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Today in the Mission Yearbook

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

June 27, 2024

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 CollegeAustin College and the University of Wisconsin.

The Rev. Amy Morrison Heinrich

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.”

The Rev. Dr. Timothy Adkins-Jones

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.

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.”

“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.

Beth Waltemath, Communications Strategist

Today’s Focus: Union Theological Seminary honors the legacy of Dr. James H. Cone

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PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
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Dear God, we praise you and give thanks for all that you have given us. May we share our abundance with others in your mission to this multicultural world. May we welcome and celebrate your rich diversity. Amen.