This past week, I saw a television piece on the new Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, an exhibit that lays bare the American experience of lynching. I watched a visitor walk beneath dozens of heavy, steel columns, suspended from the ceiling, one pillar for each county where lynchings took place. I could not imagine walking under all that weight, and then I remembered that we all do. And I said a prayer of thanks for James Hal Cone.
Dr. Cone, the father of black liberation theology, the author of a dozen books, scores of articles and uncounted brilliant lectures, was my systematics professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He died yesterday. He was 79. I got a group e-mail from the seminary president. I read one of the first of his obituaries. The remembrances of his life and work will pour out in the coming days. I have a few of my own. Here’s just one.
I went back to seminary when I was 35 years old, married and a mother of two small sons. My husband and I left good jobs, sold our house and moved from Oregon to the East Coast, so I could study theology. My selfishness and his generosity still stun me. Anyway, by the time I arrived at Union, Cone had been there for 20 years. He was already famous. His students argued over which of his books was the best so far. His systematics class was my first seminary course. I remember listening to him speak for 90 minutes, so spellbound I forgot to take notes. That night, I gathered a half-dozen books and headed to the library to begin my theological studies.
The reading room in Union’s library is one of my favorite places on earth. At a polished oak table, lit by small red-shaded lamps, I laid out the books before me, opened the first one and began to read. I didn’t make it through the first paragraph without shaking my head and starting it again. And then again. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that the words on the page made no sense to me at all. I read them, but I didn’t understand them. Try as I might, I couldn’t wrap my head around even one paragraph. I dissolved into tears, gathered my barely used books and headed home, deeply ashamed and frightened of the changes I’d urged on my family.
Early the next morning, I climbed the stairs to Cone’s office in one of Union’s towers and asked to see him. I sat across from his desk. I took a deep breath, stared at my folded hands and explained that I had made a mistake. With only a romantic idea of studying theology, I’d left a job that I was good at, convinced my husband to do the same and moved my family to New York. I’d spent last night trying to read Cone’s first assignment, and I’d failed. There was no way I could finish the course and be able, at the end of the term, to write an original theological statement. And, besides, I said, I am Catholic, and I think you need a license to do theology.
That last part made Cone chuckle. “Theology,” he said, repeating a line from his first lecture, “is talk about God. If you have experience of God, you can talk about it. You already are a theologian.”
And then Cone told me about his mother, how she had returned to school when her youngest child began first grade. Through the years, she sometimes sat in the same classroom with one of her children, he said. She persisted, and so could I. He handed me a worn copy of a theological dictionary and sent me back to the library.
I passed his class “with distinction” that term. I took as many more as I could fit into my schedule. Cone was critical, challenging and compelling. He had this ability to speak with anger, bitterness, outrage, sorrow and passion that did not drive me away but pulled me closer in an effort to understand what he was saying. He convicted me over and over without pulling any punches but also with a sad sort of gentleness because he suspected that what he was saying would be painful for some of us to hear. I will never forget his lecture on the racism buried in the language we used every day and the idea that, as a Christian, I had an obligation to listen to those who were oppressed without interrupting them, without overpowering their voices with excuses of my own.
The last book I read by Cone was The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It is remarkable: painful, disturbing and hopeful, especially now, as the lynching memorial opens in Montgomery and Cone goes home to God. Here's a Bill Moyers' interview with Cone about the book. And here's something Cone wrote about his project:
"Jesus was the ‘first lynchee,’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on the American soil. He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States. God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and claimed their suffering as God’s own. God transformed lynched black bodies into the re-crucified body of Christ. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.”
And we all walk under that weight.