After James Cone: Into Troubled Water

May 8th, 2018

James Cone and I were born about 350 miles and 13 years apart. Fordyce, Arkansas, and Oklahoma City stand near the same imaginary latitude line, in the same American South, the same side of the Mississippi River. As children we both saw drinking fountains marked “colored.” We both witnessed respectable white people freely and habitually dismiss black people as “niggers,” freely and habitually dismiss them in every way a body of people can be dismissed. Among those respectable white people, however, were my white working-class parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. My gentle, kind, and generous Depression Era rural-Oklahoma father and urban-Oklahoma mother slowly, but never quite successfully, learned their last decades to moderate and disguise their racism. If asked, they would have roundly denied being racists. I wonder if I am similarly self-deceived; blood stains deeply, after all.

I don’t remember a single text by a black author among my graduate school assignments, either at the self-consciously evangelical institutions from which I was awarded M.A. and M.Div. degrees, nor at the self-consciously progressive institution from which I was awarded the Ph.D. degree. When I did finally read and even more intently reread James Cone (in an era, by the way, of white regroupment), I remembered the Black Power audacity that had made an impact on me when I was in my late teens. As a devout Christian pacifist, I was supposed to oppose the steely-eyed defiance of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, but I hadn’t. Certainly, I wanted peace and I did not think violence would yield it, but the arming and self-defense of oppressed people in America seemed infinitely nearer the righteousness of the gospel than the institutionalized, status quo white terrorism I’d grown up with. It simply seemed obvious that the only way to address the fetal racist syndrome that crippled America was to take power out of the hands of white people and put it in the hands of black people. Of course, America recoiled from the idea.

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and later James Baldwin were the prophetic voices of our time that rang most loudly in James Cone’s ears. They focused and intensified what he had learned of Jesus from his mother and father and the good people at Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed [Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1997], 98). They brought the gospel home. They made it particular. I didn’t first learn of the theological importance of “particularity” from Cone, but I learned from him that in America theological particularity is black—and it is black, because the one who hangs dead, suspended from a crucifixion tree by Roman spikes or a lynching tree by an Arkansan or Oklahoman rope, is black. It is from Cone perhaps more than from anyone else that I learned that the way of Jesus leads straight to the people at the impact point of the boot heel of the white supremacist powers of this world. Jesus, that is, moves into such intimate solidarity with the outcasts of the world that he not only befriends them, he comes to be them. Jesus has so opened his body to the despised and rejected and they have so rushed into him, that the old borders that marked him off from them come undone. The Reign of God is coming and it is coming very particularly for them.

The question, though, I suppose, is why any of that would matter to me, 100% pale European that DNA tests and the mirror tell me I am. If Jesus is black, doesn’t that leave me on the outside? Yes, it does. The Reign of God is coming and where it is coming... is over there. If it weren’t over there, there’d be nowhere to follow Jesus to. And where is over there?

Jesus called to the people crowding in on him, “and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Jesus calls to the crowd—to us—beckoningly, to join him. And who is he? He is the one who abandons his race, class, and gender, who abandons himself, in order to join those he is not, to love them in such a way that he himself is this “neighbor.” “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’” Mark 8:34–38). “Love your neighbor as yourself!” (Mark 12:33).

So, the question for me, regardless of where census takers would pin me down, is where I am to go, if I am to follow Jesus?

“The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people—the losers and the down and out. It was this faith that gave blacks the strength and courage to hope, “to keep on keeping on,” struggling against the odds, with what Paul Tillich called ‘the courage to be’” (James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree [Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2012], 160).

As I sit here feeling the empty place James Cone’s death leaves, I also feel the possibility that his lifetime incarnates and holds out to those he leaves behind: black people; red people; brown people; least of all, like children born out of due time, recovering white people, like me. It’s saying too little, but it is nonetheless to be said: Thank you, Jim, for the righteous anger you never let grow cold; thank you, Jim, that no matter how chilly and cold the Jordan was, you always waded in; thank you, Jim, for waving to us still to follow you:

Wade in the Water,

Wade in the Water Children

Wade in the Water,

God's Gonna Trouble the Water

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