Thank You, Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone!

by Dr. Angela Parker

While I love my work as a Womanist New Testament scholar teaching in a predominantly white institution (PWI) in the Pacific Northwest, I often reminisce about when I took Rev. Dr. James Cone’s Black Liberation Theology class at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Truthfully, I would not be the scholar that I am today had Dr. Cone not facilitated my transfer to Chicago Theological Seminary where I eventually received my Ph.D. in Bible, Culture, and Hermeneutics. I remain eternally grateful to Dr. Cone.

As a student, I remember Cone telling us of some of the music that he played in the background while writing all of his books. Music serves as one of Cone’s hermeneutical tools for developing Black Liberation Theology. The imagery in African American music creates a space for understanding the ways that blacks living in Jim and Jane Crow South dealt with their reality. Essentially, listening to spirituals and blues music was one way to enter into the psyche of a people who experienced the trauma of extralegal lynching. As a New Testament scholar, I find some continuity with thinking through the trauma of lynching and the experiences that early Jesus followers experienced during the writing of the New Testament. In books, such as The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone acknowledges that the process of trying to reconcile the gospel message of liberation with the reality of black oppression in Jim/Jane Crow South is particularly personal, thus it requires the musical witness of the spirituals and the blues to rightly represent those who created and sang these songs.¹

One song that Cone opened up for me in my study of Galatians is Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Written in the early 1930’s by Jewish school teacher Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allen), Billie Holiday began singing the song, thus creating a space where audiences could witness how an African American woman and a Jewish man work together to protest social injustice. Cone argues that Meeropol wrote what white theologians and religious leaders should have said.²

The lyrics are as follows:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange Fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Cone was the first to make me think about Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” as I began my own work in Galatians since he asks the question “What if the cross made way for the lynching tree?”

In Jim/Jane Crow South, lynching was extralegal punishment sanctioned by a community against those who were out of the reach of the law.³ So when a black person thought he or she had the right to be treated as an equal to a white, lynching was a way of making sure that the black community knew there was no way that a black person could be equal in the eyes of a white person. Whites also believed that they had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence. This belief was grounded in the idea “that America is a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of ‘white over black.’”⁴ The connection between lynching and White Christianity is so prevalent that oftentimes, the postcards printed up after the lynching showed all the White Christians wearing their “Sunday’s best” clothes because they had just come from church. This idea was so prevalent that an article in the 1930’s Chicago Defender newspaper ran a picture with the caption “American Christianity.” The article declared that “Christian America must know that all the world points with scorn at a country that spends millions to Christianize other countries while at home the barbarians hold their lynching picnics at regular intervals.”⁵

In the context of my own forthcoming work in the book of Galatians, Cone’s work allows me to think through translation and commentary of the Galatians text vastly different from the way that traditional Western Christianity may translate and interpret it. As I ponder Galatians 3:10–14, Cone allows me to re-imagine my translation as follows:

10 For as many whose sole purpose is to exist under the works of martial law are under a curse. For it has been written “Cursed is everyone who does not abide in all of the things written in the book of Torah in order to do them.”
11 But it is clear that no one is made righteous before God by works of martial law, because the righteous, lynched victim will live by faith in Torah.
12 But martial law instigated by mob violence is not of faith, but the one doing God’s Torah will live by God’s laws. 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of martial law becoming for us a curse, because it is written, cursed is everyone who has been lynched on a tree.
14 So that the blessing of Abraham in Jesus Christ may come to all those who have been deemed “other”, so that we may receive the promise of the spirit through faith.⁶

While many of us had to say good-bye to Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone on Monday, May 7, 2018, we know that the struggle for liberation continues in the academy, in society, and in the churches all over the world. As the Johnson brothers exhort us in “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

  1. James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011), xvi.
  2. Ibid., 135.
  3. Ibid., 2–3.
  4. Ibid., 7. See Winthrop Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969).
  5. Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith, Lynching Photographs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 20–1.
  6. My translation of Galatians 3:10–14 is part of a larger forthcoming commentary on Galatians with Semeia Series/Society of Biblical Literature.

Dr. Angela N. Parker currently serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology in Seattle, Washington. Dr. Parker has a Ph.D. in Bible, Culture, and Hermeneutics (New Testament focus) from Chicago Theological Seminary. Prior to receiving her Ph.D., Dr. Parker earned the Master of Theological Studies degree from Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina and her Bachelor of Arts degree from Shaw University, a historically black institution in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Chelle Stearns

Chelle Stearns

Associate Professor of Theology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology