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Dr. James Cone and the Urgency of the Call
Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
At its heart, Christianity is a religion of inversion – a promise of a time when “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”1This promise of inversion is apparent in the Hebrew Bible texts that were foundational to Jesus’ teaching, and also in the Gospel texts that describe Jesus’ life and ministry.
For example, the Book of Samuel says:
“The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
5Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more.
6The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.
7The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.
8He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.”2
The psalms tell us that God turns mourning into dancing3; that “the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves” in abundant peace;4that God cares for the poor and needy and is their helper and deliverer.5
The theme of inversion is probably most pronounced in Luke’s gospel. In the first chapter of Luke, Mary sings the Magnificat:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.”6
And later in Luke, Jesus says:
“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”7
So the beatitudes and their message of inversion or reversal should not come as a surprise. It’s worth noting that the beatitudes that we heard proclaimed earlier are different in subtle and important ways from the beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew, Jesus says
“Blessed are the poor in
spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”8 While in Luke. Jesus says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”9
Luke does not make poverty a spiritual condition, it is a material one. There is a directness and urgency to Luke: Matthew’s beatitude refers to “the poor” in the third person, while Luke’s beatitude directly addresses the poor and their immediate condition:
“Blessed are you who are poor, . . . you who are hungry now, . . . you who weep now. . . .”
And just in case we’re all riding the local instead of the express, Luke underscores the reversal by including a series of woes that stand in opposition to the beatitudes. These woes are not included in Matthew’s Gospel:
“But woe to you who are rich… Woe to you who are full now… Woe to you who are laughing now… Woe to you when all speak well of you…”10
Luke’s Gospel, and indeed the Christian story is one of inversion or reversal. In a similar way, theologian and social critic Dr. James Cone writes of inversion. By way of introduction, Dr. Cone has been described as the primary architect of black liberation theology, an understanding of Christianity that grew out of the black power movement of the late 1960s, and interprets the Bible through the lens of the African American freedom struggle.
In his 2011 book, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, Cone seeks to invert the (current) meaning of the cross and restore it as a sanctified as opposed to a sanitized symbol. He writes
“during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, the cross, this symbol of salvation, has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings, those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called ‘the crucified peoples of history.’”11
Let’s pause here. Cone’s attention to ongoing suffering and oppression should make us think of the “now” in Luke.
“The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the ‘cost of discipleship,’ it has become a form of ‘cheap grace,’ an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”12
Let’s pause again here, and take in this beautiful space, and its depictions of the cross. To many in this space, the cross is a benign symbol. But imagine for a moment something more unsettling and uncomfortable in its place. Some other symbol of execution, of killing at the urging of a mob.
Cone describes the tension of being both black and Christian in the United States. His faith inspires him to be hopeful about God at work in his life, yet his first-hand experience of segregation, the negation of and silence around racial violence by many white, mainline Christian leaders, and the constant threat of racially inspired violence leads him to despair. In this moment, I am mindful of my whiteness, and my privilege and I would like to recognize them, while also committing to striving to honor Dr. Cone’s work and engage with his ideas.
The Cross and The Lynching Tree is difficult reading. The topic is painful for anyone who cares deeply about other people, and about the Christian faith. Here is a passage that speaks to the complicity of much of American society. And a word of warning, this passage includes graphic and disturbing accounts of brutality. I chose to include this passage not to be gratuitous, but to demonstrate the horror of lynching and the extent to which that horror was accepted and celebrated by a large part of white America.
After the end of Reconstruction, the Northern troops who had battled the KKK and protected African Americans’ right to education and vote, were withdrawn, and southern states regained self-government.
“By the 1890s, lynching fever gripped the South, spreading like cholera, as white communities made blacks their primary target, and torture their focus. Burning the black victim slowly for hours was the chief method of torture. Lynching became a white media spectacle, in which prominent newspapers, like the Atlanta Constitution, announced to the public the place, date, and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims. Often as many as ten to twenty thousand men, women, and children attended the event. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims—burning black flesh and cutting off genitals, fingers, toes, and ears as souvenirs. Postcards were made from the photographs taken of black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera. They were sold for ten to twenty-five cents to members of the crowd, who then mailed them to relatives and friends, often with a note saying something like this: ‘This is the barbeque we had last night.’”13
But just like Luke, Cone doesn’t stay in the past. He takes to task Reinhold Niebuhr as an example of prominent white theologians who seem ambivalent to the apartheid in the south and the racism in the north. Niebuhr, Cone writes, “had ‘eyes to see’ black suffering, but I believe he lacked ‘the heart to feel’ it as his own.”14
Cone’s focus on the cross as a visceral symbol of cost and salvation, of suffering and redemption, as opposed to a laundered token of cheap grace, underlies his conviction that the cross “is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.”15
There is an urgency, a bluntness to Cones’ writing that can make it hard to read or take in. Cone, I think, has two messages directed at two audiences, at least two. The first is to affirm people of color in their faith, and in the places and practices that sustained them. A second audience is mainstream, white Christianity. Cone seeks to awaken it, to awaken us, to the complicity in the negation and erasure of the black experience at the hands of white Christianity. And I want to be clear because it can sometimes get lost: Cone is not critical of people who are white – he has a deep admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer whom Cone believes gave his life on the cross – but he is critical of people and movements that in their comfort and apathy remain silent on the plight of the oppressed.
Similarly, Luke, as well, is writing two messages to two audiences. First Luke reminds the poor, hungry, mourning, outcasts, that God is speaking to them. That God sees them. And Luke is also writing to, and likely stirring discomfort among, a fairly wealthy, well-educated audience, challenging them to take stock of their lives.
The urgency and bluntness – let’s keep in mind the woes here that follow the beatitudes – in both texts are challenging yet necessary. Necessary because there’s a problem with promised reversals – with changes that are declared and aren’t realized. Promised reversals like the ones that we see in the beatitudes.
Langston Hughes asked:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”16
If we read the beatitudes without urgency, it can seem as if God is ok with the world as it is, and that all will be made right at some future, as yet undetermined time.
People sometimes cite the Jesus’ remark “For you always have the poor with you,” and seem to forget that Deuteronomy, upon which that phrase is likely based, says: “For there will never cease to be poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and to the poor and needy in your land.”17
We are not simply here to “contemplate eternity beneath the vast indifference of heaven,” to borrow a phrase from the late songwriter Warren Zevon.18
1 Matthew 20:16, (All scripture is NRSV)
2 1 Samuel 2:4-8
3 Psalm 30:11
4 Psalm 37:11
5 Psalm 40:17
6 Luke 1:46-54
7 Luke 17:33
8 Matthew 5:3
9 Luke 6:20
10 Luke 6:24-26
11 James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. xiv.
12 Cone, p. xiv.
13 Cone, p. 17.
14 Cone, p. 41.
15 Cone, p. 156.
16 Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem
17 Deuteronomy 15:11
18 Warren Zevon, “The Indifference of Heaven,”