God of the Oppressed: Remembering Dr. James Cone
Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
Sunday, May 13, 2018 – The 7th Sunday of Easter – Ascension Sunday
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
[Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany,
and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
While he was blessing them,
he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven…
Apart from of course being Mother’s Day, this morning, is the seventh and final Sunday in the season of Easter—next Sunday, we move from the celebration of Easter—and it’s always worth pondering the invitation to celebrate Easter as a season of 50 days that begins with Easter Sunday—and ends as we move into the season of Pentecost.
As we make this transition, we note one of the oft-overlooked, and to modernist perspectives, one of the more curious Liturgical celebrations, the Feast of the Ascension, which falls 10 days before Pentecost Sunday, always on the Thursday before the final Sunday of Easter, and so it has become the practice in many Traditions that do not hold mid-week services to mark this on the Sunday after, as we do today—or in many cases, it is the practice to avoid it all together—and I get where this inclination comes from.
In the narrative, both in the book of Luke from which we read this morning, and the book of Acts, the other place we find this moment portrayed, Jesus is with his disciples, in a moment of blessing and commissioning, and he is carried away “up” into heaven.
From a modern perspective, and it is worth remembering that Protestant, Reformed tradition of which the United Church of Canada, and the denominations which formed it, all came out of the formation of modernism in which rationality plays such a central role, so the pre-modern idea of Earth below, and heaven above, a land past the clouds, clashes.
Liberal perspectives on Christianity, in which the hierarchy of spirit being above the flesh, the physical, the earthly—naming all these not as barrier to the divine, but as the very stuff through which we encounter God—from this perspective, Jesus, going up, seemingly back into heaven, is a sometimes confounding paradox, and difficult place for his narrative to end.
Many theologies or understandings of Jesus that reduce his significance, and the significance of his radical ministry to signs that he is to be considered the passive object of worship in one religion that holds itself up as superior to others, simply appropriate the ascension as the capstone of that—whatever Jesus’ earthly ministry was all about, he is now back in heaven where he can rightfully be worshipped, disconnected from the issues of this plane of existence.
This is a paradox we will explore through discussion around bread and soup this evening at Open Table—and I think that this is a paradox that Protestant Traditions, particular in the West struggle with, particularly along liberal/conservative spectrums—how do we understand a relation to Jesus, example from long ago, on-going presence, passive object of worship?
I think one of the most compelling responses to this conundrum is Liberation Theology, or Theology of the Oppressed, and while much of this emerges from Latin America as revolutionary social thought comes into conversation with Catholic Theology, one of the first people who started to publish this sort of work was the Rev. Dr. James Cone who is widely considered to be the father or founder of Black Theology of Liberation in North America.
Dr. Cone, who had been a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City for over 50 years, died 2 weeks ago yesterday at the age of 79 years old, and in the short time since then many have been remembering his outstanding contribution to theology, to Christianity and to social movements in North America. I encountered his work as part of my study at St. Andrew’s College, and wanted to share some things about him today, both because of his importance and his recent passing, his impact on my own thinking, but also because I think that his work offers such an important perspective on the question that Ascension Sunday raises.
Originally from Arkansas where he encountered the pain and the turmoil of segregation, the fear within his own body of violence and lynching, yet also the deep support and pride of the black church, Cone moved to the North for Seminary in the late 50s where he found himself deeply disappointed to discover that the belief that racism was isolated to the South of the US was indeed a myth, and while less overtly violent, was just as prevalent, even if often hidden.
Conducting his graduate work in the 60s he often struggled with his own path, studying and writing while civil rights activists marched in the streets. It wasn’t that he was involved, far from it, but he felt that while folks like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (both deep influences on his work) were doing their thing, that he had a contribution to make that as of yet no one else had taken on—offering to young black theologians and ministers studying in seminary, an articulation of theology that addressed for them all, the challenges they faced, that affirmed their blackness, and offered fuel to their struggle for justice.
He like many in his time, studied the work of European Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann who both sought to ponder how one writes theology in the shadow of the second World War and Auschwitz, and it was their insistence, as that of Paul Tillich (who while born in Germany did most of his publishing in the US), that theology not only could, but must speak to real historical concerns of the day, that convinced Cone that he must create (or birth if you will) a theology of Black Liberation.
He wrote his first book, Black Power and Black Theology, sequestered in the church pastored by his brother in Detroit, in a matter of weeks, fuelled by his grief and anger over the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
For Cone, within Christianity, a theology, that is, an understanding of God, must begin with one’s understanding of Jesus, and for Cone, in 1968, Jesus must be understood as black—which was an assertion that was uncomfortable for many in his time, so I want to explain what he meant by this.
He wasn’t the only one stating this. There were ideas within Christianity in this moment, that Jesus’ ethnicity could be traced, using Biblical sources to a genetic line that was literally African Jews living in Palestine as part of the Israelite community, and therefore black in terms of skin tone and ethnicity.
There were also ideas within Christianity that Jesus was best understood in universal symbolic terms, and that whatever conditions one found oneself living in, that was how Jesus should be understood—in Latin America, Jesus is Latino, in Asia, Asian, and so on.
