This episode features a panel conversation between three scholars on black liberation theologian James Cone. Focused on Cone’s second autobiography, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian, the panelists explore the impact of his work. Dr. Tyler Davis shares about the way in which Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody identifies the people, the places and the contexts that made James Cone into the theologian he was. Dr. Beverly Mitchell discusses the evolution of James Cone’s work and how she sees his later work The Cross and the Lynching Tree as a beacon of hope for those with “their backs against the wall. Dr. Matthew Harris examines the less talked about piece of Cone’s work: teaching. Harris shows how the classroom was a transformational space for Cone and enabled him to practice a pedagogy of crossing. The episode concludes with a Q+A from audience members.
Episode Transcription available here
Host: Ry O. Siggelkow
Producer: Adam Pfuhl
Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua
Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj
Episode Recorded on March 15th, 2023
The Praxis of Faith
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:01] You're listening to the podcast of the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. We seek to open a space for critical theological conversations about pressing social issues we face in our world today. Thanks for listening.
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:27] Our event tonight is called The Praxis of Faith, a panel on the life and work of James Cone. Thanks so much for joining us as we reflect on one of the most significant theologians of the 20th century. James Cone is widely regarded as the central voice in the emergence of black liberation theology. In celebration of his life, work and legacy; our panel of scholars this evening will focus on Cone's last work and memoir. Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making Of A Black Theologian, which was published after his death in 2018 by Orbis Books.
My name is Ry Siggelkow I direct the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. The mission of our center is to equip, inspire and empower leaders to faithfully and reflectively engage in concrete, contextual ministry for social justice. In the spirit of faith, hope and love, the center supports leaders in developing skills in contextually sensitive, creative and effective leadership and social praxis. In addition to hosting events like this one tonight and producing a podcast, the center offers a free nine month cohort based continuing education program, that is a free program, for pastors who are seeking to deepen their ministry in social justice. If you are interested in learning more about the center, our events and programs, or about our podcast, please follow the links in the chat. Stella Pearce, our administrative assistant, will put those in the chat for you and please do follow us on social media to sort of keep up on what's happening at the center.
Our panel conversation tonight, The Praxis of Faith, is the final event in our three part Praxis series on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Our first event, which was held in December, the Praxis of Love, was a celebration of the late black feminist intellectual, bell hooks. It was a community conversation about her book, All About Love. In February, the Center hosted the Minneapolis based artist Ricardo Levins Morales, who spoke on the Praxis of Hope. You can find recordings of these events on our podcast or on United's YouTube page. This, too, will be recorded this evening and will appear on our podcast and on the YouTube page. So our theme tonight is the Praxis of Faith.
In the Bible, faith is in action, a doing, a concrete praxis. Faith is an active response to the movement of God and to the Spirit. Faith is not a matter of intellectual assent to a set of doctrines or to an abstract entity. But first and foremost, a matter of commitment, to the God of life expressed through loving one's neighbor. Faith involves us in reaching out and so also in the taking of risks. Faith involves us in the work of love, which, as we know, can be quite costly. James Cone believed deeply in the transformative power of a faith that works through love. And tonight, our focus will be on this theme in his life and work. Before I introduce our panelists this evening, I want to share a video with you from Cone's memorial service held at Riverside Church in New York City in 2018. The person delivering the talk is someone you might recognize, the philosopher Cornel West. For me, this talk testifies to the great power of Cone's life and faith.
Cornel West [00:05:06] My dear brother James Cone. Words fail, any language falls short. Yes, he was a world historical figure in contemporary theology, no doubt about that. Towering prophetic figure engaging in his mighty critiques and indictment of contemporary Christendom from the vantage point of the least of these. No doubt about that. But all I think he would want us to view him through the lens of the cross and the blood at the foot of that cross. So I want to begin with an acknowledgment that James Cone was an exemplary figure in the tradition of a people who have been traumatized for 400 years but taught the world so much about healing, terrorized for 400 years, and taught the world so much about freedom. Hated for 400 years and taught the world so much about love and how to love. James Cone was a love warrior with an intellectual twist rooted in gut bucket Jim Crow Arkansas, but ended up at the top of the theological world but was never seduced by the idols of the world.
That's who we talking about. That's who's in that coffin right there. And oh he loved us so I loved him. So I'll take a bullet for it. And he'd take a bullet for me. Even as we were dancing to get out of the way because we wanted to be together. But there's no James Cone without Lucy and Charlie. You're absolutely right, brother Chris. You turn to that last paragraph of acknowledgments in his great The Cross and the Lynching tree, a text that will last for long as there is an American empire shot through it with white supremacy and predatory capitalism and homophobia and transphobia and patriarchy, too. That's the kind of prophetic voice we're talking about. My brother, we understand that. But what does he say in that acknowledgment? He says, I got to acknowledge Lucy. I got to acknowledge Charlie because their amazing love and their wonderful humor created a happy home and a happy home that kept us from hating anybody.
That's an echo of Emmett Till's mother. I don't have a minute to hate, I'll pursue justice for the rest of my life. That's an echo of John Coltrane's Love Supreme. It's an echo of Toni Morrison's Beloved. It's an echo of the love soaked essays of James Baldwin. James Cone stands in a tradition of a people, a great people with a grand tradition. An AME church, the Macedonian AME church there on the Jim Crow side. The chocolate side of Bearden Arkansas taught that little Negro genius something. He was already fortified before he got to Union Theological Seminary. He had been shaped. He had been molded. He had been challenged. He had been unquestioned. And he stood tall. He stood tall. He said, I've got something to say to the world. And I don't say it on my own. I don't say it on my own.
What do I say? Oh like the Isley Brothers Caravan of Love. A falling in love with truth. The condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak. A falling in love with goodness. Keeping track of the evil. He begins with white supremacy. He wrestles with white supremacy, but he always connected it to others, even if it took him a little while to get there.
