One thing I can say about Union Theological Seminary is that it’s never boring. There are always speakers, special chapel services, rallies, and events, amplified these days by Occupy Wall Street and the Protest Chaplains group that sprung out of our student body. There are always tests and papers and books to read. People are eager, active, engaged. And you even catch occasional glimpses of people who are famous, whether they’re here filming a TV show (like Law & Order or Pan-Am), scouting locations for information (like Daniel Radcliffe did) or here to speak/attend a special event (such as Cornel West, whom I spotted speaking to the president of the seminary on Wednesday).
But every now and then, you witness something and know you really saw something special.
Tuesday morning at 10am, Dr. James Cone walked into the classroom with a huge pile of books, which he carefully arranged on the table behind him. He began his lecture on black liberation theology. Now for the uninitiated among my readers, Cone is considered the father of black liberation theology, which sees Jesus not just as redeemer but as liberator and comfort to the oppressed and suffering. It is a theology that is inextricably woven with socio-economic and political movements, as well as the lived culture – both sacred and secular.
Dr. Cone began telling his story – where he came from (Arkansas), how he found himself studying white European and American theologians and becoming disgruntled with their utter lack of contact with his daily life as a black man in the days of Jim Crow. He spoke of watching Malcolm and Martin speak their diametrically opposed yet somehow complimentary messages. He shared the pain of seeing his black brothers and sisters beaten and killed on the lynching tree, at riots. He told us how the 1967 riots woke him up and led him to begin writing a new theology:
It was the response of white churches and white theologians – they called black power activists all kinds of names. I decided then that like the prophets, I have to show some sign that I was not the same person. That event changed me. My first outburst was an article in Is Anybody Listening to Black America? called “Christianity and Black Power” – I was the ONLY black systematic theologian. I was determined to say SOMETHING about what the gospel is because all I had learned had NOTHING to do with it. *
We learned of his progression from his first book, Black Theology and Black Power (1969), through his responses to his critics, through working with other black theologians (notably Gayraud Wilmore) to define what the theology really is and how it expressed. He showed us, book by book, what he wrote, why he wrote it, and who also contributed to this field of black liberation theology.
He ended tenderly, with a discussion of his most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree:
This book is “my last word” – this is my heart. It brings together everything: who I am, what this journey has been. This is my favorite book. It doesn’t speak as much to a specific moment but rather is a culmination. It took some time to tell ’em what I think and what the Christian faith truly means (it took me 10 years to write).*
He said he could die happy, knowing he had finished this book.
And we all got it. We all understood that we had just heard the whole story – witnessed this man’s telling of the entire arc of his life’s work. While decades’ worth of students have heard this man teach and preach, watching him work through this amazing theology, we were the first class to see the entire story described, first hand, by the man himself.
James Cone has a passion for what he does – and a passion for his faith – that is awe-inspiring. To witness his telling of his story, to know we are learning from a man who has reshaped theological thought for the next generations, well… it was really something.
I feel blessed and honored.
* I transcribed his words during class – typing as fast as I could to capture every word. Any errors or misquoting are my own.