Risks of FaithThe Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998
Beacon PressCopyright © 2000 James H. Cone
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780807009512
Christianity and Black Power
My purpose is to examine the concept of Black Power and its relationshipto Christianity and the Church. Some religionists would considerBlack Power the work of the Antichrist. Others would suggest thatsuch a concept should be tolerated as an expression of Christian love to themisguided black brother. It is my thesis, however, that Black Power, evenin its most radical expression, is not an antithesis of Christianity, nor is it aheretical idea to be tolerated with painful forbearance. It is rather Christ'scentral message to twentieth-century America. And unless the empiricaldenominational Church makes a determined effort to recapture the ManJesus through a total identification with the suffering poor as expressed inBlack Power, that Church will become exactly what Christ is not.
That most churches see an irreconcilable conflict between Christianityand Black Power is evidenced not only by the structure of their community(the 11:00 A.M. hour on Sunday is still the most segregated hour of anyweekday), but by their typical response to riots: "I deplore the violence butsympathize with the reasons for the violence." What churchmen, laymen,and ministers alike apparently fail to recognize is their contribution to theghetto-condition through permissive silenceexcept for a few resolutionswhich they usually pass once a year or immediately following a riotandthrough their cotenancy with a dehumanizing social structure whose existencedepends on the enslavement of black people. If the Church is to remainfaithful to its Lord, it must make a decisive break with the structureof this society by launching a vehement attack on the evils of racism in allforms. It must become prophetic, demanding a radical change in the interlockingstructures of this society.
Of course the Church must realize, in view of the Christian doctrine ofman, that this is a dangerous task. But obedience to Christ is always costly.The time has come for the Church to challenge the power structure withthe power of the gospel, knowing that nothing less than immediate and totalemancipation of all people is consistent with the message and style of JesusChrist. The Church cannot afford to deplore the means that oppressed peopleuse to break the chains of slavery because such language not onlyclouds the issue but also gives comfort and assistance to the oppressor.Therefore, the primary purpose of this essay is to show that embracingBlack Power is not only possible but necessary, if the Church wants to remainfaithful to the traditions of Christianity as disclosed in the person ofJesus Christ.
Definition of Black Power
What does Black Power mean? It means nothing other than full emancipationof black people from white oppression by whatever means blackpeople deem necessary. The methods may include selective buying, boycotting,marching, or even rebellion. Black Power, therefore, means blackfreedom, black self-determination, wherein black people no longer viewthemselves as animals devoid of human dignity but as men, human beingswith the ability to carve out their own destiny. In short, as Stokely Carmichaelwould say, Black Power means T.C.B., Take Care of Businessblackfolk taking care of black folks' business not on the terms of the oppressor,but on those of the oppressed.
Black Power is analogous to Albert Camus's understanding of the rebel.The rebel is the man who says no and yes; he says no to conditions consideredintolerable, and yes to that "something within him which `is worthwhile ...' and which must be taken into consideration." He says no to"the humiliating orders of his master," and by so doing testifies to thatsomething that is placed above everything else, including life itself. To sayno means that death is preferable to life, if the latter is devoid of freedom.In the words of the black spiritual, "Before I be a slave I'll be buried in mygrave." This is what Black Power means.
Unfortunately, many well-intentioned persons have insisted that theremust be another approach, one that will not cause so much hostility, notto mention rebellion. Therefore, appeal is made to the patience of blackpeople to keep their "cool" and not to get carried away by their feelings.These men argue that if any progress is to be made, it will be through acareful, rational approach to the subject. These people are deeply offendedwhen black people refuse to listen and place such liberals in the same categoryas the most adamant segregationists. They simply do not see thatsuch reasoned appeals merely support the perpetuation of the ravaging ofthe black community. Black Power, in this respect, is by nature "irrational,"that is, not denying the role of rational reflection, but insisting that humanexistence cannot be mechanized or put into neat boxes according to reason.Human reason, though valuable, is not absolute, because moral decisionsthosedecisions that deal with human dignitycannot be madeby using the abstract methods of science. Human emotions must be reckonedwith. Consequently, black people must say no to all do-gooders whoinsist that they need more time. If such persons really knew oppressionknewit existentially in their gutsthey would not be confused or disturbedat black rebellion, but would join black people in their fight for freedomand dignity. It is interesting that most people do understand why Jewscan hate Germans. Why can they not also understand why black people,who have been deliberately and systematically murdered by the structureof this society, hate white people? The general failure of Americans tomake this connection suggests that the primary difficulty is their inabilityto see black men as men.
