We Have to Be Evidence that God is at Work in the World
By Troy Jackson
As our Greater Cincinnati community weathered the painful and tense murder trial of Ray Tensing, the University of Cincinnati police officer who fatally shot Sam DuBose, an unarmed African American man, in the head during a traffic stop in July 2015, Dr. James Cone came to town. Eight days after the election of Donald Trump, Dr. James Cone came to town. When we most needed direction, conviction, truth, and hope, Dr. James Cone came to town.
A few days ago, upon learning that the groundbreaking theologian had passed away at the age of 81, I immediately recalled with deep gratitude Dr. Cone’s words from November 2016 to a group of clergy in Cincinnati. His words continue to resonate and encourage me during difficult days. My friend Pastor Chuck Mingo of Crossroads Church took copious notes that morning, preserving many of Dr. Cone’s poignant words.
We asked Dr. Cone three questions. The first was rooted in our community pain over the killing of Sam DuBose, asking Dr. Cone to reflect on Sam’s death, and the deaths of so many unarmed people of color at the hands of police, in light of his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
Dr. Cone did not hold back, calling Tensing’s decision to kill DuBose a “modern day lynching.” He went on to say that if we want to truly understand the crucifixion of Jesus, we must “see it through lynched black bodies in America.” Dr. Cone then called for a faith movement that “binds us with the lynched victims of yesterday and today.” In the face of the lynching tree, “we have to be evidence that God is at work in this world. The only hands God has are our hands.”
We then asked, “What will be required of faith leaders and clergy in the age of Trump?” His response? “Now is the time to express solidarity. The Faith community has to decide that what happens to others, is happening to us! Preach about it! Sing about it! Practice It!” Dr. Cone then cried out, “Walk with our brothers and sisters in trouble…the church ain’t really good for much else. You take that away and we’re just another non-profit.”
Finally, we asked Dr. Cone, “What can we learn from your book The Spirituals and the Blues about responding to trauma and the sustainability of our people and the work of justice?” Again, he spoke with clarity and conviction: “The spirituals come out of trauma—out of 246 years of slavery. Slaves saw in Jesus someone who suffered the way they did. You want to learn how to get through the current troubles? Learn from those who have come through troubles.” He then wrapped up by saying, “We got through slavery, we got through lynching, and we’re going to get through Trump. We always know what Pharaoh’s going to do… Pharaoh just doesn’t know he can’t get the last word!”
My journey that led me to work with Faith in Action began not in November 2016, but when as a 23-year-old student at Princeton Theological Seminary, I registered for a course called “The Theology of James Cone.” From the first week of that class, as we read Cone’s amazing works and grappled with the history of race and white supremacy in the United States, God made it very plain that this tall white guy from Indiana was going to be responding to the truth and power of Dr. James Cone’s theology for the rest of my life. And now, over a quarter century later, I have the honor of continuing the work of racial justice with Faith in Action.
And perhaps as we transition from being known as PICO National Network, and chart a new course as Faith in Action, we will be well served to stay tethered to some of the words we heard back in Cincinnati when Dr. James Cone came to town:
“We got through slavery, we got through lynching, and we’re going to get through Trump.”
“The Faith community has to decide that what happens to others, is happening to us! Preach about it! Sing about it! Practice It!”
“We have to be evidence that God is at work in this world.”
The Rev. Dr. Troy Jackson is the director of state strategies for PICO National Network. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttjackson.