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I remember when I first read God of the Oppressed by James Cone. It challenged me, it convicted me, and it made me re-think my approach to theological study. I was forced to contemplate the politics of the gospel, that maybe Christianity isn’t just a religion, but a way of life that challenges and shakes the power structures of this world. I found an interview with Cone on YouTube that became a part of my teaching. In the interview, Cone says he wanted to bring together the “faith of Martin” and the “blackness of Malcolm”. Cone confronted the ideology of “whiteness” in ways that made me and my students uncomfortable, even angry. The vocal opposition to the video missed the silence of the few African and African-American students in the class. Cone’s point was made in a way that went unnoticed by most who were there.

James Cone died recently. There was a write-up in the Washington Post that marked his passing. The author says this:

Despite his ministerial title, the Rev. James H. Cone did not pastor a church or lead a congregation. He spent most of his professional life teaching theology in a mainline Protestant seminary, during the very decades when the mainline Protestants were in decline.

Most of Cone’s books were published by Orbis, a specialty imprint operated by the Maryknoll Catholic order. In an era of spiritual entrepreneurs, Cone never ran a cable-TV show, a theme park, a university or a political action committee.

It is no wonder, then, that when Cone died at 79 on April 28, his name meant little or nothing to most Americans. Yet as his funeral is held Monday, it is also true that Cone stood as one of the most influential religious figures of the past century in America, a clarion voice for justice who deserves to be placed in the historical company of Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Cone’s influence goes beyond awakening me to the ideological power of whiteness, he helped me see the work of the gospel takes place in the lives of real people. He helped me see how all the power plays, the money grabs, and the co-opting of the Christian religion by powerful institutions, politicians, and churches to maintain the status quo is not Christian at all. Those who object to what they call the politicizing of Christianity, or the refusal to get involved, fail to see the politics of their action—the preservation of power and privilege, and a refusal to wake up to what Paul refers to as the principalities and powers of this world.

The God of the bible is always concerned with liberation. The Lord frees the people of Israel from slavery, taking them out of Egypt and bringing them into a land where they could flourish. In Jesus Christ our God makes a spectacle of the powers of this world on the cross, as Paul argues in Colossians. And now the Christian community has been given this task, to preach the gospel of liberation from personal and structural sin, to become signs of God’s liberating and transforming work in this world. This is the legacy of Cone’s life, his teaching, and his work. He wasn’t flashy, but he was faithful. And for that, this morning, I am grateful.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

2 Comments

  • Mitch Kinsinger says:

    Amen and amen! You aptly capture my own experience with Cone. A great loss but I trust his legacy will live on. Thanks, Jason!

  • Rebecca Koerselman says:

    Thanks, Jason! Cone reoriented the way I thought about theology. His loss is significant but so was his work

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