This leads us to another reason why the concept of Black Power is rejected.Some persons would have us believe that advocating Black Powercreates too much resentment or hate among black people and this makessignificant personal relationship between black and white impossible. Itshould be obvious that the hate that black people feel toward white peopleis not due to the creation of the phrase Black Power. Rather it is a result ofthe deliberate and systematic ordering of society on the basis of racism,making black alienation not only possible but inevitable. For 350 yearsblack people have been enslaved by the tentacles of white power, tentaclesthat worm their way into the guts of their being and "invade the gray cellsof their cortex." For 350 years they have cried, waited, voted, marched,picketed, and boycotted, but whites still refuse to recognize their humanity.In light of this, attributing black resentment to the creation of BlackPower is ridiculous, if not obscene.
Furthermore, while it is true that black people do hate whites, it is misleadingto suggest that hatred is essential to the definition of Black Power.Quoting Carmichael's denial of the "black supremacy" charge: "There isno analogyby any stretch of definition or imaginationbetween theadvocates of Black Power and white racists.... The goal of the racists is tokeep black people on the bottom, arbitrarily and dictatorially, as they havedone in this country for over three hundred years. The goal of black self-determinationand black self-identityBlack Poweris full participationin the decision-making processes affecting the lives of black people." Inhate one desires something that is not his; but the black man's intentionis to claim what is hisfreedom. Therefore, it is not the purpose of theblack man to repudiate his enslaver's dignity, but only his right as an enslaver.The rebellion in the cities should not be interpreted as the work ofa few blacks who want something for nothing but as an assertion of thedignity of black people. The black man is assuming that there is a commonvalue which is recognizable by all as existing in all people, and he is testifyingto that something in his rebellion. He is expressing his solidarity withthe human race.
In reality, then, accommodation and protest seem to be the only optionsopen to the black man. For three hundred years he accommodated,thereby giving credence to his own enslavement. Black Power means thathe will no longer accommodate; that he will no longer tolerate white excusesfor enslavement; that he will no longer be guided by the oppressor'sunderstanding of justice, liberty, freedom, or the methods to be used in attainingit. He recognizes the difference between theoretical equality andgreat factual inequalities. He will not sit by and wait for the white man'slove to be extended to his black brother. He will protest, violently, if needbe, on behalf of absolute and immediate emancipation. Black Powermeans that black people will cease trying rationally to articulate the politicaladvantages and moral rightness of human freedom, because the dignityof man is a self-evident religious, philosophical, and political truth,without which human community is impossible. When one group breaksthe accepted human covenant (i.e., a mutual respect for human freedom),it begins to plant the seeds of rebellion.
Many concerned persons have pointed out the futility of black rebellionby drawing a vast contrast between the present conditions of the blackman in the ghetto and other revolutionaries of the past. They say that revolutiondepends on cohesion, discipline, stability, and the sense of a stakein society. The ghetto, by contrast, is relatively incohesive, unorganized,unstable and numerically too small to be effective. Therefore, rebellion forthe black man can only mean extermination.
The analysis is essentially correct. But to point out the futility of rebellionis to miss the point of black rebellion. Black people know that theycompose less than 12 percent of the total population and are proportionatelyweak with respect to economic, political, or military power. The rebellionin the cities is not a conscious organized attempt of black people totake over; it is an attempt to say yes to their own dignity even in death.Therefore, the question is not whether black people are prepared to dietheriots testify to thatbut whether whites are prepared to kill them. Unfortunately,it seems that that answer has been given through the riots aswell. Yet this willingness of black people to die is not novel but is rather apart of the heritage of Christianity.
Christianity and Black Power
The black intellectual community is becoming increasingly suspicious ofChristianity because the oppressor has used it as a means of directing theoppressed away from any concern for present inequalities by emphasizinga heavenly reality beyond time and space. Naturally, as the slave beginsto question his existence as a slave, he also questions the religion of theenslaver.
It is, therefore, appropriate to ask, "Is Black Power compatible with theChristian faith, or are we dealing with two radically divergent perspectives?"To answer these questions we need to ask and answer a prior question:"What is Christianity?"
Christianity begins and ends with the Man Jesushis life, death, andresurrection. He is the essence of Christianity. Schleiermacher was not farwrong when he said that "Christianity is essentially distinguished fromother faiths by the fact that everything in it is related to the redemptionaccomplished by Jesus of Nazareth." In contrast to many religions, Christianityrevolves around a Person, without whom its existence ceases tobe. Christ and Christianity belong together; they cannot be separated.Granted, there have been historical disagreements regarding the nature ofthat connection. The relationship has been conceived as inward or as externaland mechanical. But it is impossible to separate Christ from Christianitywithout robbing it of its uniqueness.