How come? Because we got too many black folk loving everybody but black people. He said, Imma start with black people, then I will get to the others. Nothing wrong with that. That's who he was. But he had been shaped already by his father. Turn to page 21 in his autobiography, My Soul Looks Back and Charlie told him, Let me tell you something, James. He said, You see, I'll never allow your mother to work in the White House. So I know about sexual violation. I know about her rants, but I don't have that much money. I'm only making $1,000 a year. But I'm going out to the woods every day and I'm not accepting a penny. Let me tell you something, little James. Don't you ever sell your integrity. Don't you ever allow anybody to buy your integrity. You stand tall, even if you broke the Ten Commandments financially because you got such joy that the world didn't give you in the world. Take, take away. It's exactly what he said. So when he talked about the Charlie Cone inside of me, that's the Sankofa that our black nationalist brothers and sisters understand.
You better not stand up and move forward till you connect it to the best of what has gone into you. Because the highest standards have been set by those who are dead. We just the kid. The question is, will our lives in any way be connected to the afterlife of our brother Cone as he moves on the other side of the Jordan? And I'm going, well, I know you're going to talk about the other side of Jordan.
James Cone wasn't just an academic theologian. He lived life or death. His theology was grounded in the cry of black blood, the wailing from black suffering, the moans and groans of black hurt and black pain, and somehow trying to convince us not just to have the courage, but the fortitude. Nazi soldier can be courageous and still be a thug. Fortitude connects magnanimity and greatness of character. That's what we look at when we see James Cone.
And oh, I want to tell the children: Michael, Charlie and Krystal and Robynn. Your father was a great man based on biblical criteria. He served. He sacrificed for the least of these. He tried to hold up the bloodstained banner with a level of spiritual nobility and moral royalty already enacted by Lucy, already enacted by Charlie, already enacted by the best of his church. And by the time he began to interact with vanilla brothers and sister, he was misunderstood. He was misconstrued. Just because he's mad and in rage because he's focusing on the sin doesn't make him a hater. He had charitable Christian hatred. He hated the sin, but still tried to love the sinner.
And the problem; it's so easy to look at black folks. How come they so mad? How come they so angry? If your children were treated that way, if your children going to jail, your children dealing with decrepit education. You'll be upset. You don't expect us to be upset. James Cone said let me tell you something right now. He said, I'm not one of those Negroes who's afraid and scared and intimidated. I'm going to tell you the truth, and I'm going to talk about the suffering of black people. And he's always acknowledged the prophetic white brothers and sisters like Donald Shriver, Tom Driver, Christopher Morris, William Hordern, his thesis advisor, Lester Scherer and Brother Ellsberg, Robert Ellsberg, any white brother and sister who approached him as a human being had a chance to experience his tenderness. Brother Johnson knows what I'm talking about, experience his sweetness. But he was still on fire. And that's what we need these days.
We need the spirit of the tradition that produced a James Cone in the younger generation, not just on fire, but put love and justice at the center of it, and most importantly, willing to take a risk. His discipline, unbelievable. Black Power and Theology '69. Here comes Black Theology and Liberation in '70. Here comes Spirituals and the Blues in '72. Here comes God of the Oppressed '75. Gayraud Wilmore and him, I can see him right now putting together Black Theology: Documentary History. Here comes My Soul Looks Back. Here comes For My People. Here comes Speaking the Truth. Here comes Martin and Malcolm. Christians, if you don't understand the genius of Malcolm X, go back to the cross. Go back to the cross.
That's what he was telling us. Mark Ridley Thomas knows what I'm talking about. That's what it is to be on fire. He's still on fire in the coffin. It's just that the worms are going to get his body. But his spirit will be strong. It will be transfigured. It will be transformed. We will never forget our brother. Let's live our lives in such a way that we remain in the same tradition of brother Cone.
Ry Siggelkow [00:14:57] Well, I hope you enjoyed that. Difficult act to follow, hey? Well, I've asked each of our panelists to prepare some reflections for us this evening following their sharing, we will have some time for Q&A. So now I want to introduce our panelists in the order in which they will talk. Dr. Tyler Davis is a visiting instructor in the Department of Theology at Saint Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. He holds a Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Baylor University and an M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary. His published work has appeared in the Journal of Africana Religions, Religions, Latino Studies and other academic and popular outlets. His current research, which has been supported by the Charlotte W Newcomb Foundation and the Crossroads Project, examines the significance of a black oral tradition about a tornado in Waco, Texas, as an expression of liberation theology. Welcome, Tyler.
Dr. Beverly Eileen Mitchell is a professor of historical theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Her teaching and research interests include systematic theology, church history, human dignity, genocide, global poverty, the African-American struggle for justice, Holocaust studies and the challenge of white supremacy in church and society. Dr. Mitchell has lectured widely about human dignity and white supremacy and is the author of two books, Black Abolitionism: The Quest for Human Dignity, published in 2005 and Plantations and Death Camps: Religion, Ideology and Human Dignity. In 2009, both published, I believe, with Orbis. Or is it Fortress Books?
Beverly Mitchell [00:17:00] Orbis. The first one. Fortress The second.
Ry Siggelkow [00:17:04] Alright. She earned her B.A. in sociology from Temple University, her MTS from Wesley Theological Seminary and her Ph.D. in Systematic theology from the Andover Newton Theological School at Boston College.
Dr. Matthew Harris is the Provost's postdoctoral fellow in Religions in the Americas at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is a scholar of race and religion in the United States and a researcher at the intersection of African-American religion, black radical traditions and the politics of culture. He writes always with the aim of recovering histories of struggle to appreciate the theoretical and practical tools they offer to both reimagine the critical state of society and remake our world. Dr. Harris's current project, Black Religion Under the Sign of Saturn, is a religious history of how outer space became the place of black freedom in the 20th century. He earned his B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, his M.Div From Princeton Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Thank you so much, guests, for being with us this evening. And I will hand it over to you, Dr. Davis.
Tyler Davis [00:18:27] Great. Thank you, Ry. I appreciate that. And thanks for the introduction. Not the least because it provides something of a buffer between Dr. West's talk and my own. But yeah, I want to start by thanking everyone, the folks at United Seminary's Leadership Center for Social Justice, especially Ry and Stella, for organizing the event. I'm honored to be included, especially alongside two brilliant scholars. Matt, who I've known for quite a while and Professor Mitchell, who I've learned from her work for a while. So I understood the assignment to be focused on this text Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody. Cone's second autobiography and thinking about the theme of the praxis of faith within it. So the title that I came up with for this paper is The Praxis of Faith in Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody. Anyway, so let's get started.
