MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The world of theology has lost a revolutionary voice. The Reverend James Cone, who is credited with founding black liberation theology, died today at the age of 79. For five decades, the minister wrote and taught a perspective on the Gospel that was deeply informed by the African-American experience. Cone's teachings marked a watershed when they were first published. And as NPR's Colin Dwyer reports, they resonate today.
COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: James Cone did not have the luxury of ignoring segregation as he grew up. As a black boy born in late-1930s Arkansas, Cone endured it firsthand. His dad was even threatened with lynching when he sued the local school district in the early-'50s, trying to get it desegregated. But when Cone was learning theology, the topics of lynching and segregation somehow rarely seemed to come up.
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JAMES CONE: I don't know how anybody can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in a slave society, or in a segregated society, or in a society in which people are lynched unless you make that gospel stand in opposition to slavery, segregation, and lynching.
DWYER: That's Cone speaking on Fresh Air, before his death, about a decade ago. As a young man immersed in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, Cone began to rethink what he'd been taught about the Bible. He began to read it in the context of black people's experience and he came to some conclusions that were revolutionary at the time. God and Jesus Christ had been whitewashed by centuries of church doctrine, Cone argued. He said, God lives and advocates for the oppressed and that included struggling for racial justice too. With his first books, published nearly five decades ago, Cone came to be identified with a new perspective on the Bible what's called Black Liberation Theology.
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CONE: Black theology is an understanding of the Gospel which sees justice for the poor as the very heart of what the Christian gospel is about and the very heart of what God is doing in this world.
SERENE JONES: It blew my mind.
DWYER: That's Serene Jones. She's now the president of Union Theological Seminary, where Cone taught for half a century. She says she first encountered Cone's work as a seminary student. It was the first book she was assigned in her first theology class, fresh out of Oklahoma, and it completely shifted her own aspirations as a theologian.
JONES: James Cone came out like a torpedo with this truth. And nobody who encountered his work could avoid it.
DWYER: She also saw it on the faces of his students at Union, where he long taught as Professor.
JONES: Fifty years of students walk out the door of his class in tears. They walk out inspired. They walk out troubled, but they all walk out feeling deeply touched by his kindness and his fierceness.
DWYER: Cone wrote about a dozen books and published more than 150 articles during his career as a minister, a teacher, and a thinker. And he was satisfied with the work he did, Serene Jones says. She remembers he came up to her last week, not long before his death.
JONES: And he said, I've had my say, Serene. I've had my say.
DWYER: And he will be saying it a while longer still. James Cone just finished his memoir earlier this year. It is set to publish before the year is out. Colin Dwyer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.