This morning I watched a live stream of the funeral of James H. Cone from Riverside Church in Manhattan. (Here is a link.) It was a remarkable service: a deeply personal testimony from Kelly Brown Douglas, who remembered her first encounter with Cone -- she read one of his books twice in a weekend -- studied with him at Union and teaches there now. Fiery words by Cornel West. Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith captured the pitch, tone and cadence of Cone’s distinctive voice as she shared her interview with him from her play “Let Me Down Easy.” Bill and Judith Moyers read from Scripture.
Between speakers, the camera looked out over the pews. From that perspective, the casket that held Cone’s body looked so small. So much smaller than his impact on those of us who studied with him, or studied with those who studied with him, or even read a piece of his work, most of it so unflinchingly fierce it is hard to forget.
I shared a personal story about him last week, but I have been thinking since then about the last time I saw him. My husband and I visited Union, maybe seven years ago. We sat in on one of Cone’s classes. His subject was feminist and womanist theologies, and at one point he talked about Beverly Harrison, another of my teachers at Union who challenged and changed my mind. He said Harrison wrote about, and he quoted her on, “the power of anger in the work of love.” I remember thinking at the time that her phrase was a good fit for James Cone.
Here are some thought-provoking pieces written about Cone in the last few days:
From an opinion piece in The Washington Post: One of America’s most influential religious figures has died. He deserves more notice.
“In a nation where putative Christians supplicate before the modern version of a pagan emperor, a nation where liberals too often shy away from religion’s moral language, Cone’s vision is more necessary than ever.”
From Sojourners Magazine: Why James Cone was the most important theologian of his time
“Cone laid out both the challenge and promise of the true repentance that white people need to make before they themselves can be liberated from America’s original sin and discover true Christianity.”
And from The Christian Century: James Cone's theology is easy to like and hard to live
“There can be no reconciliation with God unless the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and justice is given to the poor. The justified person is at once the sanctified person, one who knows that his or her freedom is inseparable from the liberation of the weak and the helpless.”
It seems so odd to wish that Cone, so often angry in the work of love, would rest in peace now. Maybe he will, but the rest of us should not.