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Cutting Edges: The Influence of Dr. Cone and Dr. Cannon

Cutting Edges

By Rev. Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson, Professor of Old Testament, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Many of us who teach in seminaries and universities are still reeling from the recent deaths of two groundbreaking scholars: Rev. Dr. James Cone (GBI 1961 and 1965) and Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon. We do not mourn their loss just because we knew them personally or because we will miss the words of encouragement we received from them over the years. We also mourn their loss because of a debt of gratitude that will now remain unpaid. 

As an African American woman in biblical studies, I know that my approach to the field would not be possible in the academy if not for their work. Some might question that statement because their academic careers focused on areas that are different from my own: theology and ethics respectively. Yet how they did their work directly impacted how I have done my work, and I am sure that there are others who could say the same thing.

Both of these scholars took their own family and community experiences in the segregated south as their point of departure, and they did not set aside the lessons learned from that context when they entered the academy. Instead of adopting the traditional standard of “objectivity,” their work exposed such “objectivity” for what it was: simply the perspectives of privileged white heterosexual men. More specifically, their work identified the consequences of those traditional “objective” traditions on black bodies. In other words, they learned the tradition, critiqued its harmful impact on their communities, and proposed constructive alternatives.

While reflecting on their transitions, I realized how my own work strives to fit their pattern. My research agenda has centered on interpreting the Bible in the context of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. I have found that, in far too many situations, traditional interpretations of biblical passages have hurt rather than helped HIV prevention efforts. Such a development is due, in no small measure, to traditional interpretations having been shaped solely by the perspectives of privileged white heterosexual men. Yet those around the world who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic are brown and black, female, LGBTQ, and poor. As a result, those who are most affected are not the ones who shape our understandings of the Bible, in particular, or the Christian tradition, in general. 

In these circumstances, a tradition that should be lifegiving has become death-dealing. To counter that dynamic, I have proposed an “inclusive” approach to reading the Bible. It is an approach that incorporates those perspectives not usually reflected in traditional understandings. In my book, Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies (Oxford University Press, 2009), I wrote that the Bible itself is a collection of writings, and each writing bears the reflection of its own context and so may vary from texts written earlier. I reminded readers that the same ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that inspired the writing and transmission of these texts remains with us and inspires us to interpret these same writings in new ways in our very different context today.

As Drs. Cone and Cannon demonstrated, interpretations and doctrines can and do have physical consequences on those deemed “other.” From them, we learned the importance of scholars attending to both their own community’s context and the consequences on those communities of traditional doctrines and interpretations. On further reflection, though, it seems that the importance of both context and consequence should be recognized in the Church as well as the academy. In today’s environment, it is incumbent upon all those who believe to consider their own context and the consequences of their doctrines and interpretations on themselves and on others.

How can I begin to repay my debt of gratitude to Drs. Cone and Cannon? Maybe I can re-commit myself to teaching even broader audiences about the importance of ethical biblical interpretation – interpretations that consider both our context and the consequences of our traditional understandings. Surely, it is only through the empowering presence of the divine and expanded parameters of Christian doctrine and biblical interpretation that we will see the flourishing of all creation.