Q&A With Dr. James Cone
Parr: RMN Executive Director Troy Plummer says, “When I read Dr. Cone’s passionate words and hear him speak of’‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree,’ I am overwhelmed by the voice he gives for the 5,000 lynched African Americans identified with a lynched Jesus. And then I also see the barbed-wire fence with the body of Matthew Shepard, arms stretched out, dead because of hate against gay people.”
Dr. Cone: Yes, he’s correct in that judgment – the situation is analogous. The cross and the lynching tree can easily be applied to LGBT people who are discriminated against, shot at, and killed. Any group that is treated as if they have no dignity, no right to live; anytime people take it upon themselves to decide the dignity and life of another – it’s a crucifixion. I’m writing for all people who are brutalized and hurt for who they are vs. what they did. Black people didn’t do anything to justify lynching them; they were just being who they are, but those who hated them hated them for who they are. It’s the same with LGBT people – I’m writing for all people who are oppressed and hurt.
Parr: In your interview with Bill Moyers as you began work on this memoir, you talked about African Americans having no trouble loving a loving God, but having a harder time loving white people. How might you respond to those in our Church who’ve been damaged by someone saying, “love the sinner, hate the sin?”
Dr. Cone: That’s like saying “I love Black people but I don’t want them marrying my daughter or sitting next to me.” I want to emphasize that love stands at the heart and center of our Christian faith. You can’t say “I love the sinner and hate the sin” because here you are identifying the person as sin. When someone says that they are denying a person’s right to be, that contradicts the love of the Gospel.
For African Americans, we can love white people (even though it’s hard) because we understand love as connected to justice. Love means I have to force you to recognize me as a human being. It does not mean you can do to me anything you please.
Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement emphasized the distinctions in different kinds of love (eros, philia) and that loving white people was agape love. Agape as a much deeper, more profound love that expresses one’s humanity. To love a Bull Conner did not mean having to like him, but I have to make sure that justice is established. The only way I can love not only myself but love the one who is trying to deny me my right to be a human being is to establish justice – that’s what love looks like in public.
Parr: The Gospel lesson around which our Sunday Worship is planned is the lesson known as the good Samaritan. How do you see the connection between Jesus’ parable and the lessons of the cross and the lynching tree?
Dr. Cone: The neighbor is always the one hurt, the one life in need, the one excluded. The Samaritan is the most despised one. You know, this was one of King’s favorite parables: the one who was most despised was the one who met the neighbor in need, while the most religious ones passed the neighbor by. The Church has to look at the story and see it as a self-critique. The Church must be careful about who it excludes, who it passes by. The one most likely to be despised is most likely to help those in need. The Neighbor can be both the one who helps as well as the one in need. What Jesus was telling in that story is that whoever is in need, that’s who you must be neighbor to. And the one you would expect to meet the need is not the one who does it.
Parr: It’s been 40 years since the addition of the “incompatibility clause” in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. What do you hear in that?
Dr. Cone: The heart of Christian teaching is love, not what it says about homosexuality. God is love: if there is anything that is central to the Christian Gospel, it is love. If there is anything central to what LGBT people teach us, it is love – they embody it in their own sexuality, in their own being. It’s a contradiction that a Church centered on love would say this.
Of course the Church made a similar claim about slavery, that Christian teaching endorsed slavery. What God gives us, expects of us, is to love God with all our hearts, soul, and mind – and we must not forget the mind! We must be intelligent, using the resources of all the disciplines, knowledge that is gained in order for us to learn how to realize what God intends for us to be.
The heart of Christianity is that LGBT contribute to us because they place love at the center of human relationship. Rather than leading to exclusion, we have a lot to learn from LGBT people. We have to open our hearts because we have a lot to teach each other. Like Black people teach white people, LGBT people have a lot to teach the Christian Church. All those who are excluded have something to teach the Christian family about love.
NOW is the time for the Church to see this, to embrace and not to marginalize; to learn and not to exclude. Christians have to have the humility to know that they don’t have absolute knowledge about anything. Think of the missionary zeal that wanted to go all over the world and make people like us – rather than bring people to Jesus, they brought people to their way of life. The same is applicable here: they want to change LGBT people. The ones who want to change the ones who have been excluded need to change themselves. Self-critique would give us more humility. We have to learn from each other, and LGBT people teach us so much about love.
What we want to change is to change exclusion to inclusion – we are all God’s children, all brothers and sisters.
Parr: You are known for not being silent on subjects that make people uncomfortable, like the lynching tree. What would you say to our global Church that often finds conversation about human sexuality uncomfortable?
Dr. Cone: There’s a global discomfort talking about lots of things, but that’s no reason not to talk about them! We have to learn how to talk with conviction – not so much with absoluteness, to put ourselves in the place of God. We have to learn from each other. Because homosexuality is rejected in Uganda does not mean we should not speak about it – we must speak about it everywhere, because God’s love calls us to speak about it. I will speak about it anywhere, anyplace. It’s like speaking about my own identity, no matter where that is. There are places where people did not want to hear me, but the Gospel demands that we speak.
Keep in mind that Jesus was crucified because he upset the status quo. The Gospel can be scandalous where it is spoken if people aren’t open to God’s liberation of the people – that is: it’s always scandalous for people not open to God’s liberation. And they always crucify people who embody God’s truth. It’s no accident that Jesus was crucified. God’s truth is always crucified in situations of injustice, whether it’s Uganda or New York.
Parr: What truth do you want us to hear?
Dr. Cone: I want people to know I speak out of my own particular life. African American religious experience has something to teach America, something to teach the Church universal, just like other people’s stories have something to teach us. The problem with dominant groups is that they think they are the only ones who have something to teach others; what I want to emphasize is that they shut the door to the teaching of those who are oppressed. I wrote this book to say that the people who have experienced the lynching terror have more to teach about what the Christian Gospel means than those who did the lynching.
LGBT people have far more to teach the mainstream Church about God’s love; they have the most to teach us about the crucified Christ. One way of seeing that is the crucified gay person, the lesbian, the transgender person, the queer person. They have a lot to teach us.
Lois McCullen Parr is pastor at Broadway UMC in Chicago, and has a background in writing and peace and justice activism.