James Hal Cone: Humble Giant in the Movement for Black Liberation

James Hal Cone: Humble Giant in the Movement for Black Liberation

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By Nikia Smith Robert

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was completed prior to the death of Rev. Dr. James H. Cone on April 28, 2018.

The belief that God is Black and on the side of the oppressed, for some, is a bold claim. For Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone, however, this is a supposition that is unexceptional to his lived experiences and the genesis for his emergence as the “Father of Black Theology.”

Dr. Cone preaches in James Chapel in 1969, shortly after he joined the faculty

Growing up in rural Bearden, Ark., in a politically charged climate of anti-Black racism, segregation, and economic inequality, Cone wrestled to understand what it meant to be Black and Christian in America. In response, he drew from the faith of his mother and found refuge in the liberating gospel at Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. He accepted the call to ministry at age 16 and was a pastor until graduation. Cone pursued graduate studies at Garrett Biblical Institute (now known as Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) and earned a Ph.D. degree from Northwestern University in 1965. From humble beginnings, Cone entered graduate school with the security of his mother’s faith and inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. But he left influenced by the rhetoric of Malcolm X and questioning his faith. As he states in his book, Black Theology & Black Power (New York: Harper & Row, 1969; Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997), in looking to reconcile spiritual discernment (Martin) with political agitation (Malcolm) against the backdrop of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, “black liberation theology emerged 
out of a black people’s struggle with nonviolence (Christian) and self-defense.”

As the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, Cone embraces his personal trinity of Malcolm X, Martin Luther 
King Jr., and James Baldwin to find ways to reconcile the gospel message of liberation with the reality of Black oppression. This 
is framed by Cone’s bold belief in his book, God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1975; Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997), that “Christ is black, therefore, not because of some cultural or psychological need of black people, but because and only because Christ really enters into our world where the poor, the despised, and the black are, disclosing that he is with them, enduring their humiliation and pain and transforming oppressed slaves into liberated servants.” Cone’s contention that Jesus is ontologically Black radically challenged white supremacy by asserting Black people’s humanity as a reflection of a God of the oppressed. This central claim leads to another bold belief: Jesus’ crucifixion was a first-century lynching.


In his latest monograph, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2011), Cone explores the cross 
in relationship to the lynching of Black bodies. I recall sitting 
in Cone’s Christology seminar prior to the release of his book. We sat in class circulating Without Sanctuary, which photographically chronicled lynching in America. I remember the vivid pictures depicting the bestial torture of black bodies hanging like strange fruit from poplar trees. It visually unveiled the horrors of a lynching era between 1880 and 1940, when white Christians lynched nearly 5,000 Black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. As I thumbed through the wretched images, there was one account I could not shake from memory. In fact, it haunts me today. Feeling rage, reproach, and regret, I winced at the grim sight of the lifeless bodies of Laura Nelson and her son hanging from a bridge in Okemah, Okla., on May 25, 1911. It was a spectacle lynching. Scores of white men watched. She was fully clothed and still wearing her wedding ring. Her son’s pants were at his feet; he was likely castrated so that his genitalia would grace the mantel of a home as a trophy of white supremacy. It is believed that Nelson’s son shot a sheriff when he and others raided the Nelsons’ farm looking for a stolen cow. The family was detained and in the middle of the night, nearly 40 men dragged Nelson and her son from their jail cells. Nelson was raped before they were lynched from a railroad bridge over the North Canadian River. The following morning, a photographer arrived to ceremoniously capture this cruelty and circulated the photographs as postcards.

Cone explains that in the wake of the South losing the Civil War, lynching emerged as a way to control and invoke fear after the end of slavery, so that Black people would remain docile and disciplined to work the fields for white people who profited from their labor. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone’s critically compelling analysis is nearly as vivid as the visual depiction 
of Laura Nelson and her son. He argues that Christians cannot understand the tragedy of the cross of Jesus without seeing Black bodies hanging at the lynching tree. In this vein, to understand the cross and the lynching tree is to recognize the tragedy of crucifixion but also to appreciate the beauty of resurrection.
 This is to say, the defeat of death does not have the last word. Jesus snatches victory from defeat. And as an emblem of hope, Black people are empowered to confront and overcome injustices, including the atrocities of modern-day lynching. Thus, the cross and the lynching tree break the silence on race in America.

