Monday, March 12, 2007

Response to Cone's Theological Defense of Violence in the Name of Black Power

Last Wednesday I noted reading this powerful passage from James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power:

The black man's response to God's act in Christ must be different from the white's because his life experiences are different. Christian love is never fully embodied in an act. Love is the motive or the rationale for action. The attempt of some to measure love exclusively through specific actions, such as nonviolence, is theologically incorrect. Christian love comprises the being of a man whereby he behaves as if God is the essence of his existence. It means that God has hold of him and his movement in the world. But this does not take away the finiteness of man, the existential doubt in making decisions in the world. To accept Christ means both self-acceptance and neighbor-acceptance with the existential threat of nonbeing. What existentialists call non-being is never removed from man's existence. Thus the love of self and the love of neighbor, which constitute the heart of one's being in God, never escape the possibility of self-annihilation and destruction of the neighbor. The violence in the cities, which appears to contradict Christian love, is nothing but the black man's attempt to say Yes to his being as defined by God in a world that would make his being into nonbeing. If the riots are the black man's courage to say Yes to himself as a creature of God, and if in affirming self he affirms Yes to the neighbor, then violence may be the black man's expression, sometimes the only possible expression, of Christian love to the white oppressor. From the perspective of a Christian theologian seeking to take seriously the black man's condition in America, what other view is possible?

It seems that the mistake of most whites, religionists included, is their insistence on telling blacks how to respond "as Christians" to racism, insisting that nonviolence is the only appropriate response. But there is an ugly contrast between the sweet, nonviolent language of white Christians and their participation in a violently unjust system. Maybe the oppressor's being is so warped by his own view of himself that every analysis made by him merely reveals his own inflated self-evaluation. Certainly as long as he can count on blacks remaining nonviolent by turning the other cheek and accepting the conditions of slavery, there will be no real pressure to confront the black man as a person. If he can be sure that blacks will not threaten his wealth, his superiority, his power in the world, there will be no need to give up his control of the black man's destiny.

Having chewed these words over and over again in my mind, I'd finally like to post a response. This is not the knee jerk response that I would have posted last week, as someone committed to nonviolence. Rather, this is, I hope, a patient and charitable response, a response that stems in part from a deep recognition of my own need to repent for my participation in an ongoing, dehumanizing power-structure that still robs blacks and other minority groups from access to all of the trappings of white privilege that I enjoy.

In this passage Cone makes a sharp and useful distinction between two kinds of violence:

1. The violence of the oppressors, and

2. The violence of the oppressed, in response to their violent oppression.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of most forms of pacifism that I have seen is that they, in condemning all manifestations of violence, fail to make the proper moral distinction between these kinds of violence. The violence of power - whether it is found in physical beatings, lynchings, murder, bombs being dropped on villages, or in the perpetuation of dehumanizing ideas and values, or the economic exploitation of the poor and marginalized - is a categorically different kind of violence from the violence of those who would violently shake off the shackles of their oppression. If we cannot clearly articulate that distinction, then we have nothing of value to say to those who are being ground under by the wheels of oppression.

Cone rightly calls the white church on our hypocrisy on this matter. He sees us preaching nonviolence in the 1960s the way that we once taught obedience to slave masters - as a way to keep blacks from rising up and demanding to be treated as human beings. Cone sees whites imposing nonviolence as a primary moral and spiritual duty, all the while benefiting from a fundamentally violent and oppressive system of domination.

I think, however, that Cone - while perhaps accurately diagnosing the motives that many whites had in extolling to blacks the value of nonviolence - failed to appreciate the power of nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance is not exactly the same thing as nonviolence. While both nonviolence and nonviolent resistance teach that nonviolence is (at the very least!) preferable to violence, nonviolent resistance does not teach the oppressed that their primary moral and spiritual duty is to nonviolence. Rather, nonviolent resistance - Jesus' response to the Roman domination system; the Satyagraha of Gandhi in the face of British colonial rule in his native India and apartheid in South Africa, where he once practiced law and then began his career opposing power; the "civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. - teaches the oppressed that, first and foremost they are called to resistance.

Nonviolent resistance tells the oppressed that they are human beings, and should demand to be treated as such. (We have already seen here how that plays out in some of the teachings of Jesus. See, for example, how "turning the other cheek" can be seen not as a form of submission, but rather as a nonviolent yet potent demand to be seen as an equal, a human being with all the rights and respect that entails.) Then, and only then, does it tell them that the way to go about asserting their fundamental humanity is through nonviolence.

In nonviolent resistance, in other words, nonviolence is not a moral norm, but a tool - the most powerful tool - for resisting oppression. In Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Walter Wink notes the overwhelming success of nonviolent revolutions in the twentieth century, saying:

If we total all the nonviolent movements of the twentieth century, the figure comes to 3.4 billion people, and again, most were successful. And yet there are people who still insist that nonviolence doesn't work!

Wink attributes the persistence of the delusion about the power of violence and the impotence of nonviolence to a number of causes. First, because as a culture we are "so preoccupied with power politics and wars," our history books are full of stories of wars rather than with the success stories of nonviolent movements. Additionally, he notes the negative nature of the word "nonviolence":

It sounds like a not-doing, the putting of one's energy into avoiding something bad rather than throwing one's total being into doing something good... "Nonviolence" is identified by many as the injunction to be submissive before authorities.

