On the Death of the Rev. James Cone

Every pastor and theologian has a list of authors that upends their way of thinking, those authors who, page after page, grab us by the shoulder and push us in new directions. The Rev. Dr. James Cone ranks among those thinkers; few seminarians are the same after reading Cone’s God of the Oppressed or The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Rev. Cone died this past weekend, and the Church is all the poorer for losing his voice. You can listen to NPR’s obituary here.

The Rev. Dr. David Gushee, a Baptist pastor and ethicist, recounts his first experience with Dr. Cone as a grad student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Rev. Gushee spoke up in class, only to be shouted down — by the professor. Rev. Cone’s writings have a similar effect on many white readers: he insists that we take the time to actually listen, to truly hear what is being said, and to recognize that our voice isn’t the most important in the conversation. It’s jarring, but it’s also such an important lesson to learn.

I remember the first time I engaged with Rev. Cone’s work: God of the Oppressed was one of four text book assigned in my Systematic Theology class. More than anything else I read during that course, Dr. Cone continuously stopped me in my tracks. As a white, middle-class, male seminarian living in the US, God of the Oppressed forced me time and time again to re-evaluate how I understood the Gospel, salvation, and liberation. In Rev. Cone’s words, there is a prophetic zeal — surely, the same passion that drove Jesus into the Temple with a whip made of cords. I cannot lie; there were times that Rev. Cone angered me, scared me, made me question his faith and my own. His work is not easy for those of us in positions of privilege to read, nor can we take it lightly. His work is not something you read and then set on the bookshelf to gather dust. He requires frequent revisiting, and he drives me time and time again to confession.

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