Author explores checkered past of race and religion in Morristown talk

By Marie Pfeifer

How could white Christians condone the persecution of blacks for centuries in America?

And how were African Americans able to persevere and survive such oppression?

James Cone, a scholar known as the founder of black liberation theology, spent a decade researching those complex subjects for his 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Author James Cone speaks at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown. Photo by Sharon Sheridan

Author James Cone speaks at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown. Photo by Sharon Sheridan

The author pulled no punches in a recent talk at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, where he delivered a powerful and passionate analysis of racism, faith, love and hope as guest lecturer in the Christine Mary and John Shelby Spong Lecture Series.

“I have been wrestling with the question of how blacks were able to survive 300 years of white terrorism, yet were able to love each other, marry and raise their children,” said Cone, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

“In the deepest sense, I have been writing this book all my life,” He said.

He credits his success to his parents, Charlie and Lucy Cone, who raised their children with faith and taught them not to hate white people, despite all.

Many people in the black community sought refuge in singing the blues at the Saturday night juke joint.  Robert Johnson, one of the best-known bluesmen, refused to be defined by the threat of death at the lynching tree.  He wrote lyrics of defiance:

 I got to keep movinnnn,’ I got to keep movinnnn’

Blues fallin’ like hail
And the day keeps on worryin’ me,
There’s a hellhound on my trail.

‘HOW COULD THEY DO IT?’

Cone said he does not understand how white Christians and their ministers, who often led the lynching ‘parties,’ could worship Jesus and then unleash the brutal violence of lynching, torturing and burning on black people.

“They are both Christian communities.  How could they do it?” he said. Therein lies the paradox.

the cross and the lynching tree, by james coneAfter the Civil War, lynching had become the new slavery — the method used by white supremacists to subjugate black people.

The practice of arbitrarily lynching black men, women and even children continued until black people began expressing their rage toward segregation, at first through non-violent demonstrations under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King. 

Eventually, that rage  expressed itself in the movement known as Black Power, under the leadership of Malcolm X.

As the world watched through the lens of the media, equality seemed to be on the horizon when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. While great strides have been made, Cone said, racism persists.

In many areas of life, he said, we practice token anti-racism by sprinkling black people in our midst — in the community, workplace and church.

Churches, he contended, have become a mask, covering up the realities of racism. Houses of worship are called to be voices of justice.

“During The Civil Rights Movement, the churches were inspired to get involved. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had the 1963 march on Washington DC,”  Cone said.

One area where he feels Christian churches can do better is the high incarceration rate of African Americans in the United States. Blacks constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million people in U.S. jails.

LOOKING FOR BLIND SPOTS

The author voiced concerns about a shift away from Affirmative Action programs.  Affirmative Action provides educational and job opportunities to black Americans, women, people with disabilities and other groups facing discrimination, he said, asserting that the country needs to continue providing educational and job opportunities in our society.

Cone invited listeners to see racism through the eyes of a black man raised in a small town in segregated Arkansas.  The despair of poverty and constant fear of white supremacists terrorism, in a world that did not recognize the humanity of black people, formed the world in which black people lived.  Yet their faith carried them through the bad times.

He said he never witnessed a lynching because his parents protected their children from such horrors.

Cone’s writing was influenced by James Baldwin, a writer whose works about the black experience made him an important spokesman of the Civil Rights movement.  In his novel Giovanni’s Room, he was among the first writers to tackle issues confronting homosexuals, another persecuted group in our society.

“My job is to help people see their blind spot. What is right before their eyes. We need to help each other see the blind spot.  I hope that people point out my blind spot to me,” Cone said.

His message is simple:

“We are all brothers and sisters and members of the same family, and we are all a part of the human race.  Can we behave like brothers and sisters? If not, then we are going to kill ourselves.”

“If you don’t treat your neighbor right then you are not going to treat the earth right.  Learn how to love your neighbors.”

The Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, Episcopal Bishop of Newark; author James Cone; Christine Mary Spong and retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, at St. Peter's in Morristown. Photo by Sharon Sheridan.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, Episcopal Bishop of Newark; author James Cone; Christine Mary Spong and retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, at St. Peter’s in Morristown. Photo by Sharon Sheridan.



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