Last June I had the amazing honor of being at the Christian Scholars Conference in Nashville, Tennessee and sitting at the feet of the humble giant, Dr. James Cone, while he talked about the liberating force of Christianity. He was magnificent in spite of my sense of his frailness and a nagging cough that plagued him throughout the conference. Those things were not enough to dull the clear headed manner in which he presented his paper and participated as a respondent to others who were speaking about his work during the sessions.
For over fifty years he brought a clear critique of the culture that has done so much to sully the name of Jesus and the faith that we named after him. Earlier in his life he spoke in passionate defense of the religion that was often characterized as the “white man's religion” by many African Americans who had grown weary of it and sought to find meaning to life's large questions elsewhere. But he argued that, "Christianity was not the white man's religion," he said, “It is a religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free. But I realize that for black people to be free, they must first love blackness.”
He loved blackness and he loved Jesus and understood that the message brought by that itinerant preacher/carpenter who was hung on a tree was a message of freedom and liberation. While many called it radical, he called it true and authentic. He did not allow himself to be pulled into the mire of politics. He stuck to the spiritual domain and never wavered from his basic premise of the gospel as the source of liberation and God's uncompromising love for black people.
I read him when I was too young to totally absorb the power of the message, but I find myself at this moment realizing how much he impacted my life. Though there were times when his words were not totally taken in as I read them, my soul bore witness to the truth of them and it helped them to become a part of the spiritual foundation of my life. The power of his words continue to linger in my heart as I think about the ways in which he helped me to clarify my strong commitment to helping name those among us who were lynched. They helped to create a fierce fearlessness in me about the faith and a clearer understanding that following Jesus was about making a choice to live on the margins of the culture while loving myself as a woman in a black body midst cultural denigration.
This is true because the culture knows not who Jesus is. Unfortunately too many folks know not who James Cone is and our society and especially our churches are diminished by this lack of knowledge. Neither Jesus nor Cone is radical, they are spirits that stand counter to the culture which has more allegiance to power, money and violence than to love and serving others in merciful ways.
But, Dr. Cone stood his ground. His message was clear, consistent and his voice was strong. I can only wonder about what the next step in his journey must be like. It must have been a “ great gettin' up morning” on Saturday when he left this earth to go on his journey to the next frontier. He left a void that will not be filled. All of us who were challenged, raised, comforted, encouraged, supported, taught and loved by him must put forth every effort to honor him by being “a half shade braver.”
Let us not try to substitute the ways of the culture for the ways of Jesus. Let us understand that we are pilgrims in an alien land and that we need to be careful about how we eat of its fruit and drink of its wine. Let us proclaim our truth as powerfully as our warrior brother. Carry on James Cone.
Dr. Catherine Meeks
Executive Director, Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing