The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. should be considered America's greatest Christian theologian, for he was the man whose activism made social justice a component of religion, noted author and professor James Cone said Sunday.
Cone, founder of the academic school of black theology and a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, said none of the legendary white Christian theologians may be considered pre-eminent because none before King paid sufficient attention to racial issues in his thinking.
Malcolm X in his book "Martin & Malcolm & America." "Those who think this honor belongs to Reinhold Niebuhr or Walter Rauschenbusch or Jonathan Edwards [theologians from the mid-20th, early 20th, and 18th centuries, respectively] regard the intellect as more important than character in the doing of theology," Cone said.
King "never considered himself an academic theologian," Cone said, "yet he transformed our understanding of the Christian faith by making the practice of justice a central part of his Christian identity."
Cone became a devotee of King early in his theological education, but when as a seminary student he saw Malcolm speak, he dismissed Malcolm as a racist. It was only later, Cone said, during the 1967 riots in Detroit and Newark, that he began to mine Malcolm's thinking.
"When I turned to Malcolm, I discovered my blackness," Cone said to the audience of 30. "Malcolm taught many preachers that colorless theology is a joke. Malcolm put the `black' in black theology.
"King taught us we can't be Christian without fighting for justice. Malcolm X taught black ministers and scholars the identity of black Americans as a people was inextricably linked to their identity," he said.
Cone answered questions after his 30-plus minute speech. One woman asked what a black theologian could do to correct the flaws in theological education, flaws that lead to the continued diminution of race as a category of analysis. Cone replied that writing books, as he does, is a start, but cannot solve the problem.
"The black church is so anti-intellectual," he said. "They think if they holler and scream and get some music going, entertain people, things are going to change. ... We can proclaim God better than any people in the world. But we don't think about God."
As long as "teaching is secondary to preaching" in the black church, Cone said, African Americans will only fulfill white Americans' low hopes for them.
"Whites think they're the dominant ones, particularly when it comes to theology," he said. "They'll let us sing and dance a little, so long as we don't think."
Cone coined the term "black theology" in 1969 to describe religious thinking that focused on God's role in liberating oppressed African Americans. Black theology is one species of liberation theology, a wider movement that focuses on the liberation of poor people.
Cone was a guest of the Links, an historically African American women's service organization whose Farmington Valley Chapter has 26 members. Cone's was the third and final talk in a series presented by the Links' International Trends and Services Committee in honor of African American History Month.