God Has the Last Word

On the excellent PBS television show Bill Moyers Journal, I recently saw a fascinating interview with James Cone, an African American scholar, minister, and theologian who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The interview covers a variety of topics, but one thread woven throughout it really struck me. Again and again, Cone comes back to a powerful and liberating idea that he draws from the experience of blacks in America: Because God is Love and He created us as eternal spirits, we have the power to overcome even the worst that life can throw at us. No matter how horrific things look—even when the body is enslaved or destroyed by the powers that seem to have the last word in this world—hope is always justified, because it is God Who really has the last word. While Cone would undoubtedly disagree with A Course in Miracles on a number of points, I see many Course-like elements in his central message.

Cone begins by comparing the “lynching tree” on which white people strung up blacks in the South (and throughout the United States) to the cross on which the Romans nailed Jesus in ancient Palestine. Both the lynching tree and the cross were ways in which the ruling powers attempted to destroy the apparently powerless outcastes of their society. Cone says, “Both were public spectacles usually reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves, rebels against the Roman state and falsely accused militant blacks who were often called black beasts and monsters in human form.” Both the cross and the lynching tree were effective in a sense: Crucifixion killed Jesus (along with many others), and lynching kept blacks “in their place,” at least for a while.

But in a larger sense, neither the cross nor the lynching tree did what they were intended to do, because they didn’t have the last word. Jesus was resurrected, and his movement became the religion of the very empire that tried to destroy it. Blacks overcame their subjugation and made great strides in taking their rightful place as full members of American society (though this process is not yet complete). The ultimate source of these great reversals, Cone believes, is the God of Love Whose power can overcome even the worst of human suffering and depravity. It is the power of God that has enabled blacks (and by extension, all of us) to overcome the cross and the lynching tree.

Cone mentions three major ways that the power of the God of Love has accomplished this. First, he says that what sustained black people throughout the dark years of slavery and the years of segregation and lynching that followed was a conviction rooted in their Christian faith: that the loving God who resurrected Jesus from the cross likewise created them (and everyone else) as spiritual beings who cannot be killed, no matter what white people did to their bodies. In his words:

While [white people] might have controlled the black people physically and politically and economically, they did not control their spirit. That’s why the black churches are very powerful forces in the African American community and always have been. Because religion has been that one place where you have an imagination that no one can control. And so, as long as you know that you are a human being and nobody can take that away from you, then God is that reality in your life that enables you to know that….

They can kill your body, but they can’t kill your soul. We were always told that. There is a spirit deep in you that nobody can take away from you because it’s a creation that God gave to you.

Now, if you know you have a humanity that nobody can take away from you, they may lock you up. They may lynch you. But, they don’t win.

Second, the power of the God of Love has provided the strength to forgive; it has enabled many black people (and others, of course) to accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of loving their enemies and blessing those who persecute them. At one point in the interview, Moyers asks Cone if he has forgiven white people for lynching his ancestors. Moyers confesses that if he were in Cone’s position, he’s not sure that he would be able to forgive. Cone’s response is that the power of God that gives you the conviction that the spirit cannot be killed also gives you the fortitude to forgive those misguided brothers who try to kill you:

You see, when you have a power and a reality in your experience that transcends both you and me, then it’s not just what you can do or what I can do. It is what the power in us can do. That…presence of a spirit that is greater than you…enables you to do the unthinkable [to forgive] because you know you’re connected with the scoundrel even though he might have lynched you or lynched your brother.

Yes, Cone says, whites have done horrible things to blacks. But with God’s mighty help, it is possible to realize that in spite of everything, we are all still connected as one human family, as children of God. The white man who lynches the black man is “a bad brother. But, he’s still a brother.”

Third, the power of the God of Love has sustained the hope that in the end, everyone will come to recognize that we are all indeed children of God united in one human family—what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community.” In Cone’s words, black people “didn’t lose hope because there was a power and a reality in their experience that helped them to know that they were a part of this human race just like everybody else.” And because of that same power and reality, none of us should ever lose hope that we shall overcome someday and come together as the beloved community. We have work to do to bring this about, but the power of God is on our side. True, in human affairs, “There’s always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word?…It does not. There is always hope.”

I find Cone’s message very powerful and moving. And there are strong Course parallels for all of the main points I’ve summarized here. First, it is a fundamental teaching of the Course that whatever happens to our bodies in this world, nothing can kill who we really are, for we are eternal spiritual beings created by God. In fact, our true nature cannot be damaged in any way. This is the essence of one of the Course’s most prominent lessons, a version of which we repeat every day in the Workbook’s final review: “I am not a body. I am free. For I am still as God created me.” According to the Course, Jesus demonstrated this in his resurrection: His body was nailed to the cross, but his spirit was totally unharmed. What was true of him is true of all of us: We seem to die, but the spirit we really are endures forever.

Second, the Course too teaches that no matter what our brothers have apparently done to us, the power of God enables us to forgive them. Yes, as Cone says, a brother can be a “bad” brother—human beings are capable of “appalling error,” as Jesus said in an Urtext passage about the Nazi Holocaust. But whatever anyone has done, “he’s still a brother”; in the Course’s words, we should “think…of him as a mind in which illusions still persist, but as a mind which brother is to you” (T-28.IV.3:3). And the Course adds something that Cone doesn’t mention: We can forgive our brothers precisely because we are eternal spiritual beings who cannot be killed. They can try to destroy us but cannot do it in truth. Therefore, they are totally innocent of any crime.

Finally, the Course shares Cone’s hope that the power of the God of Love will in the end enable everyone to recognize that we are all His children, equal members of His beloved community. Indeed, in the Course it is more than a hope; it is a certainty. “Ultimately, every member of the family of God must return” (T-1.V.4:1). Exactly when this will happen is up to us; we all have work to do to fulfill our part in God’s plan for salvation. But the Course promises that “a happy outcome to all things is sure” (W-pII.292.Heading). We shall overcome, just as Jesus overcame the cross and African Americans have overcome the lynching tree, because God is Love and He is in charge. No matter how hopeless things seem to be, hope is always justified because God has the last word.

Source of material commented on: Bill Moyers Journal Transcript
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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