The central importance of Jesus Christ for Christianity is plainest of allwhen we consider the New Testament picture of Jesus. According to theNew Testament, Jesus is the man for others who views his existence as inextricablytied to other men to the degree that his own Person is inexplicableapart from others. Others, of course, refers to all men, especially the oppressed,the unwanted of society, the sinners. He is God Himself cominginto the very depths of human existence for the sole purpose of destroyingall human tentacles of slavery, thereby freeing man from ungodly principalitiesand powers that hinder his relationship with God. Jesus himself definesthe nature of his ministry in these terms:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed, To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
(Luke 4:18, 19)
His work is essentially one of liberation. Becoming a slave himself, heopens realities of human existence formerly closed to man. Through anencounter with him, man now knows the full meaning of God's action inhistory and man's place within it.
The Gospel of Mark describes the nature of Jesus' ministry in this manner:"The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believethe Gospel" (1:14, 15). On the face of it this message appears not tobe too radical to our twentieth-century ears, but this impression stemsfrom our failure existentially to bridge the gap between modern man andbiblical man. In reality the message of the Kingdom strikes at the very centerof man's desire to define his own existence in the light of his own interestat the price of his brother's enslavement. It means the irruption of anew age, an age that has to do with God's action in history on behalf ofman's salvation. It is an age of liberation, in which "the blind receive theirsight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead areraised up, the poor have the good news preached to them" (Luke 7:22).This is not pious talk, and one does not need a seminary degree to interpretthe passage. It is a message about the ghetto, Vietnam, and all other injusticesdone in the name of democracy and religion to further the social, political,and economic interests of the oppressor. In Christ, God enters humanaffairs and takes sides with the oppressed. Their suffering becomeshis; their despair, divine despair. Through Christ the poor are offered freedomnow to rebel against that which makes them other than human.
It is ironical that America with its history of injustice to the poor (especiallyregarding the black man and the Indian) prides itself as a Christiannation (is there really such an animal?). It is even more ironical that officialswithin the body of the Church have passively or actively participatedin injustices. With Jesus, however, the poor were at the heart of his mission:"The last shall be first and the first last" (Matt. 20:16). That is whyhe was always kind to traitors, adulterers, and sinners and why the Samaritancame out on top in the parable. Speaking of Pharisees (the religiouslyelite of his day), he said: "Truly I say to you, the tax collectors (traitors)and harlots go into the Kingdombut not you" (Matt. 21:31). Jesushad little tolerance for the middle- or upper-class religious snob whose attitudeattempted to usurp the sovereignty of God and destroy the dignityof the poor. The Kingdom is for the poor and not the rich because the formerhas nothing to expect from the world while the latter's entire existenceis grounded in his commitment to worldly things. The poor manmay expect everything from God while the rich man may expect nothingbecause of his refusal to free himself from his own pride. It is not that povertyis a precondition for entrance into the Kingdom. But those who recognizetheir utter dependence on God and wait on him despite the miserableabsurdity of life are usually poor, according to our Lord. And the Kingdomwhich the poor may enter is not merely an eschatological longing for escapeto a transcendent reality, nor is it an inward serenity that eases unbearablesuffering. Rather it is God encountering man in the very depthsof his being-in-the-world and releasing him from all human evils, like racism,which hold him captive. The repentant man knows that even thoughGod's ultimate Kingdom is in the future, it breaks through even now likea ray of light upon the darkness of the oppressed.
When we make it contemporaneous with our life situation, Jesus' messageis clear enough. The message of Black Power is the message of Christhimself. To be sure, that statement is both politically and religiously dangerous.It is so politically because Black Power threatens the very structureof the American way of life. It is theologically dangerous because it mayappear to overlook Barth's early emphasis on "the infinite qualitative distinctionbetween God and man." In this regard, we must say that Christnever promised political security, but the opposite; and Karl Barth wasmainly concerned with the easy identification of the work of God with thework of the State. But if Luther's statement" we are Christ to the neighbor"is to be taken seriously, and if we can believe the New Testament witnessthat proclaims Jesus as resurrected and thus active even now in the midstof human misery, then he must be alive in men who are where the actionis. If the gospel is a gospel of liberation for the oppressed, then Jesus iswhere the oppressed are. Jesus is not safely confined in the first century.He is our contemporary, proclaiming release to the captives and rebellingagainst all who silently accept the structure. If perchance he is not in theghetto, if he is not where men are living at the brink of existence, but israther in the easy life of the suburb, then he lied and Christianity is a mistake.Christianity, therefore, is not alien to Black Power; it is Black Power!