Cone explores today’s criminal justice system as a modern-day lynching. He contends that “Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low of society.” Locating criminals at the lynching tree and the cross has significant implications for understanding Jesus’ proximity to criminality and the warehousing of Black bodies in the U.S. prison industrial complex.
 It highlights an immoral arc of vicarious punishment that bends from antiquity to antebellum to an age of mass incarceration. While lynching has been outlawed, Cone aptly understands
 the criminal justice system as a legal manifestation of lynching in its orientation to intimidate, terrorize, and murder Black people. He writes, “Whites could kill blacks knowing that a jury of their peers would free them but would convict and execute any black who dared to challenge the white way of life. White juries, judges, and lawyers kept America ‘safe’ from the threat of the black community.” In this sense, the cross and the lynching tree were reserved for ethnic minorities—the outcast and outlier—just as prisons are disproportionately occupied by Black and brown people in the carceral state.

From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled—from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. The warehousing of Black bodies by the prison industrial complex eerily evokes echoes of lynching and crucifixion. Cone supports this symbolic relationship between the cross, lynching, and mass incarceration. He states:

“The lynching of black America is taking place in the criminal justice system where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court. Nearly one half of the more than two million people in prisons are black. That is one million black people behind bars, more than in colleges. Through private prisons and the ‘war against drugs’ whites have turned the brutality of their racial legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America.” He continues, “That is why the term ‘legal’ lynching is still relevant today. One can lynch a person without a rope or a tree.”

Mindful of past critiques of his work, such as his omission 
of the experiences of women, Cone explains how surrogacy is 
an extension of lynching. Women constituted only 2 percent of Blacks actually lynched, but violence against women was widespread. Women were sometimes substitutes for Black men who escaped white mob violence, and they endured torture, beatings, scarring, mutilation, hanging, burns, tarring and feathering, stabbing, dragging, whipping, and rape. Cone, therefore, corrects his past patriarchal propensities and speaks to the invisibility of women in lynching discourse. This inclusion connects a history of women and lynching to the punishment of Black incarcerated women in the contemporary carceral state. As in antiquity and the antebellum period, women in an age of mass incarceration often suffer harsher punishment than their male counterparts who committed even more egregious crimes. While women have in recent times been counted as the fastest growing population in prisons, they remain disproportionately criminalized for exercising moral agency to survive and secure quality of life. Punishment, therefore, has historically and is currently a heavier burden on the bodies of Black women.

Establishing the relationship among crucifixion, lynching, and carcerality is arguably the greatest contribution of The Cross and the Lynching Tree and the larger project of Black liberation theology. Although prisons are ancillary to Cone’s main argument, a tremendous value of The Cross and the LynchingTree is its ability to point beyond itself to imagine other liberating possibilities. Cone’s peripheral glimpse of the criminal justice system underscores the pressing reality that prisons are
a modern-day form of lynching that requires our full attention. Unequivocally, mass incarceration is the perennial problem of the 21st century. There can be no talk of a God of the oppressed or lynching without understanding the God of lockdown America and the hyper-criminalization of Black bodies. Without question, God’s in-breaking consisted of occupying a Black criminalized body. This proves God’s solidarity with the enslaved, lynched, and imprisoned. A brilliant thinker, Cone has constructed a theological account of the cross in connection to the lynching tree that engenders liberating paradigms for all apparatuses of punishment, including the carceral state.


Finally, it is hard to talk about Cone as a bold believer and brilliant thinker without also considering his beneficence. An admirable quality of Cone is his ability to connect head and heart. He has a stern and yet gentle way of engaging others. Cone can scold and encourage simultaneously. I am grateful to have benefitted from his pastoral care that nurtured me in the brutal spaces of academe. I appreciated that on some occasions Cone would write in the margins of my paper, “Too preachy,” to ensure I maintained persuasive rigor in my argumentation; and later he would write in the same margins, “You should consider a Ph.D.” Cone is an encourager, and his passion for interpreting the cross from the experiences of Black people inspires his students to continue the work of liberation. Cone has produced generations of academics, ministers, and activists, but his goodness makes each of us want to be better human beings. One by one, Cone has made us more conscious and committed to the struggle for freedom. He has a peculiar way of upsetting allies and bystanders while igniting courage in the naïve and offering guidance 
to the revolutionary to deeply engage and act in solidarity with those who suffer. In the spirit of Martin, Malcolm, and Baldwin, Cone is moved by love and justice through prophetic resistance and radical political protest. This ethic permeates both head and heart and infuses the very depths of his beneficent being.


