January 20, 2019
Said I Wasn’t Going to Tell Nobody
Born in 1938, James Hal Cone grew up in Beardon, Arkansas where he learned to be, in his own words, a grinning negro, to wear a mask whenever he went into town--careful always not to show my real self for fear of offending white people. When I was around whites, I was mostly silent, spoke only when spoken to, and showed the deference expected of me, head down never looking any white person in the eyes for only “uppity niggers,” would be so bold. End quote. Cone was nurtured in his home African Methodist Episcopal church where he learned to love and not to hate.
James Cone writes that he did not meet a white person who acknowledged his humanity until he met James and Alice Boyack married professors of Religion and Philosophy at Philander Smith College. They taught him a deeper love for the intellectual life. After college Cone went to Garret Seminary and then to Northwestern University for an MA and PHD. He taught at two colleges and became professor of Theology at my seminary, Union Theological Seminary in 1969. When I met him in 1981, he was world-renowned and occupied the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology. Professor Cone and his colleagues at Union changed my worldview, charged my faith and confirmed my call to ministry. It is my privilege to be able to speak about him and his theology today.
In his first thirty years of life, Professor Cone was constantly assailed by bias, thinly disguised paternalism, countless micro-aggressions and outright blatant racism. He did not hate, but he was angry, and then came the riots and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cone poured his anger, his intellect and his faith into two blockbuster books that shook the American and the worldwide church. The first in 1969 was called Black Theology and Black Power and the second, in 1970, was entitled A Black Theology of Liberation. It is true he found the anger in the words of Malcom X a source of strength, but it was Dr. King’s preaching that inflamed him with passion for the Christian Gospel of love.
Many African Americans were abandoning the church in the 1960’s. Some were fleeing to Islam and some were fleeing to hate. They were disgusted with the church, particularly the white Church because the white church had, for hundreds of years, fueled the fires of racism, supported slavery, Jim Crow Segregation and lynchings, supported the genocide of Native Americans and remained mostly silent in the face of the Holocaust.
Cone’s books were a shocking necessary corrective for both the black Church and the white Church. The violence of slavery and its oppression, and the terrorism of Jim Crow and segregation taught both white people and black people to hate People of Color. The twin destructive legacies of self-hate and white supremacy have been mitigated, but are still powerful plagues today. Cone’s Black Liberation Theology is rooted in the experience of the Exodus, the lives and ministries of the Old Testament prophets and the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ and his lynching on the cross.
Genesis may be the first book in the Bible, but it was written after the Exodus. God reveals Godself to an enslaved people known as the Hebrews and, through Moses, God tells them I have heard your cry. By delivering this people from Egyptian bondage, and inaugurating the covenant on the basis of that historical event, God is revealed as the God of the oppressed, involved in their history, liberating them from human bondage. God hears every cry of every enslaved person. The love of God displayed in Exodus binds the Hebrews into a nation.
It didn’t take too long, however, before their own leaders began to treat the people of Israel as badly as the Pharaohs. Prophets arose, seers, religious leaders disciplined in prayer and observation, and they chided, poked and preached against the monarchs of Israel. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah are among the best known. The prophets of Israel are prophets of social justice, reminding the people [and the kings] that Yahweh is the author of justice ….God is not an abstract…. God is actively involved with history making right what human beings have made wrong. Yahweh, according to Hebrew prophecy, will not tolerate injustice against the poor, God will vindicate the poor.
Cone says that, In the New Testament, the theme of liberation is reaffirmed by Jesus himself. The conflict with… the powers of this world, the condemnation of the rich, the insistence that the kingdom of God is for the poor, and the locating of his ministry among the poor--these and other features of the career of Jesus show that his work was directed to the oppressed for the purpose of their liberation. …Human beings are liberated and thus free to rebel against all powers that threaten human life.
In his book he felt best about, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone describes Jesus as black. (He certainly was not the Swedish Jesus, I have seen hanging in pictures in church basements.) Just as the black slaves in America were whipped, Jesus was whipped. Just as thousands of Black Americans were lynched, Jesus was lynched. The lynching trees by which black men and women were hanged by nooses are the same as the cross. When whites lynched black people, they were lynching Christ. Elie Wiesel was witnessing a hanging in a Nazi Prison camp writes in his book Night. Behind me, I heard the [a] man asking: "For God's sake, where is God?" And from within me, I heard a voice answer: "Where is he? This is where--hanging here from this gallows.
Most Christians skip Good Friday. At Ark and Dove we get 70 to 90 people on Good Friday and 350-400 for Easter. As many have said, the cross isn’t much more than a pretty piece of jewelry or a church decoration. The Roman cross however was an instrument of terror. The lynching trees were an instrument of terror. The cross demonstrated the power of Rome the lynching tree demonstrated the power of white supremacy. The deeply troubling paradox, says Cone, is that the cross helped the African Americans survive Jim Crow. It kept them out of the madhouse. The slavery and the lynching trees are redemptive. God, says Cone must be with us, because we are also on the cross. It must be said that the Christian feminist critique of Cone’s focus on the cross is that for too long woman have been asked to hang in there and suffer abuse, and this also is oppression, so we must keep these views in balance.
