Across the country the community and religious leaders who make up the Kairos Center were among the great number who honored the life and work of Professor James Cone at the time of his passing in April. Today would have been his 80th birthday, and we pause again to remember his great legacy.

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James Cone
James Cone, Founder of Black Liberation Theology and Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (1938–2018).

The Kairos Center was founded at Union Theological Seminary because it is a place where Professor Cone brought his commitment to doing theology in the midst of working to transform society. The members of the Kairos Center, leaders in their own communities and congregations, have been shaped by his scholarship and commitment to Black people, poor people, and oppressed people. He called us to deeper scholarship, challenging the anti-intellectualism that creeps into organizing and activism. Because of him we read our own Bibles differently, we expect scholars to take sides with the oppressed, and we insist that the brokenness of the world cannot be understood apart from systemic racism.

Professor Cone taught us, Martin Luther King Jr. “doesn’t write theology from behind his desk, but out of the decisions he makes in the movement.”1James H. Cone, “Systematic Theology 393: Malcolm and Martin” (Lecture, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY, March 28, 2006). He argued that we underestimate King’s theological contribution when we fail to see (or refuse to see) that “the struggle for freedom is the only appropriate context for doing theology.”2James H. Cone, “The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 40, no. 4 (1986): 21.

And it was Professor Cone who first passed us King’s unpublished staff retreat speech where King called the leaders around him to move towards a Poor People’s Campaign, arguing, “We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights …We must recognize that we can’t solve our problems until there is a radical re-distribution of economic and political power.” And, “We must recognize that if we are to gain our God-given rights now, principalities and powers must be confronted and they must be changed. And we must not worry about power. We must not worry about using the word Power, because this is what is wrong in so many instances, is that we are devoid of power. Now power is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to affect change.”

The struggle for freedom is the only appropriate context for doing theology.

Cone was a towering global figure and a prophet of freedom. His vocation as a writer and educator was truly a ministry. He took the time to develop new leaders, to build a network of scholars, clergy and activists committed to liberation, to the power of God in history, and to the role of the poor and dispossessed in realizing earthly freedom. Black Theology, rooted in the freedom strands of the black church tradition, asks each of us, “in what ways can we best explicate the meaning of God’s liberating activity in the world so that the oppressed will be ready to risk all for earthly freedom?”3James H. Cone, “Black Theology and Black Liberation,” in Black Theology: A Documentary History, ed. James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 111.

We miss his wise advisement, his impassioned lectures in the classroom, and his warm kindness in the hallways. But his challenge to be faithful to the God of liberation and to God’s people lives and grows. It is with us as across the country we challenge the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism, environmental devastation and the distorted moral narrative in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. His challenge to faithfulness follows us — in the classroom, the congregation, the community center, the streets, the legislature and the courts — in every sphere where the poor and dispossessed are breaking out and uniting, ready to risk all for earthly freedom and to claim the promises of the God who takes sides in history.

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