On Saturday, like many people across the country, I heard the news that James Cone had passed. Serving on the Union Theological Seminary faculty for almost fifty years means that Dr. Cone literally taught generations of seminarians, and I was fortunate to be one of those folks.
I still remember the first day of his systematic theology class, in the first semester of my first year of seminary. Sitting in that lecture hall in 1992, with nearly 100 students and watching him take the podium and explain to us that he was a the-o-lo-gian (in his classic, high-pitched, Southern drawl), and what that meant for him as a scholar and a black man from Arkansas, was highlight of my seminary career.
He taught the contemporary “half” of the systematic theology course which focused largely on the twentieth century, but he came alive when lecturing about liberation theology! As the father of black liberation theology and one of the leading liberation theologians since the publication of his 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power, Cone had a front-row seat for the development of liberation theologies across the globe from the 1960s through the 1990s when I had him as a professor.
He could be an electric lecturer, and more than once, his weekly lectures ended in standing ovations. It was inspirational to learn about the liberation theology from a man who knew personally most of the people whose work he taught. He told personal stories about their lives and their work and made the social contexts out of which their positions developed come alive.
Cone’s own development of black theology was a response to the notion that Christianity was “the white man’s religion.” He responded with an adamant, “No! The Christian gospel is not the white man’s religion. It is a religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free.”
This message, which is at the heart of all liberation theologies—that Christianity is a religion of liberation—is what drew me to Union Theological Seminary to study with the giants of the field at the time, including Beverly Wildung Harrison, James Cone, Delores Williams, and Larry Rasmussen.
While giants in the field, they were also folks, and folks are flawed—all of us. Cone was criticized throughout his career for his failure to adequately address his own sexism (though he had been persuaded to use inclusive language by the time I had him in class). Likewise, my mentor, Beverly Harrison, struggled with her own internalized racism throughout her career as well. I learned from these theological giants both the importance and necessity of liberation theologies that transform our faith, our life, and our world as well as the reality that we all fall short in this lifetime. In watching these mentors, I learned the necessity of always being on the lookout for my own demons and shortcomings.
The liberation insights I learned from Cone and others are foundational to my own feminist liberation ethics and particularly informed the argument in my new book, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. Like Cone, I refuse to cede Christianity to those who seek to own and define it in ways that reject liberation and freedom. In my case, I refuse to cede Christianity to the pro-life voices who insist that Christianity is against abortion.
The theological giants who trained me taught me to seek the truth of liberation in the gospel and to preach it loud and clear. In the increasingly regressive and xenophobic world that we live in today, speaking the truth that abortion is a normal part of women’s lives and always has been is a fundamental witness to my faith and to the God I know who desires that women and their partners are able to have healthy, happy, and whole lives, and that this sometimes means saying “no” to a particular pregnancy.
Because the task of liberation theology is to upset the status quo and to call Christians to be our better selves, it will always be controversial and confrontational. Theologians like Jim Cone taught Christians not to accept the received tradition unquestioningly but to question the received tradition and to always, always, always look for God’s promise of liberation and transformation of the oppressed and marginalized.
About the Author
Rebecca Todd Peters is Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University. Her work as a feminist social ethicist is focused on globalization, economic, environmental, and reproductive justice. Her books include Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, In Search of the Good Life, and Solidarity Ethics. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she has been active denominationally and ecumenically for more than twenty-five years and currently represents the PC (USA) as a member of the Faith and Order Standing Commission of the World Council of Churches. Follow her on Twitter at @toddiepeters and visit her website.