There are, as Cornel West has pointed out, only two African-Americans who rose from dirt-poor poverty to the highest levels of American intellectual life--the writer Richard Wright and the radical theologian James H. Cone.
Cone, who died in April, grew up in segregated Bearden, Ark., the impoverished son of a woodcutter who had only a sixth-grade education. With an almost superhuman will, Cone clawed his way up from the Arkansas cotton fields to implode theological studies in the United States with his withering critique of the white supremacy and racism inherent within the white, liberal Christian church. His brilliance -- he was a Greek scholar and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Swiss theologian Karl Barth -- enabled him to "turn the white man's theology against him and make it speak for the liberation of black people." God's revelation in America, he understood, "was found among poor black people." Privileged white Christianity and its theology were "heresy." He was, until the end of his life, possessed by what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called "sublime madness." His insights, he writes, "came to me as if revealed by the spirits of my ancestors long dead but now coming alive to haunt and torment the descendants of the whites who had killed them."
"When it became clear to me that Jesus was not biologically white and that white scholars actually lied by not telling people who he really was, I stopped trusting anything they said," he writes in his posthumous memoir, "Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian," published in October.
"White supremacy is America's original sin and liberation is the Bible's central message," he writes in his book. "Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God's liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology but a theology of the Antichrist."
White supremacy "is the Antichrist in America because it has killed and crippled tens of millions of black bodies and minds in the modern world," he writes. "It has also committed genocide against the indigenous people of this land. If that isn't demonic, I don't know what is " [and] it is found in every aspect of American life, especially churches, seminaries, and theology."
Cone, who spent most of his life teaching at New York City's Union Theological Seminary, where the theological luminaries Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr preceded him, was acutely aware that "there are a lot of brilliant theologians and most are irrelevant and some are evil."
Of the biblical story of Cain's murder of Abel, Cone writes: "" [T]he Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?' He said, 'I don't know; am I my brother's keeper?' And the Lord said, 'What have you done? Listen: your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!'" Cain, in Cone's eyes, symbolizes white people, as Abel symbolizes black people.
"God is asking white Americans, especially Christians, 'Where are your black brothers and sisters?'" Cone writes. "And whites respond, 'We don't know. Are we their keepers?' And the Lord says, 'What have you done to them for four centuries?'"
The stark truth he elucidated unsettled his critics and even some of his admirers, who were forced to face their own complicity in systems of oppression. "People cannot bear very much reality," T.S. Eliot wrote. And the reality Cone relentlessly exposed was one most white Americans seek to deny.
"Christianity is essentially a religion of liberation," Cone writes. "The function of theology is that of analyzing the meaning of that liberation for the oppressed community so they can know that their struggle for political, social, and economic justice is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor is not Christ's message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology. In a society where [people] are oppressed because they are black, Christian theology must become Black Theology, a theology that is unreservedly identified with the goals of the oppressed community and seeking to interpret the divine character of their struggle for liberation."
The Detroit rebellion of 1967 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. a year later were turning points in Cone's life. This was when he -- at the time a professor at Adrian College, a largely white college in Adrian, Mich. -- removed his mask, a mask that, as the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, "grins and lies."
"I felt that white liberals had killed King, helped by those Negroes who thought he was moving too fast," he writes. "Even though they didn't pull the trigger, they had refused to listen to King when he proclaimed God's judgment on America for failing to deal with the three great evils of our time: poverty, racism, and war. The white liberal media demonized King, accusing him of meddling in America's foreign affairs by opposing the Vietnam War and blaming him for provoking violence wherever he led a march. White liberals, however, accepted no responsibility for King's murder, and they refused to understand why Negroes were rioting and burning down their communities."
"I didn't want to talk to white people about King's assassination or about the uprisings in the cities," he writes of that period in his life. "[I]t was too much of an emotional burden to explain racism to racists, and I had nothing to say to them. I decided to have my say in writing. I'd give them something to read and talk about."
Cone is often described as the father of black liberation theology, although he was also, maybe more importantly, one of the very few contemporary theologians who understood and championed the radical message of the Gospel. Theological studies are divided into pre-Cone and post-Cone eras. Post-Cone theology has largely been an addendum or reaction to his work, begun with his first book, "Black Theology and Black Power," published in 1969. He wrote the book, he says, "as an attack on racism in white churches and an attack on self-loathing in black churches. I was not interested in making an academic point about theology; rather, I was issuing a manifesto against whiteness and for blackness in an effort to liberate Christians from white supremacy."