discourse:

...maybe Niebuhr has fallen out of fashion because 9/11 has revived the myth of our national innocence. Lamentations about "the end of innocence" became favorite clich├ęs at the time. Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor - not much of a background for national innocence. "Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem," Niebuhr wrote, "are insufferable in their human contacts." The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).
But Niebuhr has made a reappearance in the 2008 campaign conversation. NEW YORK TIMES columnist David Brooks quotes Niebuhr consistently, describing him as a thinker we could use today "to police our excesses" in foreign policy.

Published on November 23, 2007

Guest photo by Robin Holland

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References and Reading:
Explore the Web site for THIS FAR BY FAITH, a six-hour PBS series that examines the African American religious experience through the past three centuries.

View Dr. Cone Teaching
Watch a clip from one of Dr. Cone's lectures on the Union Theological Seminary Web site.

The Religious Cancer of Racism
James H. Cone, BeliefNet, "White theologians should study racism as seriously as they investigate the historical Jesus."

Black Theology Revisited
Reviewed by F. Burton Nelson, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, March 2004
"Following the first generation of black theologians, especially Cone, Hopkins says that for the movement to evolve, black theology must always be linked with the liberation of the poor and oppressed. It should have a continuing link with the prophetic black churches and church-related institutions."

"Africentric Church," RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, May 20, 2005
"In the eyes of some African Americans, the role of Christianity has not always been a positive one, especially in the context of slavery and the civil rights movement."

"The Cross and the Lynching Tree,"
TRINITY NEWS, October 12, 2007
Read Dr. Cone's essay explaining what the cross means in America - by way of the noose and the lynching tree. Also watch Dr. Cone's interview from the National Theological Conference here.

by James H. Cone, CROSS CURRENTS, "Connecting racism with the degradation of the earth is a necessity for the African American community.""

Also This Week:

With the noose and the lynching tree entering the national discussion in the wake of recent news events, Bill Moyers interviews theologian James Cone about how these powerful images relate to the symbol of the cross and how they signify both tragedy and triumph.

Performer, activist, songwriter and scholar, Bernice Johnson Reagon has for over 40 years been singing, preaching and teaching traditional African American music and its cultural history.

"...blacks and whites and other Americans who want to understand the meaning of the American experience need to remember lynching."

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