So eight months after the passing of James Cone and the stirring eulogy delivered by Professor West at the memorial service at Riverside Church in New York that we just watched, I made a detour to Bearden, Arkansas. It was late December 2018, and my partner and I were on a regular trip from our home in South Texas to visit her folks in Tennessee. And after Cone's passing, we decided to make a pilgrimage of sorts to Bearden, which of course is Cone's hometown, to pay a visit and pay our respects to the great theologian of liberation. I actually have a few images just to briefly share as I'm going to talk at the beginning.
So winding through the small towns and steep pines of rural Ouachita County, we made our way to Bearden. As you can see here, population 966, and I think that would be from the 2010 census. But as we arrived, I remember taking in the sites on Main Street, the industrial past of timber, the Cotton Belt Railway very much present, and the storefronts were dressed up for Christmas. Naturally, we stopped at Macedonia AME Church to visit the church that grew the would be father of black liberation theology. There's a lot that stays with me from the detour to Bearden. One thing I remember is that there weren't any signs, any public signs on the road or markers commemorating Cone. I don't know exactly what I was expecting. Maybe I was just hoping there would be something saying, Yes, this is that Bearden, the one you read about in those books that Cone talks about. But there was nothing like that. Nothing saying turn here to visit the father of black liberation theology's hometown and church. Or maybe this way to James Cone Liberation Library, a library which does not yet exist. But the absence, the absence of public markers is clearly not everything. James Cone remains present in Bearden in more ways than I know and undoubtedly in much more important ways than mere road signs. But still, this lack seemed like something.
What made it even more striking was the fact that the absence of signs for Cone stood in contrast to the ubiquitous presence of signs directing passers by to points of interest for another son of Arkansas, namely former President Bill Clinton. If you've ever driven through I-30 through the state, you can't avoid the signs almost commanding you to take the exit in Hope, Arkansas to visit his birthplace. Nor can you miss the many markers in Little Rock indicating all the exits that will take you to the Clinton Presidential Center. Now there's a conversation about public exhibits, libraries, perhaps even road signs and markers for Cone in Arkansas. I imagine many of us here would love to support some kind of work along those lines, especially maybe even a library. But that's not exactly what I want to talk about.
More to the point, when I reflect on the lack of signs on the road to Bearden while I was reading, Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody and revisiting these images, it led me to the thought that in this book, Cone was ultimately much more interested in helping us develop a way of seeing and valuing different kinds of signs in the world. Signs that can't be seen from the road, but can be perceived through the praxis of faith.
I'd like to suggest that Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody is an autobiography about the praxis of faith; understood as bearing witness to and moving in solidarity with those Cone called, following Salvadoran theologian Ignacio Ellacuría, the crucified people of history. In another context, Ellacuría writes of the crucified people as the sign of the signs. The theological center of gravity that throws everything else into broad relief. Now a sign in this sense, the crucified people, is obviously not similar to a road sign or even a sign understood as an impersonal medium of information communication. It is rather the people in their fullness of their historical lives and activity who convey the divine presence and liberation, that Cone calls us, first of all, to see; to see those who are not seen by the world. And who would Jesus suffer under and struggle against the crucifying world?
In the context of imperial Christian history, Cone's intervention along these lines was significant. He wrote about it in this book. Cone writes, "The symbol of the cross had been detached from the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings. The crucified people of history. Rather than reminding us of the costs of discipleship, the cross became a form of cheap grace" and there Cone, referring both Ellacuría's term as well as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer on cheap grace. Cone's effort to reestablish, or I should say, Cone's efforts to represent the attempt to reattach and burden the symbol of the cross with suffering humanity. And from there, to articulate the praxis of faith as asserting the costly and confrontational dimension of the gospel of liberation that follows from siding with those on the cross.
This call to praxis, practices of faith represents, I think, one of Cone's central theological insights. Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody is, as I read it, a book that invites others into this praxis of faith. A distinct way of perceiving and acting under the sign of the crucified people, which Cone saw clearly in black freedom struggles against white supremacy. And also in people everywhere who suffer and resist powers that crucify. Still, as I was reflecting in many ways, this is not necessarily an insight unique to Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody. I think across Cones work, it's a dominant theme. The call to recognize and join in God's deliverance among those despised by the world. We might look at any number of his other texts. In the sense, Said I wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody might be read as Cone's final chapter in a larger and longer story he's been telling for decades.
What I do take to be distinctive, however, is Cone's sustained attention to the question of how he came to see this way. The subtitle is, after all, The Making of a Black Theologian. A central question is how one discerns the activity and presence of God in the struggles of the least and last, for liberation. So I think Cone, as I read him, is recovering something like a theological pattern of discernment, if we can put it that way. And the general argument I take is not that we naturally know where and how to identify the liberating presence of God, nor that ideas, even really good theological ideas are sufficient in helping us perceive the truth of liberation in a world of crucifixion. For Cone, the pattern of discipleship, I think, is inverted, which is to say perception does not come before, but after praxis. It is the praxis of faith that gives rise to the perceptual powers of discernment, of seeing. And praxis with Cone as I read this book, is not only what we do but who we are with. What structures of solidarity we belong to.
Now let me return to the book to be a little more concrete about those comments. How does Cone recover discernment in Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody? He does so in large part by bearing witness to the sources and catalysts inspiring his theology and writing across time. The book has chapters dedicated to what Cone learned from his critics, what he learned from his students, and later, what he learned from Baldwin. But even more than that, I was struck by, throughout, his attention to his family, to Macedonia AME and the African-American working class traditions in the area of Arkansas that Cone is from. It was through the social praxis, I see Cone arguing, that is the spiritual values and material practices of these communities; that Cone came to see the God of the oppressed as most intensely present at the foot of the lynching tree. That form of crucifying violence utilized by the white plantation regime. And bringing up the plantation. Plantation is, of course, a dehumanizing formation, Professor Mitchell has written compellingly about in her book Plantation and Death Camps that I think many of us have much to learn.