According to Cone, the church therefore is necessarily that community which joins Jesus Christ in his fight for the liberation of humankind. And let’s be clear here: Cone is not defining liberation as a merely spiritual event. Cone says that the purpose of the church is to emancipate people from the structures, power principalities and people that oppress them. The church is the community that risks the cross to make the world right.
Cone, in his early books, is unequivocal is his condemnation of the white church. In fact Cone claims that the white church wasn’t church at all. How could a community support racism, slavery, lynching, hate and terrorism be a church? In this way he could say to his black brothers and sisters of the 60s who were thinking of leaving the church – that monstrosity over there – that white sorry excuse for faith isn’t even the church. We are the church because we are Christ Crucified. It’s a cold hard fact, he writes, that many forms of racial injustice North and South could not exist without white acquiescence. I think you can imagine what Cone thought about white conservatives and supremacists like Congressman Steve King, but Cone took some special time out of his day to attack white liberals who said they were for racial justice, but mostly were all talk. The white liberal wanted change without risk. The white liberal wants to be friends, but doesn’t want to give up any privilege.
There are many things I respected about Professor Cone: one was his deep admiration for the richness of black culture and how our nation has been enriched in the arts and sciences by people who pour their whole heart into their work ,even though they were and continue to be marginalized by racism. Cone in his memoir, Said I Wasn’t Going to Tell Nobody, the title of my sermon, remembers how much he was in awe of black artists and authors, particularly James Baldwin. This awe shaped the way he wrote and taught. By my recollection I took three courses with Cone, which adds up to about sixty, 90 minute lectures. In every single lecture, he poured his whole soul into preparation and delivery. He literally worked himself into a sweat, every class, whether he was teaching about Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich or Liberation Theology. His brilliance was astounding. He loved teaching, and he loved his students. He loved his white students, his black students, his Hispanic and international students, and he loved theology. It was the love he learned in his home church and in his meditations on the cross and the lynching tree. Anger (not hate). Anger and love together can be a powerful partnership. I was exhausted at the end of each lecture and in the days before computers, my wrist was deeply sore trying to get down all of his amazing phrases.
Secondly, Cone listened and learned, he did not enjoy criticism, often it deeply hurt him, but he admitted where he needed to grow as a Christian and a scholar. When he was young he was deaf to sexism, the plight of white women and his black sisters, and he had no clue how much the LGBTQ community suffered. As he travelled around the world, he came into awareness about many peoples in many places who were oppressed and in deep need of liberation. Eventually he said things like if you are a white woman suffering from the oppression of sexism or sexual abuse, you are black. If you are gay and exploited and or terrorized, you are black. If you are oppressed in any way, you are black. His heart poured out in love for any who suffered. He affirmed that many people in the world suffered a similar plight to African Americans.
So to conclude, we must bring the prophetic teachings of James Cone into conversation with our existence as a congregation. If we are not engaged with the liberation of people from oppression, then we are not a church. We Christians, we have this tendency to engage in the game of church, particularly we who are wealthier, lighter skinned, comfortable, fat and sassy. We debate music styles, we argue over paint colors, we judge haberdashery and haircuts, we fuss with each other over ultimately meaningless issues. Jesus has called us to deliver life abundant to a world filled with lynchings and crucifixions.
We covenant as a congregation to live the Six Marks of Discipleship. We covenant to pray daily, to read scripture daily, to worship regularly, to further our Christian education and to be generous stewards. We engage in these first five marks, we love and teach our children love, we support one another so that we are made whole, made full, made ready and able to engage the world with acts of mission, mercy and justice. Ark & Dove is a community of disciples who embody the life & spirit of Jesus Christ so that lives are transformed and God's dream is carried into the world. The sixth mark of discipleship is Acts of Mission, Mercy and Justice. That is how we liberate the world from its many forms of oppression. To engage in the sixth mark of discipleship is to risk. Yes we have people right in this congregation that need liberation and have tens of thousands of fellow citizens right in our won county who need freedom from oppression. That is why we are engaged in ACT (Anne Arundel Connecting Together). We work to support the homeless and international refugees who flee murder. I am glad to be a part of congregation that is faithful enough to honestly wrestle with complex and heartbreaking issues.
James Hal Cone died last year, not long after his last book was published, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, the title is from a line in a black Gospel song. I would like to close with a few lines from the conclusion of Cone’s book. There is no future for America without black people. The identity of black people and America are inextricably bound…. A British interviewer once asked James Baldwin, When you started out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, homosexual, you must have said to yourself, ‘Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?’ No, I thought I hit the jackpot! Baldwin replied with his radiant smile, his audience bursting into laughter, as he embraced the moment to identify with human diversity, especially the marginalized part many people reject.
America has hit the Jackpot and doesn’t even know it. But we, like James Baldwin, need to embrace our diversity with joy, knowing that we are stronger and better as a nation when we embrace the weak—the least in our midst. That’s what makes me proud to be an American—an African American. What a blessing!