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The memory of James Hal Cone
7 May 2018

The Memory of James Hal Cone:  The Father of Black Theology of Liberation, Charles Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union

Vuyani Vellem, Ph.D

4 May 2018,  Lekgotla of the Faculty of Theology and Religion of The University of Pretoria  

The task entrusted me by the Lekgotla of the Faculty of Theology to say something, for about ‘five’ minutes, in memory of James Cone, shall be forever cherished and deeply cathartic, even though it is by no means an easy one. 

Yesterday, one of the groups, as we battled with our SWOT analysis, chose a tree as a metaphor to present the diagnosis of our current state of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria.  Incidentally, James Cone’s first book titled Black Theology and Black Power, followed by some, such as God of the Oppressed, climaxed if not matured into his very last, equally appropriating the metaphor of a tree: The Cross and the Lynching Tree. What a coincidence!  The metaphor of a tree for our diagnostic procedures and processes of the state of theology of our Faculty coexists with the fall of this Baobab Tree, the pioneer of A Black Theology of Liberation[1], who occupied the prestigious and Distinguished Chair of Charles Augustus Briggs Professorship in Systematic Theology at Union in the USA, which he joined as the first black theologian in 1969 and found himself standing as a ‘midget’ tree side by side with the towering Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the world renowned theologians of the Cross, the USA arguably ever produced. As one African saying goes, when there is a big tree, small ones climb on its back to reach the sun!  

In what was originally and arguably remains a white dominated theological institution, Cone, akin to the island of Cuba standing face to face with the American imperial power for half a century at least, reached the sun!  For about fifty years, a prolific writer, passionate exponent of black faith, child of the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church, teacher and producer of theological giants today, his sun rays continued to radiate and also reached our shores. Cone visited South Africa in the late 1960s, around 1969 if my memory serves me well, and his ‘children’ one could argue, include Steve Biko, Itumeleng Mosala, Allan Boesak, Takatso Mofokeng, Jean Marc Ela, Gideon Khabela, and many others, especially in the global South.  His visit coincided with the rise of Black Consciousness and the very first phase of the development of Black Theology of Liberation in South Africa, with which he continued to converse until his demise.

The word “liberation”, is Cone’s own original coinage and proposition to the lexicon of Christian salvation, with a unique theological grammar. A student of Karl Barth, Cone in his own words turned Barth’s theology “inside out” as he struggled to find resonance between Barth’s approach of theology and the ghetto, the lived experiences of blacks in the USA and surely across the Atlantic and everywhere in the world.  His became a mixture of the Blues, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr, to plumb a frame of what he termed “black religion,” ostensibly, the use of faith to religiously resist white superiority, oppression and tyranny in conditions of utter degradation and powerlessness.  From the blues, in his The Cross and Lynching Tree Cone reminisces: “The sun’s gonna shine on my back door someday,”[2] to capture hope expressed in zones of non-being: the ghettos, the zinc forest in our land, mekhukhu and the ships that sail with migrants across the Mediterranean Sea to mention but a few. Cone’s theology valorises experience against the modernist myth of objectivity and self-centric universality still pervasive in theological imaginaries to this day. The lyrics and voices of behind the sounds of the Blues, perhaps we could add, Amadodana or Umanyano, Amazayoni in South Africa, Kwaito and Gqom genre today, according to Cone’s legacy, remind the whole world that “not the mules but human beings are singing”[3] in our liturgies, streets, churches, society  and various ecclesial structures.  Black religion as Cone taught us, is a rupture from the white power structure and the cross the power of God and black life liberated for the liberation of all humanity and the whole of creation. In his own words, he wrote, spoke, taught and waged the struggle for the black, women degraded by patriarchal bigotry and violence, the LGBTIQ communities, the differently abled people, the uprooted in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, minjung in Korea and the Dalit in India, yes, the marginalized and victims of the colonial matrix of power in our world today.

A family is like a forest. If you are outside, it is dense, if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position, so goes yet one Nigerian proverb. 

Cone has passed on, he taught that we should know that crucifixion precedes resurrection. In this his last major work, The Cross and Lynching Tree, he writes about the terrible beauty of the Cross and the tragedy of the lynching tree and is at pains to reflect on the failure of white Christianity and thus the white power structure of knowledge to make a connection between the cross and the lynching tree. For us today, our memory should be best understood as insurrectionist, a dense forest against those who chose to remain outside the forest and thus their perpetual inability to see that in the forest of knowledge and life each tree must have its own position.  Black Theology of Liberation has its own position, the valorisation of the experiences of the crucified and lynched millions in our Faculty, our land and the globe.  Ours is an insurrection against all those who vow that they will never see that each tree has its own position.

May His Soul Rest In Peace and His Memory Radiate to Reach the Sun 




[1] The title of the book by James Cone, but also my preferred designation of the school, BTL.

[2] James Cone, The Cross and The Lynching Tree ( Maryknoll,Orbis: 2011), 14.

[3] James Cone, The Cross, 14.

- Author Vuyani Vellem
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