Leaders in the United Church of Christ are mourning the passing of a spiritual giant with the death of the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone. The renowned founder of Black Liberation Theology, Cone was an award-winning author, minister and distinguished professor at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He died on Saturday at 79.
"Since hearing of the death of the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone my heart has been deeply grieved. I've searched for words to pay proper tribute to a master scholar who loved the Christian church enough to dare dig beneath its carefully coifed soil and disturb its racist roots," said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister, UCC Justice and Local Church Ministries. "It is Dr. Cone who dared to remind us God is not made in the image of whiteness but rather it is we, all of us, who are made in the image of God. Therefore, if one cannot see God in black bodies, in LGBTQ bodies, in economically deprived bodies, in migrant bodies, in disabled bodies, in 'othered' bodies, and worship God there, then one is incapable of seeing God at all. Dr. Cone reminds us God loves Blackness and the message of the gospel is a love letter to the oppressed. 'To be Christian,' Dr. Cone said, 'is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people.'"
Dr. Cone taught the Christian religion as a religion of liberation, and spoke for decades about racial injustice that plagues this country in the forms of economic disparities, mass incarceration and police shootings.
Union Seminary, where Dr. Cone was a Professor of Systematic Theology, issued a statement on his death. "James Cone was not just a professor. He was a prophet—a theological giant who shook the foundations of Christianity, dragging us miles closer to justice. He showed the world that the gospel cannot be separated from the push for black freedom—that black liberation is God's story."
As a professor, he encouraged his students to pursue their own ideas and allowed them to challenge his.
"I was introduced to James Cone while in high school," said the Rev. Velda Love, UCC Minister for Racial Justice. "The first book I read was 'For My People.' I still have that book and so many others, some which I acquired before entering seminary. During seminary, I read 'God of the Oppressed.' This book resonated with my own theology, which led to an interest in pursuing teaching theology at the graduate level. My Master's thesis entitled, 'Reclaiming the Spirit of God in Womanist Theology,' included Cone's admission of excluding the voices of African American women as essential to Black liberation, an omission he later owned after being challenged by the women in his classrooms. What an honor to have acquired so much of Dr. Cone's scholarship as foundation for my teaching, preaching, and ongoing racial justice work. He was indeed a gentleman and a prophetic scholar par excellence."
"His book 'For My People' changed my life," said the Rev. John C. Dorhauer, UCC General Minister and President. "I heard him deliver his landmark essay 'Theology's Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy' live. That, too, was deeply impactful. I celebrate his life and mourn his passing."
In 2008, after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then pastor of Trinity UCC, made headlines during the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, Cone described Black Liberation Theology to the New York Times as a combination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. "You might say we took our Christianity from Martin and our emphasis on blackness from Malcolm." While he may have disagreed with some of Wright's comments, as he told the NY Times, "deep down in all of us is that Malcolm X who cries out in such strong language."
Dr. Cone & friends – Elmhurst College 2015
"The ministry opportunities United Church of Christ, Justice Witness Ministries has afforded me provided the chance to put Black Liberation Theology into practice, while holding true to my queer identity," said the Rev. Jason Carson Wilson, Justice & Peace Policy Fellow with UCC Washington, D.C., office. "I'm thankful for his ministry and witness, which shaped the journeys of Rev. Dr. JoAnne Marie Terrell, a spiritual mother, and Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng, a queer mentor. Their journeys influencing mine are part of Dr. Cone's legacy. Thank you, Dr. Cone."
Cone won the Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his most recent book, "The Cross and the Lynching Tree," which drew parallels between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people in the United States. His recently completed memoir is expected to be published later this year.
"Lord, thank you for the life and ministry of Dr. James Hal Cone, your faithful servant, who taught so many of us about the breadth and depth of your love and gave us new insight in how to love you by loving one another," said Frank A. Bolden, Chair of the UCC Board of Directors.
Dr. Cone's survivors include his sons, Michael and Charles; his daughters, Robynn and Krystal; a brother, Charles, and two grandchildren. Union Theological Seminary, on a tribute page to the legendary minister, said his funeral will be held on Monday, May 7, 11:00 a.m. at the Riverside Church in New York City. The service will be live streamed for anyone unable to attend in person.
"Today I honor Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone as prophet," Blackmon said. "I honor him as a spiritual doula because that is what Dr. Cone is to me. A doula. I did not have an intimate relationship with his person. I was not privileged to sit in his classes or benefit from his mentorship, and yet his work has shaped me in undeniable ways. His unrelenting understanding of a God who includes all...helped me to push! And I'm still pushing because of a prophet named Dr. James Hal Cone who helped me give birth to the voice of God in me."
Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. Ezekiel 2:5