Cone rejected these two poles, and instead offered this. That when one starts with the New Testament witness to Jesus, the Gospels, one finds him at his core to be a liberator—that his teaching and ministry, is fundamentally about bringing freedom. In this way, Jesus can be seen as an incarnation of God’s ministry of liberation that is the overarching theme of the Bible, particularly embodied in the Exodus story, in bringing the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into freedom. Furthermore, Cone insists, that Jesus brings freedom from within the oppressed community, born in poverty, born under Roman military occupation, living a life of the peasant class, never part of the powerful community of his day, and then experiencing betrayal, arrest, torture, and a particularly violent death through crucifixion.
Therefore at his core, at his essence, Jesus is a liberator, and Jesus is himself an embodiment of the oppressed, and so Cone argued, that in any moment in history, Jesus is identified with whomever is in the most desperate need of freedom, living in the most desperate moment of oppression—and so in the summer of 1968, Cone could declare, in the United States of America, that Jesus must be understood as black.
Now Cone meant this both as an affirmation of the Black Church and broader community that they might see in their struggle the God’s own story, and his also meant this a challenge to mainstream churches, denomination, and theologies, which in an age of segregation, meant white.
And while his work was highly critical of churches and theologies that did not work towards liberation, there was an invitation, because Jesus’ blackness as Cone would describe was not about ethnicity – “Being black in America” he wrote “…isn’t only about skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”
So therefore, by joining the struggle for liberation, setting aside comfort, safety, respectability, but putting one’s own body and reputation on the line, and joining in solidarity, refusing to conform to legal or social systems that segregate and oppress, that mainstream theologies, churches and Christians would in so doing be joining Jesus in his blackness. Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers movement was such an example of this!
Now if Jesus lived conditions, and the particularities of his death, brought him into identification with black struggles against racism, violence and oppression, then Jesus’ resurrection, is not about the superiority of one religious figure, but about God’s vindication on behalf of the cause of the oppressed—that the fundamental truth is not what one can do to your body, Cone would preach, but just as God refuses to allow Jesus to remain victim of torture and execution, but lifts him up, so to, this risen and ascended Jesus, can be for those Cone preached to, victimized by policies of segregation, violence to their bodies, the empowering presence that evidences that it is the de-humanity of the oppressor, not the oppressed that allows such to continue.
Now Cone never held out heaven as a consolation for suffering on earth, never bought the myth of redemptive suffering, but held that because Jesus is risen, then the oppressed might ever seek in him the strength to struggle against their particular circumstances of oppression, and that if the oppressor would truly confront Jesus, they would be confronted by those they oppressed.
In 1968, Cone declared loudly, as a challenge to the mainstream of Christianity in America, that Jesus was black. In 2013, he still held to that, adding that “God is black. God is red. God is muslim. God is gay.” And that no matter one’s ethnicity or economics, one will find oneself in solidarity with God when one finds oneself sharing the struggle and pain of the particular ones who suffer in one’s own time.
As a teacher at Union Theological Seminary, Cone’s work at finding God in the particularity of suffering of particular peoples, opened up new possibilities for theologies of liberation.
The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, a student of Cone’s said this after his passing: Dr. Cone always said that he didn’t want disciples. He didn’t want students who would come and simply imitate his work and simply carry on the paradigms that he created. He urged us always to find our own voice. And he wanted us to bring our own perspectives, not simply to our understanding of God, but to our understanding of the complexity of injustice, so that we could understand more the meaning of God’s justice and the work that we had to do.
For Douglas, a queer black woman, writing theology in the 1970s, there weren’t a lot of places she could study, write and publish, but Cone opened up for her the space to pick up from his work and move on to birth womanist theology—speaking from and to the experiences of women of colour.
Cone’s theology lives on in his books, but also in the work of his students. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor to former President Barak Obama is one example of those who studied under James Cone. Jennifer Harvey, who will be speaking at St. Andrew’s College June conference in just over a month in Saskatoon is another.
We find James Cone’s legacy in the work of the Regina Anti-Poverty Network, in Wascana Presbyteries work on justice for the elderly, and this past Wednesday afternoon, I heard James Cone’s theology in the presentation from Wendy Lerat of First Nations University as I joined a conversation convened by Archbishop Don Bolen of church leaders listening to Indigenous Voices to build Ecumenical solidarity across denominations. Cone’s work reminds us to listen deeply to one another, especially to our hurts and pain—the political and the personal.
And so as we celebrate the Ascension, Jesus being lifted up, we celebrate those who voices call us to lift up our eyes, and view things from a new vantage point, where we might embrace our own experiences and access therein the empathy to open to others.
And as we sing our Offering Hymn, Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth, we celebrate how Jesus (as Julian of Norwich one wrote) mothers us into peace/shalom wholeness that is not complete until it is shared by all beings—for herein lies the beauty of Ascension Sunday and Mother’s Day arriving on the same calendar date—for Ascension invites us not to flee this world, but to be born into a new way of living in relationship.
We give thanks for the work of James Cone and all those for whom he opened the way.
We give thanks for those who like Jesus blessing his disciples, mother us into these new ways of viewing and inhabiting our world.
For in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.