So Cone writes, for example, "Being black in Bearden, Arkansas, at Macedonia AME Church seemed to me so beautiful. As I saw blackness and bodies and lives of my mother and my father and a host of other proud men and women in Arkansas. The reality of love in my own community was so strong, so real that I truly love being black". It was in these settings of love and beauty where Cone first heard the spirituals and blues. And where Cone learned, he says, that he was somebody. His life mattered. Elsewhere along these lines, Cone writes, "If there was a passion in what I wrote, that's because I was trying to do justice to the faith and courage of African-Americans who survived and resisted". Similar passages along these lines might be cited on page four, page thirty-three, thirty-five, thirty-six, forty, one twenty-five, one thirty-four, one-forty and elsewhere. In all of these texts, Cone is acknowledging again and again the generative role regional black traditions of struggle and faith played in the making of his theological vision and voice. Cone writes, "I overcame Jim Crow segregation in Arkansas to become widely known as the father of black liberation theology and a full professor at union. At Thirty-Four. But that was nothing compared to what my ancestors endured and overcame. I got my spiritual and intellectual strength from them".
Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody is, as I read it, a book about the seeds of black liberation theology being planted, cared for and protected by a powerful community of people. And then the world defining growth of these seeds in Cone's own life. And theologically, I think it raises questions of how we come to discern divine liberation among the crucified people. And I think Cone answers that question largely by pointing to life, his own life, among a crucified people. Pointing to people, places, contexts.
In a more extended format, I'd like to think about the larger dimensions of this argument in Cone's book, but I'll conclude with two implications or further lines of thought that come to mind based on this dimension of the text. First is that Cone is often and for good reason, referred to as the father of black liberation theology. His last work deliberately complicates this, however, I think, in his own words, due to his outward emphasis on the context traditions, people that made "his thought". Again, notice the modesty of the subtitle, The Making of a Black Theologian. In this light, we might add the qualification or might offer for our conversation that Cone is not only the father or a father of black liberation theology, but also a student of black liberation theology.
Second, there's a certain criticism of liberation theology that's appeared, I think, in a few different forms, but it goes something like while liberation theology presents itself as a popular movement, the grass root movement. In reality, it's an academic discourse, which means it's, by implication, an elitist discourse. Criticism along these lines seems to imply that any response or rebuttal of that criticism would have to come by way of empirical proof from, say, sociologists showing the extent to which liberation theology traditions are in fact embedded in grassroots communities of faith. And without such rebuttal, liberation theology is dismissed as an elitist discourse exaggerating sociological horizon. By situating his work in historic black traditions of faith and struggle in Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody, I think Cone powerfully undercuts this line of criticism by showing that black liberation theology did not come from the university and did not go from the university to the church to emancipate black people and others. Rather, his argument shows that it was a reflection of what was already believed and at work among black traditions of struggle and faith. In, among other places, the lower Mississippi Valley. So I'm going to and I'm going to end my comments there. Thanks.
Ry Siggelkow [00:33:04] Thanks so much, Tyler. That was thought provoking. Beverly.
Beverly Mitchell [00:33:20] Good evening, everyone. I'm grateful to be here to share with you some reflections on James Cone. One of the figures that was the subject of my dissertation from decades, decades, decades ago. And in looking at his life, it caused me to go back, to review my journey as I engaged in a quiet, silent conversation, if you will, with James Cone in terms of being a theologian. He modeled for me what it means to grow as a theologian of color, and he moved through his journey with grace and a fierce courage to bear witness in a long haul struggle for justice.
Last week, I took a church history class on two field trips, one to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the second, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, both in Washington, D.C.. I've been through those museums many, many times, but it was an experience to go through it again after a break brought about by the pandemic. So in a way, it was as if I were looking at things anew. Photograph upon photograph of carnage, depravity, dehumanization. And what one of my students called pure evil. And having visited those museums many times, this time it reaffirmed for me a theological conviction that I have never been able to shake. I was so keenly aware, more so perhaps than at any other time, the terrible magnitude of destruction that can emerge from an ideology such as white supremacy can be.
The racial antisemitism of national socialism and racism in the United States for me fall under the umbrella of white supremacy. Both, in my view, were expressions of white supremacy, in the context of Germany, of course, with Nazism and in the U.S. racism, the ideology that shaped them rival the gospel. In both those locations at distinct times. The co-mingling of anti-Semitism and religion or racial dominance and Christianity had deadly consequences. And those consequences still fail us. Both the German churches and American churches allowed white supremacy to infiltrate the church. So I'm deeply sensitized to what ideological distortion can do. It's not simply an academic question. It's a theological question that has severe consequences for our economic, social, cultural and political life together. In that dissertation from long ago, in which I worked with the thoughts of Karl Barth and James Cone, I was unable at that time as a young scholar to embrace either Barth or Cone's methods of tackling an ideology that rivals the Gospel in their respective contexts.
In the case of Barth, I found that his theological fatigue, which had a lot of validity in terms of national socialism, was valid and based on a compelling conviction that this ideology constituted an idolatrous program that threatened the Christian church. I took his critique of the German Christian's grotesque attempt to fashion a so-called Christianity with the tenets of national socialism seriously, and I still do. But Barth's failure, in my view, or resistance to the idea of experience as a tool for theological reflection, left his theology vulnerable to irrelevance. To those who are dehumanized and suffering. The fact that the suffering of the Jews did not figure prominently in his opposition to Nazism rendered, in my view, his resistance painfully remote from human suffering and rather antiseptic.
James Cone, who was impassioned about the relationship between God and African-American humanity, called for an anthropological approach to a theology that placed the black struggle for justice at the center of his reflection. The fundamental question that Cone's work proposed in reflecting on an African-American theological anthropology was, What does Christ mean for the oppressed blacks of the land? Now that question was very similar to the question that Howard Thurman sought to address in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Namely, what does the religion of Jesus say to those who live with their backs against the wall? Those are the kinds of questions that I think really make theology an enterprise that is worth reflecting upon as one engages in the struggle for justice.
