Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone once described himself as “the angriest theologian in America.” Known as the founder of Black Liberation Theology, award-winning author and Bill & Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, Dr. Crone died April 28 in New York City.
“In so many ways, James Cone has been Union Theological Seminary for the past 50 years,” said Union president Serene Jones. “To say his death leaves a void is a staggering understatement. His prophetic voice, deep kindness, and fierce commitment to black liberation embodied not just the very best of our seminary, but of the theological field as a whole and of American prophetic thought and action.”
Cone described his mission in the introduction to the 1997 edition of Black Theology and Black Power, originally published in 1969. “I wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses in the name of Jesus, whose gospel I believed had been greatly distorted by the preaching theology of white churches.”
“The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. Both are symbols of the death of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation, and terror. They both also reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning and demonstrate that God can transform ugliness into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.”
Cone’s most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, earned him the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, jointly awarded by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville.
“The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching,” wrote Cone. “Both are symbols of the death of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation, and terror. They both also reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning and demonstrate that God can transform ugliness into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.”
Cone completed his final book, a memoir, just a few months before his passing. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody will be published later this year. His longtime editor, Robert Ellsberg of Orbis Books, shared these words written by Cone for the conclusion of the memoir: “I write because writing is the way I fight. Teaching is the way I resist, doing what I can to subvert white supremacy.”
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