There are perhaps many secular interpretations that could account forthe present black rebellion as there were secular views of the Exodus or ofthe life and death of Jesus. But for the Christian, there is only one interpretation:Black rebellion is God himself actively involved in the present-dayaffairs of men for the purpose of liberating a people. Through his work,black people now know that there is something more important than lifeitself. They can afford to be indifferent toward death, because life devoid offreedom is not worth living.
The Church and Black Power
What is the Church and its relationship to Christ and Black Power? Accordingto the New Testament, the Church is the laos theou, the "people ofGod." It is a community of people who have encountered God's action inhistory and thus desire to participate in Christ's continued work of liberation.As Bonhoeffer puts it, the Church is "Christ existing as community"or Christ's "presence in history." This means that the Church's work andmessage is nothing other than a continuation of the message and work ofChrist. It is, as Barth puts it, "God's provisional demonstration of his intentionfor all humanity."
If the real Church is the laos theou whose primary task is that of beingChrist to the world by proclaiming the message of the gospel (kerygma), byrendering services of liberation (diakonia), and by being itself a manifestationof the nature of the new society (koinonia), then the empirical Churchhas failed on all counts. It certainly has not rendered service of reconciliationto the poor, evidently because it represents the values of a sick societythat oppresses the poor. Some present-day theologians, like Hamilton andAltizer, taking their cue from Nietzsche and the present irrelevancy of theChurch to modern man, have announced the death of God. It seems, however,that their chief mistake lies in their apparent identification of God'sreality with the signed-up Christians. If we were to identify the work of Godwith the denominational Church, then, like Altizer, we must "will thedeath of God with a passion of faith." Or as Camus would say, taking hiscue from Bakunin, "If God did exist, we should have to abolish Him!"
The Church has not only failed to render service to the poor, but alsofailed miserably at being a visible manifestation of God's intention for humanityand at proclaiming the message of the gospel to the world. It seemsthat the Church is not God's redemptive agent but rather an agent of theold society. It not only fails to create an atmosphere for radical obedienceto Christ, but also precludes the possibility of becoming a loyal, devotedservant of God. How else can we explain that some church fellowships aremore concerned with nonsmoking principles or temperances than withchildren who die of rat bites or men who are shot while looting a TV set.Men are dying of hunger, children are maimed from rat bites, women aredying of despair, and churches pass resolutions. While we may have difficultyin locating the source of evil, we know what must be done againstevil in order to relieve the suffering of the poor. We know why men riot.Perhaps we cannot prevent riots, but we can fight against conditions thatcause them. The Church is placed in question because of its contributionto a structure that produces riots.
Some churchmen may reply: "We do condemn the deplorable conditionswhich produce urban riots. We do condemn racism and all the evilsarising from it." But to the extent that this is true, the Church, with theexception of a few isolated individuals, voices its condemnation in the styleof resolutions that are usually equivocal and almost totally unproductive.If the condemnation was voiced, it was not understood! The Churchshould speak in a style that avoids abstractions. Its language should bebacked up with relevant involvement in the affairs of people who suffer. Itmust be a grouping whose community life and personal involvement arecoherent with its language about the gospel.
The Church does not appear to be a community willing to pay up personally.It is not a community that views every command of Jesus as a callto the crossdeath. Rather, it is an institution whose existence dependson the evils that produce the riots in the cities. With this in mind, we mustsay that when a minister blesses by silence the conditions that produce riotsand condemns the rioters, he gives up his credentials as a Christianminister and becomes inhuman. He is an animal, just like those who,backed by an ideology of racism, order the structure of this society on thebasis of white supremacy. We need men who refuse to be animals and areresolved to pay the price, so that all men can be something more thananimals.
Whether Black Power advocates are that grouping, we will have to waitand see. But the Church has shown many times that it loves life and is notprepared to die for others. It has not really gone where the action is with awillingness to die for the neighbor, but remains aloof from the sufferingsof men. It is a ministry to middle-class America! How else can one explainits snail-like pace toward an inclusive membership? Even though Paul saysthat Christ "has broken down the dividing walls of hostility" (Eph. 2:14),the Church's community life reflects racism through and through. It is stillpossible to be a racist, a black-hater, and at the same time a member of theChurch. It is my contention that the Church cannot be the Church ofChrist and sponsor or even tolerate racism. The fact that the Church doesindeed tolerate or sponsor racism is evidenced by its whiteness.
This leads me to conclude that Christ is operating outside the denominationalChurch. The real Church of Christ is that grouping that identifieswith the suffering of the poor by becoming one with them. While weshould be careful in drawing the line, the line must nevertheless be drawn.The Church includes not only the Black Power community but all menwho view their humanity as inextricably related to every man. It is thatgrouping with a demonstrated willingness to die for the prevention of thetorture of others, saying with Bonhoeffer, "when Christ calls a man, hebids him come and die."