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In this post in my series “God and Man at Yale Divinity,” I discuss the sixth week of my second semester at Yale and grappling with the work of theologian James Cone.

James Cone

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Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

I just completed the sixth week of my second semester at Yale. I have moved through my readings on James Cone, and I have finally been able to formulate an opinion. While I found his earlier work discouraging, read as a whole, I discovered some powerfully brilliant insights, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to encounter his work.

But first, I want to discuss the pleasant meeting I had with one of the few openly conservative faculty members at Yale. 

Conservatives Professors at Yale

Yale is an undoubtedly extremely liberal place, and this is particularly true among the faculty. Yet, there nonetheless exists a tiny remnant of conservative professors here.

One such professor is Carlos Eire. The Yale Daily News recently interviewed him, where he spoke about the lack of intellectual diversity at Yale. (His interview was later picked up by the Wall Street Journal.)

Dr. Eire is one of only two openly conservative-leaning professors of which I am aware—the other is a Computer Science professor who achieved unfortunate fame in the 1990s as a victim of Ted Kaczynski. (There may be more covert conservative professors on faculty who lack tenure, but I suspect they’d keep those views to themselves here.)

Conservatives in Academia

The Buckley Program hosted a dinner seminar with Dr. Eire a couple of weeks ago to discuss the issue of intellectual diversity, but I was unable to secure a seat. So, I emailed him, telling him that I was a conservative hoping to go into academia and would appreciate his advice.

In response, he invited me to come to sit down with him in his office. He sat down with me for over an hour and rehashed everything he discussed at the dinner. He was kind, articulate, and clearly brilliant.

We talked about the situation on campus and how he thinks things got the way they are. He also gave me valuable advice about moving forward.

As stated before, I wanted his advice because I hope to seek a Ph.D. and enter academia after my time at YDS. My political views make me a little wary about what I face, given the sometimes militant progressivism I have encountered thus far in the academic work.

Of course, I have no intention of ever being a loud, obnoxious conservative sharing my political beliefs where they aren’t welcome, but neither do I want to misrepresent myself.

So, having the opportunity to speak with and get some advice from him was invaluable. I am so thankful for professors here at Yale who genuinely care about students. (This applies to liberal and conservative professors alike.)

The Silent Minority

Interacting with someone like Dr. Eire also provided an encouraging boost. I often feel like I am the only conservative here.

Almost everyone else here is not only liberal but also so immersed in liberal culture that they do not even seem to recognize the existence of other points of view. After all, fish do not know that they are wet.

They seem to operate with this idea that Donald Trump won the Presidency through some mysterious faceless force—the ubiquitous Russians, perhaps—and not through the votes of their fellow citizens.

To find any other conservatives here is encouraging. When I attend my first William F. Buckley event, for example, I saw another Divinity School student there. That was itself a pleasant surprise, as I was starting to think there were no other conservatives at the Divinity School.

Even the minority of students who seem theologically conservative are usually politically liberal. You even see people swimming in the evangelical vein theologically nonetheless maintaining some kind of admiration for Marxist writings.

James Cone

In my previous post, I discussed my initial interactions with the work of James Cone. As I stated there, my theology professor indicated that we should read Cone’s earlier writing in light of his latter.

After doing so, his work clicked for me, and this is my final assessment. (James Cone has a lot of work that I have not yet read, so my assessment is tentative at best.)

James Cone’s Theology of Black Liberation is, in my opinion, rubbish with nuggets of insightful truths scattered throughout. After sitting with his writing, digesting it, and attempting to see it in the best possible light, this is the conclusion I reached. (You can see my earlier post for more detailed thoughts on that work.)

There are, of course, nuggets of profundity and insight in an otherwise discouraging work. These nuggets operate like a lump of coal that eventually yields a diamond.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

In working through The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I found the diamond.

There are, of course, parts of it with which I disagree, but his work is moving, convincing, and meaningful. In both of these works, James Cone identifies the work of Christ with the oppressed. Only in the latter, however, does he evaluate this relationship in light of God’s love.

The first work is militant and contains thinly veiled calls to violence. The latter work, however, shows a way forward, focusing on love as the response to evil.

While I do not genuflect before the identity politics and political correctness that have overcome elite universities, I recognize nonetheless that there is a background, a personal experience underlying James Cone’s work that I simply cannot understand.

The terrible evils and tragedies to which he was exposed growing up are unimaginable. The contrast was particularly pertinent to me.

James Cone: A Fellow Arkansan

Like me, James Cone grew up in Arkansas, and I am familiar with many of the places he describes in his books. The settings of his stories are, in many ways, the settings of my childhood, albeit fifty years removed.

In a small way, my family had a part in the power structure of Arkansas during the time Cone describes. My great-grandfather was the Republican minority leader in the Arkansas House of Representatives in the 1930s, a position he secured by being the only Republican in the Arkansas House of Representatives at the time.

(Given this was during a time when African Americans made up a crucial Republican voting block, I wonder whether he would have been the only one had there not been widespread voting suppression at the time.)

I wish I could speak with my grandfather to ask him about these things, about what he saw, what he knew, and what he did and felt that he could have done. I wish I could speak with him about James Cone’s work.

