CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…
JAMES CONE’S BACKHAND POINTS [M, 4-30-18]
Recently I saw this statement: “Be the kind of Christian that Paul Rayan wants to fire.” James H. Cone was that kind of Christian.
Jim died last week. We had a few things in common. Same age. Studied at Garrett Theological Seminary, at Northwestern U, at the same time. Played a lot of table tennis.
All of us at Garrett in those student days knew Jim was smart, but he stood out more for his race than his scholarship, one of only two black students in our whole student body. And his back-hand. He could slam with his backhand as well as his forehand. After lunch, he and Raydean Davis and Malcolm MacArthur, from New Zealand, and I would gather in the ping-pong room deep in the lowest recesses of Loder Hall. There Jim would beat us in straight sets, or whatever the table tennis equivalent of straight sets is. When he made a point, it hit the table so hard, you heard it ring around the whole room. Then he would hurry away to the library to do research on his PhD dissertation on Satan.
I don’t know if Union Seminary in New York knew about his backhand, but they hired him to teach theology. At that time, Union was the premiere theological seminary in the country, with Reinhold Niehuhr and Paul Tillich and John Bennett nearing the end of their careers. James was a worthy successor.
Not only did he teach, but he developed what was called Black Liberation Theology, insisting that Jesus is not a theory but an event, an event of liberation. “There can be no knowledge of Jesus independent of the culture and history of the oppressed.” He was not just a professor; he was a prophet.
Over the last 30 years, Marcus Borg and James Cone were the prophets of liberation through Christ, not just personal liberation from personal sin, but social liberation from social sin. Marcus came at that position through Biblical studies, James through theology, and they arrived at the same destination.
James alone could not keep Union Seminary at the forefront of theological education. As the names of Tillich and Niebuhr began to fade, so did Union. But James kept Union relevant. He became the face of Union Seminary. A black face. A liberation face.
He professed and preached and propheted the same way he played table tennis, slamming with either hand, hitting the point so hard that you heard it ring around the whole room.
He has now transferred from the church militant to the church triumphant. I hope those angels look out for his backhand.
I tweet occasionally, as yooper1721.