|Green Lake Conference Center, Wisconsin|
Today I finished James Cone's beautiful and troubling The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In the last chapter Cone mentions Malcolm X's belief that God had spoken to him while he was in prison, and the famous "Waymaker" God-voice that spoke to Martin Luther King in his kitchen at a moment of crisis during the Montgomery bus boycott. Cone has also had God speak to him.
One time, while he was in the midst of writing Black Theology and Black Power, he was in his brother's A.M.E. church. He writes: "Something happened that I can't explain. It seemed as if a transcendent voice were speaking to me through the scriptures and the medium of African American history and culture, reminding me that God's liberation of the poor is the primary theme of Jesus' gospel." (154)
This brought, for Cone, a vision of light beyond the darkness. It was a transcendent moment. This is important for, as phenomenologist of religion Mircea Eliade said, "Life is not possible without an opening toward the transcendent." (Quoted in Ib.) God had given Cone a revelation of the "spiritual revolution erupting in the cultural and political contexts of the African American community. It came "like a burning fire shut up in my bones."
It was a message of liberation which is, as a plain reading of the Gospels will show, the Jesus-message. "The Christian gospel is God's message of liberation in an unredeemed and tortured world. As such, it is a transcendent reality that lifts our spirits to a world far removed from the suffering of this one. It is an eschatological vision, an experience of transfiguration, such as Jesus experienced... To paraphrase Eliade, once contact with the transcendent is found, a new existence in the world becomes possible." (155)
But the Jesus-message, the Real Gospel, is more than an eschatological transcendent reality. It is also "an immanent reality - a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst, building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on very leaning side." (Ib.) Remember that, in the 4 Gospels, there is a preferential option for the poor. The rich, on the other hand, are having a hard time with the message of Jesus.
Cone writes: "Without concrete signs of divine presence in the lives of the poor, the gospel becomes simply an opiate; rather than liberating the powerless from humiliation and suffering, the gospel becomes a drug that helps them adjust to this world by looking for 'pie in the sky'." (Ib.)
The Gospel, and the cross, are not good news for the powerful.
The now-activity of the Gospel (its immanence) and its eschatological realities (its liberating, transcendent vision of what can and will be) bring joy to the weak and the poor.