Certainly, Cone is not above repudiation. Most notably, he has been challenged by feminist and womanist thinkers and other dissenting interlocutors. Cone has been scrutinized for the patriarchal orientation of Black theology that omits female voices, excludes expressions of Black and African diasporic spirituality, and problematically constructs a sadistic cross-centered Christology that is not liberating for all bodies. Still, Cone stands tall before the mirror of critique and publicly self-corrects to create space for reflection and divergent ideas to emerge. The ability to contribute constructive frameworks that advance canonical thought and remain open to critique is only made possible by a posture of humility that is at the heart of Cone’s solidarity with the least of these.

Indeed, Cone both receives critique and gives it with the same integrity. When critically engaging the scholarship of other influential thinkers in relationship to the gospel and liberation, Cone has a litmus test that is based on the inextricability of theology and experience. A theology that fails to emerge from experience to interpret culture in ways relevant for the current time and that does not offer hope through a God who acts in solidarity with the oppressed is idolatrous. For this reason, Cone departed from Karl Barth despite having written his dissertation on “The Doctrine of Man in the Anthropology of Karl Barth” (Northwestern, 1965). Similarly, Cone challenged Reinhold Niebuhr’s ability to do the- ology without engaging his social context and responding to the political climate in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century. Niebuhr, who was on faculty at Union and lived in Harlem, was silent in addressing the racial injustices that immediately surrounded him. Cone writes,

“Although Niebuhr is often called a ‘prophet,’ and he claimed that ‘all theology really begins with Amos,’ he was no prophet on race. Prophets take risks and speak out in righteous indignation against society’s treatment of the poor, even risking their lives, as we see in the martyrdom of Jesus and Martin King. Niebuhr took no risks for blacks … Niebuhr was by no means alone in his failure to express prophetic rage against racial injustice and his silence on lynching.”

Cone’s point that Niebuhr was not alone in his failure to express prophetic rage against racial injustice is a conviction that, if we are honest, also applies to the white supremacy that pervades churches and critiques any theology counter to God’s liberating message for those who are oppressed. In this regard, Cone raises a question that critiques us all: “Can one really understand the theological meaning of Jesus on a Roman cross without seeing him first through the image of blacks on the lynching tree?” This probing question holds the church and its constituents accountable. We cannot evade the risks of faith by only seeing the cross as central to the gospel message and ignore the tragedy of racial injustice that dehumanizes Black bodies and impedes freedom.


Dr. Cone celebrates his 2018 Grawemeyer Award at Union

Even with the recognition of the Grawemeyer Award, Cone remains passionately committed to the struggle for freedom. 
His boldness and brilliance and beneficence continue to push those of us who have sat in his classroom, and those who may have only read his books, to connect a history fraught by violence with the possibilities of a future fulfilled by freedom. A future in which the immoral arc of white supremacy eventually breaks, and where an all-encompassing moral arc of the universe prevails and bends toward justice. It is by way of this arc, from the cross to the lynching tree and prisons, that Cone compels us to conceptualize a society where, “Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet, we are not what we used to be and not what we will be. The cross and the lynching tree can help us to know where we have come and where we must go.”

In his own humble way, Cone teaches us that there is beauty in tragedy and that with a God of the oppressed on our side, neither lynching, incarceration, nor death has the last word. We can remember from whence we have come and look forward to where we are going—toward a future of freedom where the dream of liberation is fully realized.

Rev. Nikia Smith Robert, M.Div., ’09, is a Ph.D. student in the Religion, Ethics, and Society program at Claremont School of Theology. Robert is an ordained Itinerant Elder in African Methodism. She is a newly elected representative to the Student Caucus of the board of directors for the Society of Christian Ethics and serves on the steering committee for the American Academy of Religion’s Liberation Theologies group. Robert lives in California with her husband and three children.