The singularity and intensity of Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation is understandable not only because of the immensity of the problem he addresses, but also because of the nascence of liberation theology when it was first written. The broader the scope, the harder it is to go deep. For example, a black liberation theology, in its radical foundations, cannot be distracted by the [valid and important] concerns of other marginalized people, or alternative approaches (read: less radical) to black liberation. It’s within this matrix that Cone writes:
White Jesus… tells blacks that love means turning the other cheek; that the only way to win political freedom is through nonviolence; he even praises Martin Luther King, Jr., for his devotion to him, though he knows that King was always his enemy in spirit that he chose King because he thought King was the least of the evils available. (38)
Cone still acknowledges, “it is beyond question that it was King’s influence and leadership in the black community which brought us to the period in which we now live, and for that we are all in debt.” His argument, which is hardly politically-correct today, is that the path of nonviolence is not the only relevant and even Christian way to fight for liberation.
Cornel West is a product of both James Cone and Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Cone’s endorsement is on the back of my Prophetic Fragments book jacket. But West wouldn’t dream of critiquing King. The first essay in Prophetic Fragments is “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Prophetic Christian as Organic Intellectual.” West begins:
Martin Luther King, Jr., was the most significant and successful organic intellectual in American history. Never before in our past has a figure outside of elected public office linked the life of the mind to social change with such moral persuasiveness and political effectiveness. (3)
In exploring King’s broad cultural and religious priorities, West illustrates the marriage of personal salvation and piety to political liberation and social justice. Cone writes, “Black theology rejects categorically white comments about the sins of blacks,” (Black Theology of Liberation, 51) but West expands:
The black church put forward perspectives that encouraged both individuality and community fellowship, personal morality and antiracist political engagement, a grace-centered piety and a stress on Christian good works… The black church tried to hold together both the dignity and depravity of persons in such a way that God – like Yahweh with the children of Israel – identifies with the disinherited and downtrodden, yet even the disinherited and downtrodden are sinners in need of conversion and sanctification. (6)
Of course Cone is right: it’s outrageous and inexcusable for any privileged group (read: oppressor) to dictate moral expectations to marginalized people (the oppressed). But West demonstrates how King and the religious mores of the black civil rights movement affirmed the need for personal redemption, even of the oppressed. This is the dynamism of the Gospel.
Finally, West holds no illusions about King, and rejects an illustration of naïve optimism. King was a pragmatist, and his nonviolence was a pragmatic decision inspired by Gandhi, as much as it was a natural outpouring of his religious commitments. “King was convinced that despite the racism of the Founding Fathers, the ideals of America were sufficient if only they were taken seriously in practice.” (11)
After the recent death of Nelson Mandela, I watched a television interview with West, where he denounced the media and pop-culture’s “Santa-Clausification” of Mandela: “We turn the revolutionary into an old man — a huggable old man with toys and a bag, smile on his face, no threat to anybody, domesticated, tame. And no longer really full of the fire.” In fact, Mandela endorsed armed resistance and insurrection against the apartheid South African government. Like Cone, West recognizes more than one legitimate way to move forward the cause of human rights and liberty.
More to come...
More to come...