But the nonviolent resistance that Wink and others advocate is neither passive nor submissive. It is not simply the refusal to act violently, but the commitment to act creatively. It is the "third way," the path between "fight" and "flight."

Wink makes a sharp distinction between the kind of nonviolence that Cone repudiates and the kind of nonviolence that Jesus calls us to. He also acknowledges, with Cone, that this understanding of nonviolence as a tool for resistance is not the understanding of nonviolence that most Christians have:

Most Christians desire nonviolence, yes; but they are not talking about a nonviolent struggle for justice. They mean simply the absence of conflict... What they mean by nonviolence is as far from Jesus' third way as a lazy nap in the sun is from a confrontation in which protesters are being clubbed to the ground.

In the face of this common Christian understanding of nonviolence, it is easy to see why Cone - writing in 1969, as cities are being burned to the ground by race riots - would dismiss Christian appeals for nonviolence in the face of the threat posed to white supremacy by Black Power. Such appeals can easily be heard as a longing for a time when things were less complicated; when blacks "knew their place" and didn't rise up demanding to be seen as human beings. After all, the riots are accomplishing something. They are giving voice to the cries of the oppressed, and forcing the oppressors to see them and hear them. As such, as far as Cone is concerned, they are doing the work of God.

God's fundamental concern, made manifest in Christ, is for the poor and oppressed, the marginalized, the victims of power. In twentieth century America, those poor, oppressed, marginalized victims of power are black. The race riots of the late 1960s - which give rise to Cone's Black Theology and Black Power, and shape the theology in it - can be seen as the rise of those oppressed blacks, who now demand that the whites who tried to steal their humanity turn and face them as fellow humans.

The question we must ask, though, is this: Is violence in general, and riots in particular, the best way for the victims of power to assert themselves? I know that Cone would bristle at the notion of a white man asking that question. Who am I, one who carries the face of the oppressor, to pass judgment on the way that the oppressed revolt against the power that favors me? Who am I to tell slaves (and Cone sees the state of blacks in the late 1960s as a perpetuation of slavery) how to (or not to!) rebel against their captors?

I can't answer that question, though I can honor the concern that gives rise to it. It is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for the oppressed to trust someone who looks like their oppressor. I recognize that many who have counseled nonviolence have had ulterior motives. I affirm that when slaves were taught the Gospel, they were taught the Gospel of submission to authority rather than the Gospel of the release of captives. I recognize that that Gospel of submission persisted long after slavery was formerly ended, as a way to keep blacks captive to an oppressive social structure.

But, in doing so, I also assert the power of nonviolence as a form of resistance, and as the form of Jesus' resistance. The way of Christ - and Cone is here associating Christ with Black Power - is the way of nonviolent resistance, and not rioting in the streets. This is not - as most whites might have asserting in the face of Black Power - because the way of Christ is the way of submission to domination. Rather, this is because the way of Christ is the most effective way, the way that best ensures the success of resistance.

That assertion - that Jesus' third way of nonviolent resistance is the most effective way to fight oppression - is, of course, an article of faith. But it is not an entirely unsupported article of faith. History is full of examples of successful, nonviolent revolutions, even if those examples are not always as neat and clean as the few mentions of them we find it books. And, of course, Cone is not entirely opposed to having faith in the way of Jesus. In fact, in offering us a theological defense of Black Power, Cone confesses a deep and abiding faith in Jesus as Christ. His understanding of Jesus as Christ shapes his view of Black Power. Why, then, does he have less faith in the third way of Jesus?

In the end I think it is because he is suspicious of those who preached nonviolence to him, whether they be white oppressors or the black pastors that he sees as taking the bribe of relative success under the white domination system. And, while I can see and understand that suspicion, I think that it blinds him to the power of nonviolent resistance. As such, seeing only two options for blacks in the late 1960s, submission or uprising, he chooses uprising.

I wonder what he would choose today...


PamBG said...

[edited for grammar - pedant that I am!]

I have to confess that I never understood there to be a difference between non-violent resistence and non-violence.

I never thought that non-violence committed one to being passive or that it committed one to refusing to make moral or ethical judgements.

Have you read Miroslav Volf's "Exclusion and Embrace"? As someone whose people were subjected to genocide, he does point out that the world would not exactly be a just place if everyone did violence to those who oppressed them. (I realise that you're not suggesting this, but I think it's a fair question to ask!)

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for your prompt comment!

Nonviolence by itself is simply refraining from violence. Nonviolent resistance is resisting oppression through nonviolent means. I think that Cone failed to appreciate that nonviolence could be a powerful form of resistance.

Nonviolence does not commit one to being passive, nor does it commit one to making moral or ethical judgments. But, nonviolence is often passive, and it often comes with particular moral judgments.

I haven't read anything by Miroslav Wolf, though when I get a moment I may check out that book, since you suggest it. And, if I understand Volf correctly from your comment, I think that I agree with him. If violent oppression were always met with violent resistance, there would never be an end to violence. The oppressors and the oppressed would simply change roles every so often as one party claimed power, only to be toppled by the next party.

That said, there is a very important distinction to be made between violence in the name of oppression and violence in the name of resisting oppression, just as there is a difference between mugging an old lady to steal her purse, and fighting off the mugger so that he won't take the lady's purse. It may, in the final analysis, prove that both are wrong. But, even if they are wrong, they are wrong in different ways and for different reasons. And, of course, to make either of them right would require different means.

It is one thing to try to tame the violent impulse of the mugger, and another to train the one who intervenes to use a different method of intervention.