Sunday, May 17, 1998

Theology conference encourages spiritualism, racial unity

Theology conference encourages spiritualism, racial unity
The Chicago Maroon
By Pamela Appea

Thirty years ago James Cone, currently of New York’s Union Seminary, burned the midnight oil, like any other intellectual , in order to write.

Cone, who had studied the great Western theologians and thinkers for years in the seminary, decided, however, to break away from what he deemed to be the uninspiring type of publication produced by his peers in order to pen the groundbreaking book entitled Black Theology & Black Power.

This single work opened the floodgates to theological and intellectual discourse across the nation on the discipline of black theology, a previously unheard of concept.

This past weekend marked the first U of C black theology conference held anywhere in the United States. It was hosted by the Martin E. Marty Center and the University of Chicago Diversity School. The conference, organized by Associate Professor of Theology Dwight Hopkins, along with Divinity School students, was entitled “Black Theology as Public Discourse: From Retrospect to Prospect,’ and helped to honor the 30th anniversary of the publication of Cone’s book.

“I think we needed to be better prepared for the overwhelming response,” said Hopkins. “Hotels were not available. People called and said they could not come because there wasn’t a place to stay, particularly students. [This response demonstrates that] black theology is an essential issue.”

Over 2,500 community leaders, students and faculty congregated in Hyde Park in order to discuss, debate, and question black theology and examine black theological issues in relation to every social reality of blacks, both during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and current times.

Cone, Cornel West, professor of Afro-American studies and religion at Harvard University, Manning Marable, professor at Columbia University, and Emilie Townes, of the St. Paul School of Theology, were featured speakers for the conference. The conference also featured workshops and panel discussions.

West spoke Friday, April 3, at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel about the relevance of black rage with black individuals’ intense desire to be considered human, which every individual grapples with in their lives from a theological standpoint.

“[Cone’s] classic … changed the lives of thousands and thousands of young brothers and sisters who were trying to reconcile the times of the Civil Rights movement and their own Christianity,” said West.

Cone spoke on the afternoon of Saturday, April 4 for the annual U of C Aims of Religion Address at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Cone talked about his awakenings, prompted by the unjust assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“The Civil Rights and the Black Power movements awakened me from my theological slumber. The curriculum at Garrett and Northwestern did not deal with the questions that black people were asking,” said Cone.

Cone detailed the beginning of his search for his “theological identity.”
“Malcolm taught me how to make theology black and to not be ashamed of my African roots. Martin taught me how to make theology [truly] Christian and to deal with socio-political injustices,” he said.

In that time period Cone declared that his identity was transformed from a Negro theologian to a black theologian.

“As someone who has followed black theology, it has challenged me to be critically engaged with issues of black liberation … and to rethink creatively the foundations of the black theological movement,” said Kazi Joshua, director of organization for the conference, research assistant to Hopkins, and a third-year student in the Divinity School.
Cone went on to discuss the idea that liberation theology must strive to include disenfranchised individuals of other minority groups.

“After the Holocaust, theologians asked whether anti-Semitism was an extractable segment of the C Christianity. [Then] Feminist theologians asked whether patriarchy is so deeply rooted In Christianity. Gay and lesbian theologians are asking whether homophobia is part of the Christianity, third-world theologians are asking the same,” he said.

Cone challenged individuals to explore Christianity, which he says has been used for unjust purposes by white theologians and white ministers.

“Christianity was used to justify slavery, colonialism, and socio-economic injustices for over 500 years. I sometimes wonder how they are not embarrassed with their unwillingness to deal with the issues,” he said.

Cone concluded that individuals should not give up hope. However, Cone believes the “radical edge of theology” should not be dulled or dropped, but rather honed for education, racial healing, and theological discourse.

Originally published Tuesday, April 7, 1998