With James Cone’s Death Comes the Death of Black Theology

Image from the cover of James Cone's "The Cross and the Lynching Tree" (Orbis Books, 2011)

With James Cone’s death, comes the death of Black theology.

This statement is hyperbolic in that a variety of theologians—some trained by Cone and others not—will continue to write theological texts and teach black theology, and will do so in light of the tremendous wealth of scholarship Cone offered. In this way, the material production dependent on the vocabulary, grammar, and ethical orientation of Cone’s work will persist. And, this is as it should and must be.

However, with the loss of Cone a certain way of thinking and doing black theology—a certain posture toward the work—might have come to an end. This statement has several meanings. First, theology reflecting a mode of (de)construction—first and foremost in conversation with a so-called “dominant” tradition marked out intellectually by figures such as Karl Barth—is no longer the bedrock of black theology’s explicit critique.  Perhaps this is as it should be—a component of the decentering of whiteness in its variety of forms.

Still, Cone wrestled with Barth and his contemporaries and reworked Christian theology in light of his response to their allegiance to a death-dealing whiteness. By so doing, Cone refused the ability of white supremacy to claim the “tradition” of theological discourse as its own. He exposed and challenged the assumption that theological discourse had no identity politics, no commitment to the black nature of life. He signified status quo-supporting theological strategies by turning theology on its social-ethical head: blackness is not the questionable margin of religion and its theological voice, but rather blackness is the only legitimate starting point for religious engagement and theological pronouncement.

At this time, it is just as likely African American liberation-minded theologians are in conversation with postcolonial, postmodern, cultural studies, etc., theorists and maintain only the shadow (perhaps the form) of systematic theology. There is nothing wrong intellectually with this approach—particularly to the extent it has opened theological inquiry to a wider range of social issues, resources, and progressive frameworks and strategies. It has offered theologians opportunity to be involved in conversations extending beyond their particular home departments, beyond churches, and into larger intellectual discourses and modes of community.

That is to say, it expanded black theology’s vocabulary and grammar thereby allowing it to enhance its language and speak with/to a new range of conversation partners. Such an intellectual move is what Cone (and others of his generation) made possible, but it is not exactly what Cone did—although he certainly expanded the doing of theology, using the structures of blackness (e.g., literature and music) as both resource and method.

Next, the work currently done in various forms of black theology and womanist theology is due to the level of academic comfort made possible through the intellectual-professional struggles of figures such as Cone, Katie Cannon, Charles Long, Jacquelyn Grant, Peter Paris, J. Deotis Roberts, and so on. While disregard of difference still has a stronghold in the Academy, it’s now much more common to find courses on black theology (and scholarship related to black theology) in curricular offerings (and the stuff of positive tenure and promotion decisions).

This is not to let academic departments, administrators, and so on, off the hook. Intellectual and physical diversity are still embarrassingly inadequate. Still misunderstood by too many and “ghettoized” too often, black theology and the modalities of theological discourse stemming from it, is a somewhat established dimension of professional theology and theological education.

There are challenges associated with this “advancement”; to paraphrase Jay Z: the more recognition, the more problems.

In the mood

During our periodic breakfast meetings, he’d remind me that he sensed a distance from the people, the misery and pain of the people that once motivated black theological discourse. Cone would often tell me that passion was missing from more recent work. We are comfortable, he’d say, and in our comfort we have lost some of our righteous anger and perspective.

I sensed Cone found the work of more recent generations too measured, too balanced in light of the fact that “black people are dying!” as he would remind me—putting down his coffee, raising his voice a bit, and thumping the table at Community Food & Juice. People looked our way, trying not to be noticed looking, but what did we care? He was speaking a truth, and I was learning from one of the greatest theological minds of the twentieth century. His critique couldn’t be dismissed, and I couldn’t explain it away; instead, I’ve tried to understand and reflect on it.

While the socio-political, economic, and cultural climate motivating the work has shifted—the fundamental and death-dealing disregard for black life has remained unaltered. Still, he seemed to perceive, we were a little too comfortable. Perhaps until Black Lives Matter and the election of Donald Trump pointed it out we’d lost sight of just how deeply violent white supremacy remained. Despite what we should have known, we assumed that something about the logic of life in the United States had changed, and that the experiment in Democracy showed signs of advancement. Surely this doesn’t capture the nature of every book, every article, every lecture, every sermon given within the context of black theology—yet Cone noticed something. That is to say, Cone’s sense of the shifting ‘mood’ of black theology was prophetic.

His sensitivity to the general ‘mood’ that should shape a theological engagement keenly attuned to the world, allowed openness to critique and exchange. What’s more, this productive embrace of critique/exchange is a defining dimension of the methodological underpinning and self-understanding of black theology as he originated it.

More than conversation on the scope of theological inquiry, what I think we have lost with the death of Dr. James Cone is a key model of rigorous engagement—a wrestling over ideas that didn’t truncate itself into personal animus and hurt feelings. He wasn’t offended by disagreement and didn’t demand intellectual allegiance but instead urged debate, energetic exchange—and thereby improvement and refinement of the work. His honest and straightforward engagement with Gayraud Wilmore, William Jones, his brother Cecil Cone, and more recently his students, for example, points to rigorous exchange spawning intellectual growth. Hence, to our great benefit, his work evolved over the years because he was open to disagreement.

Cone, as both his written work and our conversations suggest to me, concerned himself with sustained and impassioned engagement with both supporters and critics because that was the only way to refine thinking; to keep black theology responsive to the world as it is. To make a difference, black theology then and now requires intellectual and cultural nimbleness offered only through rigorous exchange. Otherwise, it can easily become a reified corpus safeguarded through strong walls of resistance to counterpoint—which is a type of intellectual xenophobia.

Maintaining Cone’s legacy entails continued recognition of, and response to, his written corpus, of course. But that is only part of our task. It isn’t simply the content of his work that matters; it’s also his posture toward the work—the persistence of a particular ‘mood,’ and openness to exchange that bears mimicking. We might continue to write and lecture. Yet without that particular ‘mood’ encouraging and informing rigorous and energetic exchange keeping our theological efforts flexible and informed … black theology is dead.