Cone maintained that one must see God in the African-American human condition and work to bring about social, political and economic freedom for African Americans who suffer from white supremacy in the American empire. I was very concerned, though, as a young theologian about taking a theological approach that placed human experience at the center of theological inquiry and as a starting point for theological reflection. And there are ways in which I'm still concerned about that. And I wrestle with Cone's linking the Christian gospel with black power, even as it truly was opposed to being deliberately depicted in a misinformed way by the media. But I could not see, even though I resonated or connected with what he was trying to do, I could not see a way to wholly embrace it. But I watched how a theologian deals with critics, and he denied the appropriation and affirmations of a secular movement such as the black power was an ideological problem theologically. And he did that by attempting to show how the aspirations of black power were consistent with the goals of the Christian gospel.
He wanted to stay with Christianity, which provided a foundation not only for himself, but for many African-Americans. I reflected long and hard on Cone over the years and had hoped that he could offer a fuller, richer theological critique of the ideology of white supremacy. And although that was his mission to challenge it, I just wanted something more robust as I struggled as a theologian. As a parenthetical aside, I can say that the African American Christian ethicist George Kelsey, in his book, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man, was analyzed in a way that I thought was important as we engage in the struggle for justice from a theological perspective.
Nevertheless, despite my unease, in one of Cone's later books, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I think I have finally found an answer to what was an ideological conundrum that I journey with for a long time. And it's the way that Cone juxtaposes the cross of Christ with the lynching tree. A horrific feature of not just black history, but American history in which African American men and women hung like strange fruit on poplar trees, leaving blood on the leaves and blood on the roots. Cone's discussion in that volume was an eye opener to me and in particular resonated with me as I reflect on the killings of unarmed black men and women. And the urgency of Cone's message particularly for those of us who profess to be followers of Christ.
In my ear, as I pay attention to the somber roll call that includes Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Tyree Nichols, and nameless others. This roll call continues to grow. Despite the fact that contemporary theologians really struggle with the old classical theories of atonement. How is it that Christ saves us? And despite the critiques of feminists and womanists, in particular, the late Delores Williams. Cone talks about the cross as the Christian symbol of the Christian faith, that is, christ crucified, alongside the lynching tree as the symbol of the agony and death of African Americans. The question comes anew as we reflect on what Cone was doing in juxtaposing these two things together. What is the message of the cross for those who live with their backs against the wall?
His answer is that the cross empowers them. Because in his death. African-Americans see themselves. Cone's answer is that the cross empowers, the gaze at the cross doesn't silence them. It empowers them to resist that which seeks to dehumanize and destroy. It reminds those who are in the struggle that death and defeat do not have the last word. The cross reminds them,us, we, that we can keep on keeping on. Despite appearances, it exhorts us to run on to see what the end might be. These are old phrases from the black church that our elders would talk about. And now, as I'm nearing the status of an elder, an older person makes profound sense to me.
For Cone, the cross is central and the centrality of the cross has a message of hope for African-Americans and anyone else. The cross, he says, is victory out of defeat. The lynching tree is transcendence of defeat. We need the words of Cone as we are living through what feels like a walk back in time in terms of challenges to the African-American community. And what he does is what I was hoping for, that he brings forward an important reality of black history and life experience in the United States in a concrete way. That's theologically creative and I think valid. And that is what theologians of color sorely need. We need to connect our thinking and reflecting with what is happening around us. So for me, his sojourn, that paved the way for people who look like me is profound. His message of persistent hope reverberates at a historical moment as we navigate, as a people, another difficult season of violence against black folk. This is what Cone's endeavor was all about. And for it, I am immensely, immensely grateful. Thank you.
Ry Siggelkow [00:52:16] Thank you, Beverly. Matt.
Matthew Harris [00:52:29] Good evening, everyone. And it's a real pleasure to join you all tonight to talk about James Cone and the Praxis of Faith. Thank you to the Leadership Center for Social Justice for hosting. To Dr. Ry Siggelkow for inviting me and Stella Pearce for attending to the details of the event and keeping us all on track. I'm especially grateful to be on this panel with Dr's Mitchell and Davis and I very much look forward to our conversation after.
So one of the most striking scenes for me in Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody, unfolds at the beginning of Chapter Five, Learning From My Students. It's striking because the tables are briefly turned and Cone, usually in the position of provocateur, is there cast as the naive, uninformed and out-of-touch professor by, as Cone describes, a white male student. A white gay student who was hurting from homophobia. "Dr. Cone,You don't know a goddamn thing about the gay experience", the student exclaimed. It's a scene of high drama, brilliantly constructed by Cone. But what I find more interesting than the theater of confrontation is the brief glimpse it provides into a less visible dimension of Cone's multidimensional praxis of liberating faith. Namely his commitment to what M. Jacqui Alexander calls a pedagogy of crossing. That is his commitment to a way of learning and teaching that interrupts inherited boundaries of geographies, nation and identity that distort the truth of our deeply entwined lives and fate.
In the introduction to her book, Teaching to Transgress, a book about, as the subtitle, describes, education as the practice of freedom, bell hooks notes that her reputation as an "insurgent intellectual" often confounded those familiar with her critical scholarship when she spoke intimately and deeply about education. She writes, "that knowing public seemed particularly surprised when I said that I was working on a collection of essays about teaching. This surprise is a sad reminder of the way teaching is seen as a duller, less valuable aspect of the academic profession. This perspective on teaching is a common one", she continues. "Yet it must be challenged if we are to meet the needs of our students. If we are to restore to education and the classroom excitement about ideas and the will to learn if we are to make", she writes. "education, the practice of freedom".
Like hooks, Cone is often and rightly represented as an insurgent intellectual. Remembered for his fiery prose, his unflinching belief that being black and Christian could be liberating, and his passionate argument that any theology indifferent to the theme of God's liberation of the oppressed was not Christian theology. And who can forget his sharp cutting voice that carried his black theology of liberation beyond the page. Piercing ears from every lectern and pulpit offered to him.
But what about the duller, less valued as Hooks remarked. The duller, less valued aspect of Cone's career. Perhaps because the academic profession is newly my profession now too. And that's only a recent possibility. You can ask my parents. They're on here. They would have never imagined that. But I have found myself recently revisiting the writers that set my imagination on fire with an eye for their reflections on education. And more specifically tonight, that is on how Cone's practice of faith intersects with the liberative tradition of education as the practice of freedom.
