Wednesday, March 14, 2007

More on Cone and "Revolutionary Violence"

Despite having now devoted 3 posts to the subject (see here, here, and here) I'm not quite done with James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power. I am especially not done with his wrestling with the role of violence in revolutionary struggles.

I have already discussed this subject at length, but this morning, in the closing pages of the book, I read an even more thorough argument concerning the role of violence in the revolutionary struggle for Black Power. It is first interesting to note that, despite the appearance given from some earlier readings on the subject, Cone does not that the subject of violence poses some real problems for his equating of Black Power with Christianity:

Our chief difficulty with Black Theology and violence... arises from the New Testament itself. The New Testament picture of Jesus seems to suggest that he was against violence as a proper redress. He certainly never resorted to violence. In fact, he seems to have avoided the term "Messiah" as a personal designation because of the political (violent) implications. Also his constant references to love and turning the other cheek seem to indicate that the Christian life cannot be one characterized by an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." ... Can we then, by strength of the imagination or clever exegesis, interpret his command to turn the other cheek to mean a turning of the gun?

Cone, then, is aware that the Christian argument against violence rests on something much more compelling that just the comfort of whites or the perpetuation of oppression. It rests on the very words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. How, then, in the face of Jesus' powerful witness against violence, does Cone justify the Christianizing of violence in the struggle for Black Power? By once again attacking the assumptions of those who question the appropriateness of revolutionary violence:

The real danger of these questions is the implied literalism in them. Like the fundamentalist who stressed the verbal inspiration of Scripture, this view suggests that ethical questions dealing with violence can be solved by asking: "What would Jesus do?" We cannot solve ethical questions in the twentieth century by looking at what Jesus did in the first. Our choices are not the same as his... and thus we are placed in an existential situation in which we are forced to decide without knowing what Jesus would do. The Christian does not ask what Jesus would do, as if Jesus were confined to the first century. He asks: "What is he doing? Where is he at work?" And even though these are the right questions, they cannot be answered once and for all. Each question has its own problematic circumstances which force the believer to think through each act of obedience without an absolute ethical guide from Jesus... Therefore, simply to say that Jesus did not use violence is no evidence relevant to the condition of black people as they decide what to do about white oppression.

There is a great deal here that I can affirm, especially Cone's rephrasing of the question concerning violence. I agree that we - in a social, cultural and historical context far removed from first century Palestine - cannot decide what to do today merely by copying step for step the actions of Jesus of Nazareth. This is as absurd as imposing the laws of ancient Israel on present day America. That which was of God, and therefore effective, at one point in history does not, simply by virtue of its being ordained by God in a single place and time automatically become a universal fit for all places and all times.

However, I disagree with his assertion that Jesus' refusal to use violence to help the Israelites break free from oppression under the Roman domination system does not speak powerfully against the use of violence in the struggle for racial equality in America. First century Jews were an oppressed people, a violently oppressed people. Yet, in the face of this violent oppression, Jesus explicitly forbids the use of violence as a tool for resisting oppression. He did this, I suspect, not because he failed to see the innate violence in oppression, but rather because he saw nonviolence as the most powerful tool for fighting oppression. And, that his nonviolent method of resistance has been translated effectively to a wide variety of setting throughout history speaks powerfully to its enduring effectiveness as a resistance strategy.

To assert that one cannot simply copy the actions of Jesus should not be to say that one should do things that Jesus would never have approved of, in his name. Rather, to assert that one cannot simply copy the actions of Jesus should be an invitation to act creatively while resisting nonviolently. As both Walter Wink and Marcus Borg have noted, to take Jesus' instruction to turn the other cheek so literally that in all occasions of assault one simply turns their other cheek to be struck again is to miss the creative power of that strategy. It is offered not as a hard and fast rule, but as an example of how one can resist violent oppression with creative nonviolence, by refusing to allow their basic humanity to be stripped by the Powers.

I suspect that Cone's failure to recognize this stems from his framing of the issue of nonviolence in resistance. In the face of the violent nature of oppression, he argues:

The Christian does not decide between violence and nonviolence, evil and good. He decides between the less and the greater evil. He must ponder whether revolutionary violence is less or more deplorable than the violence perpetuated by the system. There are no absolute rules which can decide the answer with certainty. But he must make a choice. If he decides to take the "nonviolent" way, then he is saying that revolutionary violence is more detrimental to man in the long run than systematic violence. But if the system is evil, then revolutionary violence is both justified and necessary.

If Cone has correctly framed the answer here, then I suspect that we must conclude, in the end, that violence is indeed "both justified and necessary." But, must we really choose between affirming the violence of oppression and affirming the violence of revolution? Only if we fail to see the revolutionary power of nonviolent resistance.

The Christian who has faith in the methods of Jesus - and that faith is not a blind faith, but is instead supported by the success of nonviolent revolutions throughout the twentieth century - is not forced into the false dichotomy proposed here. Rather, the Christian who has faith in the methods of Jesus is free to choose the third way of creative, nonviolent resistance.

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