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The future of Black faith and resistance

Union Theological Seminary honors the legacy of Dr. James H. Cone with a new fellowship and an annual lecture

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Terrence L. Johnson

“This annual lecture continues Dr. Cone’s dynamic legacy of prophetic Black theological and religious thought that pushes hard against the conscience of America,” said the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, who held a moment of reverent pause as she asked the audience to consider the legacy of the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, who had been a professor at Union for 50 years. Cone died in 2018. The event on April 3, held at the seminary’s James Chapel and streamed online, was the fourth annual lecture to be held in his honor.

That evening, Jones announced a new gift of $1.2 million in Cone’s honor. The James Cone Fellowship was established by a Union alumna and student of Cone’s, the Rev. Amy Morrison Heinrich, and her husband, Rob. Morrison Heinrich has served First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville, Illinois, and First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as college ministries at Colorado College, Austin College and the University of Wisconsin.

The Rev. Amy Morrison Heinrich

“Thanks to Amy and Rob,” said Jones, “each year the James Cone Fellowship will support the recipients’ spiritual, academic and vocational aspirations as they follow in the prophetic footsteps of James Cone.”

This year’s Cone lecture, titled “Between Black Liberation Theology and Democratic Womanism: Black Faith and the Spirit of Freedom in a Time of War and Moral Decadence,” began with speaker Dr. Terrence L. Johnson saying, “In a strange and stinging irony, we face times equally as turbulent, as when Cone in the late 1960s first grappled with Black powers, fierce demands of Black elites, the Christian church and a nation bursting at the seams from internal anti-war protests and ongoing racial animus and oppression.” Johnson, who is the Charles G. Adams Professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard University, called Cone “a riveting voice filled with the unacknowledged laughing cries of a damned people” as he delivered a lecture calling for more authentic connection from academics, liberals and Black elites to the working class people of color, particularly Black women, whose contributions to the struggle for civil rights have been both essential and unacknowledged.

Johnson opened the lecture with a poem, “The Mask,” by Maya Angelou, which is about the methods of survival and resistance of her Black female ancestors who deserve respect. The poet considers the laughs that conceal the cries of her ancestors: “It could, it did derive from living on the edge of death. They kept my race alive by wearing the mask.”

Like Angelou, Johnson set out to give credit and honor to people who must compromise their outward protests and negotiations while holding firm to a belief in the sacredness of the selfhood and interior life of themselves and their community. Against secular critiques of its naiveté, Johnson held up a vision of what Black faith has been and still could be.

“With this backdrop, I want to propose that the laughing cry is a metaphor for what I’m calling Black faith,” Johnson said as he drew connections between struggles of the past and today and defended the faith of the oppressed and marginalized against secular academics and progressive liberals. He echoed the observation in Cone’s 2011 book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” that the faith of Black students in the civil rights movement made suffering bearable while also making it unbearable for its contradictions to their moral vision. “Black faith is a necessary tool for reimagining our collective sustainability,” said Johnson, who resisted easy definitions or exclusive claims to Black faith. Instead, he called it “multilingual and multi-dimensional” — less resembling a doctrine than “a metaphor for imagining, defining, and embodying resistance, survival and existence.”

As Johnson built his case for the power and potential within Black faith, he reached beyond typical academic thinkers into the arts and other areas that “engender life.” He referenced a diverse range of world views and ideas, from Afro-Futurism and Afro-Pessimism to Kendrick Lamar. Through this, Johnson painted a picture of the “dialectic of doubt and trust in the search for meaning” that is the “profound paradox inherent in Black faith.”

The Rev. Dr. Timothy Adkins-Jones

In the Q&A period facilitated by the Rev. Dr. Timothy Adkins-Jones, Johnson identified how Black faith may be more creative and expansive than the language, logic and even Lord of Christianity, especially as defined by white and Western culture. He also said that religious leaders practice what he called “bad faith” when they train in Black theology but refuse to teach it to their congregations out of fear that it is “too academic.” Like Angelou in her poem about her female ancestors and Kendrick Lamar in his song “Auntie Diaries,” Johnson called for more trust and respect for the ordinary folk who sustain the lives of communities and churches. He pointed to examples such as “Black churches where so-called ‘unlettered people’ wanted to grapple with sexual identity.”

“They want to talk about the complexity of the Bible and how to make sense of it. And yet, I’m not sure the leadership is always willing to do that,” said Johnson, adding that seminary and divinity school alumni have expressed fears “that people won’t get it, or they won’t understand.”

“The little women we often ignore except when it is time for them to give their offerings — they are willing and ready, but I’m not sure we are giving them what they want,” said Johnson.

“Or already possess,” responded Adkins-Jones, referencing a story Howard Thurman told about his grandmother and how to read the Bible in order to discern what is faithful. Adkins-Jones and Johnson agreed not to underestimate the “sophisticated hermeneutic” that is already operating in the interior lives of people who have preserved the sense of a sacred self in the midst of struggling against enslaving and dehumanizing forces.

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