Cone's telling of the confrontation in the classroom is instructive in this regard. And I want to briefly draw out an important aspect of his response that sometimes gets lost in the framing of Cone as singularly the father of black liberation theology. "I wasn't angry", Cone writes about that classroom moment in his memoir, "I knew he was right". Cone's lack of anger in the face of seemingly hostile, irreconcilable differences was hard won.
In 1973, roughly ten years before that moment in the classroom, the first meeting between representatives of black theology and Latin American liberation theology took place in Geneva, Switzerland, at a symposium meant to introduce those respective theologies to the World Council of Churches. Cone and the Latin American Liberation Theologians, one of whom was Paolo Freire, were not able to communicate with one another as freely as they would have liked to in that context, and found themselves more often than not pitted against each other and responding to what were, "European questions'' that the Council posed. Hugo Assmann, another representative of Latin American liberation theology at the meeting, spoke to Cone directly at one point. And you can sense, in his words, the desperation produced by the uneasy occasion of what felt like an assault on the integrity and future of liberation theology. He says, "I would like to say to my friends in black theology. I don't know how this dialogue with you can be improved. But it is more important than European theology for us Latin Americans. I don't want to destroy the connection with you. But I do want to reach a state of tension with you. A third kind of tension, which is found more and more in the Third World". The possibility that their connection could be destroyed was not an overstatement. Cone remembered that the differences seem so great that they almost destroyed their nascent unity in those early days. Nor was that possibility of destruction an accident. Even if it was not planned. As Cohn would later write, "Oppressors know that the most effective way to keep the oppressed under control is to divide them, keep them apart, have them fight each other, or at least share views that make them suspicious of each other. As long as oppressed peoples remain ignorant and suspicious of each other, they will remain open to believing what oppressors say about others and thus not build a coalition movement designed for the liberation of all".
What we think we know about each other has been communicated to us by a common oppressor, Cone wrote elsewhere. We often share the stereotypes of each other that have been created by oppressors in order to control us more effectively. Overcoming this miseducation for Cone was, "an indispensable aspect of the process of liberation". Overcoming this miseducation for Cone was an indispensable aspect of the process of liberation. And thus, Cone asked at that meeting in Geneva, "How do we communicate when we live in different worlds?". It was an important question. It is an important question.
Thankfully, standing at the brink of a breakdown between liberation theologies catalyzed not the break, but a, "urgent need to overcome the stifling and oppressive effects of the dominant theologies of Europe and North America". Coupled with a, "an urgent need to exchange information, analyses and strategies of liberation so that we can all learn from each other's problems and methods". The most prominent answer to the emergent need was the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, which Dr. Davis, Tyler, and I have written about elsewhere.
But what interests me more tonight is how this showed up as a pedagogical practice and vision. How Cone's praxis of faith shaped his vision of education as the practice of liberation. And thus, while Cone is remembered as the father of black liberation theology, it is crucial that we recognize that it was not a studied myopia. What followed from black theology, indeed what flowed from black liberation theology was a pedagogy of crossing. Again, a commitment to learning and teaching that interrupted, that interrupts inherited boundaries of geographies, nation and identity that distort the truth of our deeply entwined lives and fate. Or again as Jacqui Alexander might put it, Cone believed that liberation necessarily entailed becoming fluent in each other's histories.
"I wasn't angry", Cone writes about that classroom confrontation, "I knew he was right". But Cone was quick to explain in what ways the student was right. He was right that then in the early 1980s, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic that was ignored, systematically ignored by the state and joked about as, "the gay plague" by the press. He was right that Cone did not quite know the fear and urgency that permeated queer life at that moment. But Cone also made clear that his inclusion of gay and lesbian histories and theologies in a Foundations and Christian theology class at that time wasn't some liberal gesture to multicultural belonging and tolerance. "I'm not including what gay and lesbian people say in this course because I want to patronize them", Cone told the student, "I am including them because their struggle for dignity is my struggle too".
The struggle for liberation requires a pedagogy of crossing that deepens connections to one's own experience. But also to those who experience oppression on different terms. Cone urged his students in the classroom through his teaching in a key slightly different from his major works. Indeed, he urges all of us to cross the borders of our own experience so that we can begin to build bridges of communication and cooperation in a common struggle for freedom and self-determination.
As a teacher, Cone wrote about that duller, less valued aspect of his life. As a teacher, I have had to be willing to struggle with my students and they with me. And through our battle with each other, we both could grow up. Teaching each other to become the best human beings we could be. Love is always a two way street. We have to make each other see what we wouldn't see without each other. And so he instructed his students that day, "Embrace your experience, then write your heart out. But" he continued, "You must talk to others about their experience and become voracious readers of your stories and their stories and stories and sayings of people around the world".
Cone's pedagogy of crossing, as he envisioned it, was also part of a larger pedagogical program for churches, particularly African-American churches, as that was his home. But really, for all churches. Writing around the same time as that classroom incident and For My People, which was published in 1984, Cone wrote, "a reading knowledge of the reality of the Third World and of the theological reflections derived from it should receive top priority in the teaching ministry of our churches. Our people should know the names of Gustavo Gutierrez and Elsa Támez of Latin America. Allan Boesak and Amba Oduyoye of Africa. Preman Niles and Virginia Fabella of Asia and Idris Hamid of the Caribbean. Reading these theologians", Cone continued, "can help us appreciate our own history as we search for a theology that is both particular and universal".
If we don't know those names, that's okay. But it is a testament that we still have a lot of catching up to do with Cone's praxis of faith, at least those of us who would like to think we are working in the same spirit of liberation. This is what the praxis of faith meant for Cone. In part, it meant, in Alexander's words, to resist and unlearn an impulse to claim first oppression, most devastating oppression, one of a kind oppression. Defying comparison oppression. To unlearn an impulse that allows mythologies about each other to replace knowing about each other. It means to cultivate a way of knowing in which we direct our social, cultural, psychic and spiritually marked attention on each other. Cone's praxis of faith was wed to such a pedagogy of crossing. This animated his teaching practice and his vision of Christian education. All of which were aimed toward the liberation of the earth and everyone and everything in it. Thank you.
