In July of 2016, when all of us were watching the Democratic and Republican conventions with mild interest — many of us dismissing the Republicans and arm-chair quarterbacking the Democrats — the lectionary presented all of us preachers with a few weeks of wildly political prophetic texts, almost like the lectionary was daring us to chime in and try to articulate what our faith had to say for the political moment presenting itself.
Some of us tried our best to comment, an effort that ultimately yielded less-than-optimal results in the presidential election that year.
Do you remember?
Well, it was in one of those ill-fated preaching attempts that I quoted the Rev. Dr. James Cone in a sermon.
A powerful theological and political voice throughout his entire 50-year career, Dr. Cone almost single-handedly changed the landscape of theological discourse by resolutely insisting that the religious academy cannot do its work without addressing justice claims and privileging the oppressed. Anyone paying even passing attention to the theological landscape of that day would know that, of course.
What I did not know was that Dr. Cone would be present in worship that Sunday morning at The Riverside Church in the City of New York, and would greet me at the door after worship with his trademark self-deprecating manner and lovely, gracious spirit.
Welcome to one of my regular Saturday night nightmares.
In his incredible career Dr. Cone shook the academy and graced the world with books such as Black Theology and Black Power; A Black Theology of Liberation; God of the Oppressed; The Cross and the Lynching Tree. While he was always kind and open, he also was always unrelenting.
“To his dying day he held on to righteousness and justice. Dr. Cone never relinquished the fierceness of his uncompromising quest for justice,” says Dr. Andrea White, a colleague of Dr. Cone’s at Union Theological Seminary.
In his lovely, gentle way, he was professionally pissed off, never fully comprehending how anyone could ever imagine a God who was not an advocate for the oppressed. Always. He is famous for writing, “We must become black with God,” which was not so much a comment on phenotypes and skin color but rather an unyielding declaration of the truth that God is always, always on the side of the oppressed. After this famous line, Cone goes on to say, “To receive God’s revelation is to become black with God by joining God in the work of liberation.”
Although I never had the privilege of taking a class from Dr. Cone, I do know that a fundamental substance of his academic philosophy was this: he wanted students to come into their own theological voices. He treasured the theological voice that came from each heart’s own conviction. And for him it was this: we should all be about the work of justice, by all means possible.
If you heard him lecture, as he did often to thousands of rapt listeners, you wouldn’t immediately know this about Jim Cone: he was a gracious dinner partner and a neighbor who, after I encountered him in the elevator in our apartment building, his royal blue spandex far outshining my own grubby t-shirt and shorts, would leave me in the dust shortly after we started out together on the running path in Riverside Park.
James Cone faithfully and rigorously maintained the voice of the oppressed. And he would always smile, and talk to my kids, and laugh at my jokes. In short, he was a living embodiment of the gospel — the radical, unrelenting, justice-seeking gospel. It’s a gospel that calls us all to be perpetually pissed off at the injustice around us and to shared meals full of laughter and grace.
I will miss you, Dr. Cone. In fact, I am going out today to try to find a royal blue pair of spandex. More than that I remember: you were the gospel.
May I be the gospel, too. May we be the gospel, too.