This was an era where the state was still bitter over the Civil War. The fact that only one Republican in the whole state could get elected to the legislature—and then only from a northern county that had sympathized with the Union during the war—is telling with regard to the homogenous nature of political beliefs in that era.

James Cone and the Shock of Evil

That lynchings could occur with such absolute impunity that perpetrators could advertise them beforehand, as they did in the South during Jim Crow, is incredibly shocking nonetheless. It’s hard to make sense of such egregious evil occurring out in the open, and James Cone describes this time with powerful vividness. 

I may strongly reject his liberation theology and his left-wing political philosophy, and I may push back firmly against those who would equate Michael Brown with Emmett Till, the reality remains that those who follow Christ must stand with the oppressed.

How that translates into practice can be a tricky thing. I am surrounded by people so eager to stand with the oppressed that they seem to find oppression hiding under every rock and lurking behind every tree.

Identifying oppressor and oppressed, however, is not always as two-dimensional as the woke crowd likes to suggest, even while they terrorize and silence their own opponents in the name of justice.

Nonetheless, the fundamental premise surrounding Christ’s identification with the oppressed and downtrodden still rings true, and I must figure out how I can be part of God’s work in this regard.

An Empty Pacificism

One interesting aspect of James Cone’s writing—one in which I found myself more sympathetic to Cone than some of my more progressive classmates—was his rejection of pacificism. Particularly in his Theology of Black Liberation, he justifies the use of violence to overcome oppression.

This caused some discomfort among some of my classmates, and I realized that it was not because they thought Cone’s reading of the presence of overt racism in America was wrong. They clearly did not.

These are people who think systemic racism to this day infects every aspect of American society. The academic clichés about the cops shooting unarmed black people just because they are black and the prison system as the new Jim Crow are uttered as gospel truths here.

Victimhood is fetishized, and James Cone as an idea feeds that progressive obsession of the white-guilt class.

Violence Against Oppression

But the allowance for violence runs counter to the pacifist ideal that runs large in such academic circles—the Antifa mentality has not really taken hold here yet—and this is where James Cone and I have a lot more in common than I realized.

I ascribe to the just war theory of St. Augustine and the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, I agree with Cone that African Americans in the South of Jim Crow would have been justified in violently resisting lynchings and other forms of systematic oppression. People always have the right to resist tyranny with violence, if necessary.

(Consistent with just war theory, however, I would qualify this only with the view that such an uprising would only be justified had there been a reasonably high chance of success. Otherwise, it will only beget more violence and devolve into never-ending vengeance and vendetta.)

This is what I think made the non-violence resistance of Gandhi and Martin Luther King so brilliant.

James Cone: Dispeller of Naiveté

Still, I don’t think many of my classmates agreed.

There is a naiveté to the pacifism that I encounter here, expressed by those who have never ventured beyond the walls of the academy.

To what extend should we take pacifism? Should Hitler have been resisted nonviolently? Should we have put down our arms as the Third Reich overran Europe and perhaps the United States, eliminating the Jewish race from the face of the earth along the way?

The ideal of pacifism must stop at the gates of Auschwitz. There its ideals only serve the oppressors. There is no room for it among the oppressed there.

Violence begets violence, but violence committed by non-violent people can stop violence. Indeed, the non-violent always revert to violence as a last resort. Failing to recognize that prevents any real understanding of the appropriate way to respond to oppression.  

I will shoot any man who breaks into my house and endangers my family. My perpetuation of violence, however, serves only to neutralize a violent threat. Once the unfortunate deed of necessity is complete, I will stay my hand. I further do not seek out dangerous men preemptively, but once it comes time to fight, I will fight.

That is justified violence, and it is about that type of violence that I believe James Cone wrote. Limiting violence to short, targeted, and winnable fights to stop real, manifest, and imminent violent injustice is justified, and on this, James Cone and I agree.

Failure to appreciate violence as an occasional necessary evil—and failure to accurately define violence, another issue entirely—can cause more harm than good.

Roman Law

On a less heady note, I met this week with my Roman Law professor to discuss my paper. After getting some advice from one of my instructors at the Divinity School, I decided that I wanted to write on Augustus’ laws limiting the manumission of slaves and how that may have affected the early Christian communities and early Church writings.

The professor was very supportive of the idea and gave me some advice. He specifically suggested that I write about the differences between Roman and Greek manumission practices within the Roman Empire and how those differences affected early Christian writings.

I was unaware that multiple types of manumission laws coexisted within the Roman Empire of the first century, so I found this immediately to be an intriguing topic. He pointed me toward a couple of books to get me started, so I guess I’m now on my way.

I’m excited about this research project and all that I will learn from it.

Preparing for Ph.D. Work

I also met with my academic advisor to talk about getting ready to apply for Ph.D. work. She provided me with some advice to get started.

She particularly said that it was essential to develop my language skills as well as I can and to put myself in situations where faculty members can see my work since they will be the ones writing letters of recommendation for me.

During our meeting, she asked me why I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in New Testament. She stated that I should be aware of how bad the job market has become and that I should only do this if I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.

That seemed like excellent advice, and it really clarified things for me. I can’t see myself doing anything else. It has been a long road to get here, and I know that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. I am excited about starting this journey.

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