Ry Siggelkow [01:08:28] Thank you, Matt. And thank you to all of our panelists this evening for some thought provoking reflections on James Cone's life, his boundary crossing as a teacher, as a student, as a theologian. The way that he was made by Bearden, Arkansas, by the AME Church, that attention to the regional dimension that influenced his thinking, but then also how he was remade over the course of his life through unlearning and reaching out to listen to others from different continents and listening to their experiences, not staying within his own at the exclusion of listening to others. I want to open up this conversation to the rest of you all. If you have a question, you may leave it in the chat or if you want to unmute and ask your question that way, that would be okay as well. Anyone want to be brave and start us off?
Audience Member [01:09:51] I will. I'm Taylor. I'm in Seattle. I have a question for Dr. Harris. There is something that you said a couple times that I couldn't quite catch the whole thing of Cone's focus on destructing the inherited boundaries that distort our shared lives or something like that. And that was really powerful. And I wondered if you could say it again. And then also if there's anything else that you or others wanted to speak to about that.
Ry Siggelkow [01:10:23] Thank you, Taylor.
Matthew Harris [01:10:25] Yeah. Thank you, Taylor. So, yeah, I'm trying to draw attention to the similar, the way in which Cone's theological vision is very actually similar to many black feminists' idea of solidarity. And what I say is that it's a commitment to learning and teaching, this pedagogy of crossing. And this is a quote of M. Jacqui Alexander ``that interrupts inherited boundaries of geographies, nation and identity. That distorts the truth of our deeply entwined lives and fate". And this is something that you can read across the corpus of Cone, especially outside of those first four works. And he takes it up and others that are more familiar with his corpus can say more. But I mean, this is something he draws directly from King. That our lives are intertwined. And that there is no liberation unless it's a liberation for all. At one point in Cone's career, I mean he marks it as 1977 and this is what Tyler and I have written in our article, it becomes very clear to him that fighting for freedom, fighting for inclusion into an American empire is not enough. That one must undo empire as a whole.
Ry Siggelkow [01:12:20] Any other questions for our panelists?
Audience Member [01:12:24] Yeah. This is Craig Anderson in Oracle, Arizona. I wonder if all of you could comment on his activism. What would be examples of his activism?
Ry Siggelkow [01:12:56] Anyone want to take that?
Tyler Davis [01:13:02] Maybe just one thing that comes to mind. It's a good question. Is maybe just thinking after Matt brought up these kinds of pedagogies of crossing. One example that comes to mind is his work in South Africa in the early eighties. I think in Cone's past, Cone was trying to go to South Africa on a number of occasions. His work was read in the early seventies by South African black theologians, and it was read by folks in the Black Consciousness movement like Steve Biko. But his passport was denied or something. Something happened two times where he was not able to go to South Africa in the seventies. And then finally in the early eighties with Cornel West, he travels to South Africa, and it's part, I believe, of a program in the Methodist church there, visiting churches and having conversations around the apartheid state and how churches are and are not responding to it. So I think that's one example. But it comes up in kind of that international context that I think Matt has kind of turned our attention to. Yeah, I don't know if anyone else would say more about that, but that's the first one that comes to mind.
Matthew Harris [01:14:23] I'll just say I actually quite like what was put in the chat there. "I write, that's how I fight". And I think we ought not to underestimate the importance of the demystification work that Cone did with his writing. And his unflinching defense of his mother and father. And this is what Cornel West is talking about, the faith of his mother and father and those in Bearden, Arkansas whose Christianity sustained them through Jim Crow. Now he's writing at a time. Some people you know, one of the critiques is that it's apologetic, but it's not apologetic. What he's asking in the late sixties and early seventies is how can you be a movement of the people if you're willing to leave behind the people? And the terms of the faith, that would be the sort of the terms of their struggle. You can't be a movement of the people if you're not willing to engage the people where they're at. And so Cone's activism in many ways was to question that, what the activists were doing.
Beverly Mitchell [01:15:54] Yeah.
Matthew Harris [01:15:55] I think in part.
Beverly Mitchell [01:16:00] I would agree with that, Matt. It reminds me of the ways in which people challenged Howard Thurman, who was a spiritual leader to a lot of those who were involved in the civil rights movement. They wanted to know why he wasn't out protesting, you know, on the line. He knew what his gifts were. And he opted to do what he knew best to do, what he felt called to do. And I think in the same way, perhaps we can enlarge our understanding or notion of what an activist is. And I believe that his writing and his teaching, his engagement with others so that they draw from him and sort of continue on in their own way and manner is part of what an activist is. It's not always out there, in so-called in the fray. There are many ways that we are gifted to advance the cause for justice.
Ry Siggelkow [01:17:38] Other questions.
Audience Member [01:17:42] I had a question for Dr. Mitchell. You said something that it was difficult for you. His equating in his early books, Christianity and the Black Power Movement. I used to teach a course on Cone at Princeton Seminary, those older books are hard, and I really struggled because he said later that he never supported violence. And yet the way he used by any means necessary, whatever was originally meant by that, it sounded like he was. And so I struggled, on the one hand, I wanted to say it's hyperbole. He was so engaged in his argument about these horrendous wrongs that he spoke in hyperbole. But as soon as I said that, I would think, well, that's not taking him seriously. That's like saying, well, he didn't really mean what he said. Those early books are so important. I had my students read his books in chronological order. Do we say he evolved and changed, or how do we respectfully deal with what he said in those first couple of books?
Beverly Mitchell [01:18:41] Well, I think in those first couple of books, I mean, advancing his arguments with the passion that he brought to it in a context in which he was viewed as an outsider, his way of doing theology, not considered theology. And, you know, there were a lot of pressures on him to address the struggles and challenges in a way that was authentic. But also, I think in the beginning, there's a part of him that's navigating, finding his way in terms of how he is going to approach what he sees as you've got to bring the struggle of African Americans into this context of theology. It's ludicrous. You might as well do something else. And so I think he did grow over time. I can see the evolution in his tone and writing, but I wouldn't give anything for the experience of his saying what desperately needed to be said at a time when it was unthinkable and his willingness to engage other people whose perspective was different and his willingness to accept with humility that he might have to think about some of these critiques that he got. And he took them seriously. I think he has to be read in his totality to get a comprehensive portrait of who he was.
