Listening to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and James Cone

Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled.

Last evening I sat around our living room with 22 other Living Water Community Church folks and had a frank conversation about racism. The conversation was passionate and open. It ranged from personal stories to talk of definitions of racism and even touched on the practical. It was a new conversation to have with so many people in our congregation. My hope is that our sharing together will the start of a serious process that will include our whole church and not just a one Sunday event in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As most of you well know, the vision of Martin Luther King was not simply dreams of black and white children playing together. It was not just about sitting down and being friends. Some of us have heard of his radical critique of the triple evils of poverty, racism and war. But in Malcolm & Martin & America: a Dream or a Nightmare?, James Cone goes far beyond the quotes and the sound bites to look at the grain of King’s life and shows how his life path and vision was and is inextricably linked with that of Malcolm X.

I highly recommend Malcolm & Martin & America for Christian who recognizes that the problem of racism in the United States did not go away with the election of Barack Obama. It is a surprisingly readable history that tells the story of both men in the context of the history of black nationalism and integration struggles. I’m not qualified to write an overall review of the book, but I will share a few quotes from the book that stood out for me along with a few of my own thoughts.

One of the themes in the responses to my recent piece on peace and justice theology was the complaint that the term "peace and justice" has become associated with "left wing politics." Dr. King was hounded by similar allegations all his life. Any theology that challenges the power structures is often dismissed using similar arguments. Malcolm & Martin & America serves as a warning that theology divorced from sociopolitical realities of the Christians it serves can become a tool of domination (Cone’s expounds on this in a recent article on The Religious Cancer or Racism).

Those of us with economic and social privilege like to focus on the Christian values of service, charity and mission. These ideals allow us to reach down from a place of privilege and feel good about helping the less privileged without examining the structures that maintain the difference. When focused on to the exclusion of peace and justice values, they lead to the sort of Christian theology that Malcolm X so thoroughly ane effectively critiqued. His family was harassed and torn apart by white Christians. He spent some of his teenage years with a Christian couple who likely saw themselves as practicing Christian charity, yet consistency referred to him with degrading racial terms. Is it surprising that he embraced a black Muslim theology centered on justice and self-love for black people and righteous anger at white people and everything they represented? Cone says:

Malcolm remembered his parents and other black Christians singing "Wash me and I’ll be whiter than snow." With Christian church and their theologians and preachers defining everything bad in this world and the next as black, how was it possible for that religion to bestow self-worth upon the black person hood of a prisoner like Malcolm? It seems that, in Malcolm’s case, it was not possible. Only a black religion, a black God, could "resurrect" a person like Malcolm from the "dead," from the "grave of ignorance and shame," and stand him on his feet as a human being, prepared to die in the defense of the humanity of his people. [emphasis in the orginal] (p. 156)

But for Malcolm the problem with Christian theology was not just personal. He recognized the ways that Christian theology had been used to dominate people of color around the world. This was why it was so important for him to talk about a black God:

[Malcolm X] was making a theological statement about God which is commonly found among peoples of the world whose religions portray God as being more then a mere extension of the ideology of the ruling class. In a society where blacks have been enslaved and segregated for nearly four centuries by whites because of their color and where evil has been portrayed as "black" and good as "white" in religious and cultural values, the idea that "God is black" is not only theologically defensible, but it is a necessary corrective against the powers of domination. A just and loving God cannot be identified with the values of evil people. Indeed, a case could be made that white people created a God of "cheap grace" (to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-known phrase) so that they would not be punished for the enormous crimes they have committed against the colored people of the world. (p. 160)

Cone goes on to name the the way these problems flow out of Europeans discussing peace, theology, and history as if other culture’s perspective don’t exist or at least aren’t important. (p. 294) Throughout the book, Cone isn’t afraid to critique either of these leaders. He talks clearly about the way Dr. King was influenced by his white financial backers, a problem that Malcolm X pointed out over and over again. Cone also names the problems with a dream of integration that relies on black people becoming white:

[King] often communicated the idea that unless Negroes are in the same schools with whites and socialize with them, they cannot be free or equal to whites. But by becoming integrated with whites, a few (and only a few) blacks acquired middle-class income, status, and values which separated them from the black masses, especially their religion. For integration, by its very definition, alienated backs from their cultural history and thereby from those religious values that empowered them to fight for freedom. To be "free" meant to become white, and to be white in America has always mean the opposite of being black… In fact, the success of black persons in the mainstream of America is primarily dependent upon their willingness to deny their African identity and become just an American. [emphasis in the original] (p. 149)

As we honor King today, Cone’s book is a critical reminder that these issues are not just part of our history as a country and a planet, but also part of our present and our future. As Anabaptists we must work to build, not leave behind, the connections between the biblical vision of shalom and concrete work for racial justice.

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3 Responses to “Listening to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and James Cone”

  1. Philipp Says:

    Tim, you wrote “ot just a one Sunday event in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

    COuld I have an explanation of why the church selectively celebrates givernment ordained holidays like this to begin with? Looks much like lip-service to a vague, romantic and secular notion of identity-building. Heck, if we’re going to boycott Valentine’s Day (and we should! ;)), Columbus day et al. - why jump on the state’s bandwaggon to celebrate MLK day? Just a thought… or half of it. I cringed last Sunday, just as I cringed every year in an Evangelical church when the Puritans were commemorated around Thxgiving.

  2. folknotions Says:

    If this is an accurate representation of Cone’s theology, I find it highly problematic.

    “In a society where blacks have been enslaved and segregated for nearly four centuries by whites because of their color and where evil has been portrayed as “black” and good as “white” in religious and cultural values, the idea that “God is black” is not only theologically defensible, but it is a necessary corrective against the powers of domination.”

    In the context of the people of God during the time of Moses, would it have been appropriate to say “God is a Jew?”. Not at all - it would be correct to say that God has delivered the Jewish people and adopted them as his own. However, the preferencing of black over white is no better than the preferencing of white over black. It just flips the coin.

    “Indeed, a case could be made that white people created a God of “cheap grace” (to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-known phrase) so that they would not be punished for the enormous crimes they have committed against the colored people of the world.”

    I understand the mood of Cone’s point, but it reaks of deconstructionist anxiety about hidden agendas in theology. His concern about theology being used for oppression is valid - but that doesn’t argue against Euro-American theologies as such.

    Cone misunderstands Bonhoeffer at this point - Bonhoeffer demonstrated how the Reformation tradition fought against cheap grace. Cone identifies “white theologies” with their sinful misunderstandings.

    The main difficulty I have with theologians like Cone is that they almost force me to commit to a Marxist analytical method before I can even enter into the points they are trying to make. And as someone who - when an atheist - was steeped in Marxist and postmodern hermeneutics and eventually had to recognize how radically unbelieving such methods are, I find it troubling when my Christian friends are so quick to adopted these Marxist philosophies.

  3. TimN Says:

    Folknotions,

    I would recommend getting the book and reading this whole passage in Malcom & Martin & America. It is important to know that in this specific section, Cone is analyzing the theology of Malcom X, which was a black muslim theology. So he’s not talking about Christian theology specifically.

    It’s also important to understand that Cone uses the terms “black” and “white” to refer to moral perspectives rather then skin color. You can read more about that concept in Cone’s theology in this excerpt from Religious revolutionaries: the rebels who reshaped American religion by Robert Fuller.

    Also, I’ve heard your complaint about Marxist analytical method before from other Anabaptist theologians, but I’ve never had it explained to me, so I don’t really understand it. Can you expound more on how Cone is forcing you to commit to a Marxist analytical framework and what that means? Also, I don’t know what “deconstructionist anxiety” means. Can you define that?

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