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Preamble to A Critique of James Cone

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Message Stephen C. Rose

I am not sure how long I want to carry this on. Or where it will, or should, go. But I want to have a go at confronting James Cone, who may be said to be a major force behind the development of Black Theology.

I want to start with his contention that he has somehow created a synthesis between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.I had personal encounters with both Dr. King and, briefly, but significantly, with Malcolm X.

I interviewed Dr. King on May 13, 1963, in the back of the bombed-out Gaston Motel in Birmingham. His brother's house had also been bombed the night before. I missed the motel bomb by about twenty minutes. I met Malcolm in Rochester and spoke with him a few weeks before he was killed.

The somewhat grandiloquent suggestion of Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, from which I graduated in 1961, is that he synthesized the thinking of these two men, Malcolm and Martin.

This is impossible in my view. At the time of their most untimely deaths. both Martin and Malcolm appear to have been synthesizing themselves.

Both men had been, figuratively, to mountaintops which moved them from their starting points to a point of transcending race in significant and in some respects epochal ways.

In this respect, I see Cone's career and much else that occurred at Union Seminary during the years after the death of 60s martyrs, as a necessary but unfortunate regression into simplistic thinking based on the interaction between legitimate grievances and rampant white guilt.

The various balkanized identity theologies that sprang up and accounted for the general shape and style of Union "happened" but were hardly happy instances of a formidable reductionism.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was moving beyond race at the time of his murder. Malcolm had already move past it on the plain of Mecca.

I would count Malcolm the freer of the two and I would hazard the guess that if the heart of the Black Power movement was pride in one's Black heritage, that Malcolm himself had no need for such pride. He had the pride of being a free and universal human being. When bullets tore through Malcolm, he had transcended race. And was more revolutionary for it.

I think Malcolm moved farther in a shorter time frame than Martin did. But it is unquestionable that Martin's own critique was every bit as comprehensive as Malcolm's was.

Why, you may ask, do I see Black Theology as similar to other identity theologies?

Because when you do theology, if you do it at all, you need to examine Christianity with some care, something that no one at Union has been willing to do, an opinion I dare to share with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was as unimpressed as I at the offerings of the seminary.

An examination with some care would lead to a way forward that transcends race, not because there is no history that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with, but because there is no place for race in an authentic experience of the good news, just as there is no place for race in an authentic experience of Mecca.

The good news, properly understood, leads to the dignified raising up of all people.

We perhaps needed the teaching provided by the last forty years of identity theology.

But we hardly need what we are getting as a by-product. That is the distortion of Black theology and the consequent difficulty of pointing out that it is deficient and wrong insofar as it does not transcend race.

I have spent the greater part of my adult life in a sort of self-imposed exile, creating away but with no way back into the institution of Union Seminary or the institutional church.

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Born in NYC, attended Oberlin & Trinity Schools, then Exeter and Williams (Phi Beta Kappa 1958). Worked with the Reverend James Robinson, finished Union Theological Seminary in NYC (1961). Joined Student Interracial Ministry in Nashville. Founded (more...)
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