Audience Member [01:20:59] Thank you. If you read his responses to his critics and as those books came out, I don't know any other theologian who responded. You don't think of Cone's approach to things and humility in the same sentence. But he did fondly listen to what his critics said, and he changed because of it. And not a lot of theologians I know, even the ones I especially love, have done that. Thank you very much for your response.
Beverly Mitchell [01:21:22] You're welcome. Thank you for the question.
Ry Siggelkow [01:21:32] We have a question here from Greg Woods who says "I'm thinking about the whitewashing of Dr. King Jr. Can this be avoided with Cone? So the question here is will Cone's legacy be interpreted in such a way as to sort of soften his critique of white supremacy in his critique of the structural dimensions of U.S. society and U.S. white racism in the United States?
Audience Member [01:22:17] Yeah, this is Greg Woods. And I'm just thinking about how Martin Luther King Jr. is sanitized. We are taught I have a dream and we will march on freedom. But you are never taught that it was a March on Washington for freedom and jobs. You see this also in an academic institution like Princeton with Barth theology too. You have more conservative theologians attracted to Barth, but disregarding his qualms about empire. Some of my professors loved Barth and then they went to churches with flags in their sanctuary on Sundays, which Barth would have been really opposed to. So it has happened. I'm wondering what you three think about that. Does that make sense?
Ry Siggelkow [01:24:21] Yeah. Think so.
Beverly Mitchell [01:24:34] The question of what will happen in terms of his, Cone's writings moving forward. I'm not sure that that's something that we can necessarily readily answer, but I think that the concern about sort of defanging Cone, if you will, is a valid concern because as I watch how King has sort of become an icon, that instead of stirring people to to struggle, some people appropriate his work and speak of him in a way in which the fire, the uncompromising dimension of King gets lost. And I think that we have to be vigilant for those of us who care about these things. Vigilant and, you know, helping to resist that taming of those who had some-. The idea is not to be beloved. It's to be heard. And one responds and acts, it seems to me. And I think when people latch on to those aspects of people in the struggle that have, you know, contribute to a warm and fuzzy feeling, I think that has to be interrupted. But I don't know. I certainly pray that the Cone doesn't eventually become, you know, sort of tamed, if you will.
Ry Siggelkow [01:26:54] We have a question from Kate Dugan, who asks, "This question is directed at Matt. Matt, how do you think Cone's emphasis on solidarity that you highlighted in your paper might challenge our current political landscape today that seems to be moving towards the opposite amongst various oppressed peoples?" So the emphasis on solidarity that kind of came out in all of your reflections, you know, moves against the current political landscape or pushes that. Matt, do you have any reflections on that?
Matthew Harris [01:27:33] Not very deep ones, I suppose. I mean, I wrote the paper with the sense of the contemporary political landscape. One in which I think, to Greg's point, There are many ways of defanging Cone. And one way, that I'm scared of, is to silo Cone from his broader vision of a global struggle. I mean, it's almost impossible to overstate how important global solidarity was for Cone. And I think it challenges our politics. I think reading Cone would challenge the political landscape, if folks took the time to read Cone. At the same time, I don't want to suggest that the current political landscape is only moving towards silos. I think there are wonderful works out there right now that are available to us that sort of renarrate our contemporary moment. And I'm thinking in particular of Derecka Purnell's book, Becoming Abolitionists, which connects the Black Lives Matter movement, in which she was central and a part of, to struggles in South Africa, student struggles in South Africa, to Palestine. And not just gestures of solidarity, but actually material. The folks from Ferguson were in South Africa to do the very types of things that Cone was talking about, to share about the problems and methods, the problems they're facing and the methods that they used to address those. The same with Palestine. So that's not an answer to the question. I'm writing with the sense that this part of Cone needs to be recovered. Tyler and I wrote our article in a special, which was for a special issue of the Journal of Africana Religions after Cone's death. And it was with that sense even then that we wanted Cone, this part of Cone to be remembered, because it's a very important part of Cone. Yeah, I don't know, other folks?
Beverly Mitchell [01:30:19] I was just thinking, as you were talking, about the willingness to cross boundaries, to hear stories. I think hearing of stories, sharing of experiences is a very crucial tool for breaking down barriers. I've seen it done in terms of the attempts for doing racial reconciliation, anti-racism, where there's nothing like hearing the stories in which you actually begin to see that there are connections there. And modeling that, I think, is critical. I think this is a very difficult moment or season in which it is the willingness to reach across lines, it really is a countercultural move in this political climate and the willingness to to do that I think is critical. But it also means recognizing our interconnection with each other. And there are other traditions that can help in that regard. But I think you really have to have a conviction that what happens to you affects me and what happens to me affects you, and that you approach your interaction with people with that in mind. But I think modeling that as we can and pushing against a climate in which it's a mortal sin to want to speak to someone or get to know someone is vastly different to who you perceive as not being like you.
Matthew Harris [01:32:54] And can I just add one thing? It was really, you know, these forms of solidarity that Cone pointed to. For Cone, there was the realization that what Beverly called so beautifully the terrible magnitude of destruction, the terrible magnitude of destruction wrought by white supremacy and racial capitalism can only be met and overturned by you know, a capacious, a capacious social movement that involves everybody entering in where they are. And so, you know, it wasn't just again, this wasn't Cone just believing like tolerance was the answer. It was that we are up against the terrible magnitude of destruction and the deadly consequences, as Beverly said, of global racial capitalism. And it can only be met by deep forms of solidarity that are not easy.
Ry Siggelkow [01:34:11] Well, thank you so much to our panelists. And thank you all for taking time on this Wednesday evening in March as the snow here in Minnesota is starting maybe to melt. And I really appreciate you all, your engagement, the questions tonight, these great reflections. And I hope we can continue this conversation. Have a wonderful evening, everyone.
Stella Pearce [01:34:50] Thank you for listening to the Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast. To learn more about the center and its programs, visit unitedseminary.edu/lcsj Or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at united_LCSJ.