I first met James Cone in the back seat of a car. I was teaching at a Black college in rural east Texas in 1981, and he had been invited to lecture on campus. I was invited along when Jim had to be driven to the airport, and we were introduced as he got into car.
While in college and seminary in California, I had been introduced to the struggles for justice of the Black Panther Party, the United Farm Workers, and the feminist women’s self-help health movement. The early works of Cone, Mary Daly, Marianne Katopo, Nelle Morton, Paolo Friere, and Rubem Alves had shaped my orientation to theology, and I had been teaching Cone, Friere-style, in a class at the college.
Several things about Jim that would characterize our collegial relationship came through in that first conversation. He was warm, laughed easily, and was passionately committed to the liberation theology project. He remained an engaging dialogue partner and a generous friend.
One of his advisees at Union once said to me that when she was struggling about what to do for her dissertation, he told her to write about what hurt her the most. This advice also grounded the power of Jim’s work; it made him a formative, powerful, and staunch Black Liberation theologian.
Moral injury grounds liberation theology. Every major theologian of the second half of the twentieth-century wrote in the wake of World War II—and in the US in the face of the Vietnam War—and the subsequent eruption of justice movements all over the world brought into sharp focus the betrayals of traditional Christian theology. Every theologian, in heeding the massive suffering of marginalized people, had to reconstruct theological meaning because of the harm inflicted by hetero-white-patriarchal-capitalist theological systems.
When liberation theologians from Asia, Africa, and Latin America—all men—founded the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) in 1976, Jim insisted that they must include US minorities. He argued that the US might be an affluent, “first-world” country, but people of color in the US were struggling for economic and socio-political justice in the face of white supremacy. He asserted that we needed to be in the liberation conversations. Though we never had equal status to other delegations in EATWOT, US minorities were later included. As were women, when Mercy Oduyoye insisted we were the “eruption within the eruption” of liberation theology.
While Jim and I shared a commitment to liberation theology, our sharpest disagreements were about atonement theology and the dangers of sanctifying suffering. I rejected atonement for an incarnational theology of erotic power, grounded in mutual love and presence. I believed atonement theology focused too exclusively on oppression of a particular group, such as “the poor” or people of color, and the sanctification of suffering and self-sacrificing love in oppressed communities masked the ways women and LGBT people are also oppressed within those communities and ignores questions of intersectionality. He was not unsympathetic to layers of oppression, but the work of womanist theologians and their critiques of atonement, which took place at Union, never really informed his work. His staunch commitment to the God of the oppressed could make him sharp and fierce against his critics, but I was spared what some experienced as a wall of fury when he was crossed. I’ve expressed outrage myself on occasion, and I know outrage is one aspect of moral injury that I continue to struggle with personally.
In my disputes with him, however, he listened carefully, argued fiercely, and shook his head with a wry smile when we agreed to disagree. Whatever our theological differences, I found him a kindred spirit and always enjoyed our intensely animated conversations.
It was sometimes years between our conversations, and I feel a great loss now that there will never be another—at least in this life. James Cone is one of the most crucial, creative, and influential American theologians of the second half of the twentieth century, a fierce advocate for racial justice, and a beloved colleague whose passing is mourned by many. I, too, will miss him.
About the Author
Rita Nakashima Brock is Senior Vice President of Moral Injury Programs at Volunteers of America in Alexandria, VA. She is the author, with Gabriella Lettini, of Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War, and with Rebecca Ann Parker, of Proverbs of Ashes and Saving Paradise. She lives in Oakland, California.