Before I begin, I feel that I need to warn you that this post is super long. However, I feel that I may have some thoughts that will contribute to the conversation around the issues of racial, cultural, and economic divisiveness that are currently happening in our country. I feel, along with many others I’m sure, that the culture wars are not only deeply dividing our citizens in the United States – but they are also deeply dividing the body of Christ. Man, my heart is heavy over this stuff. I am grieved over the anger. I am grieved over the violence. I am grieved over the hate. I am grieved that the inflammatory rhetoric of American special interest groups continue to escalate. I am grieved that the culture wars are raging.
I am grieved that our country’s leaders continue to trot out tired platitudes and point fingers of blame. I am grieved that celebrities prattle on about equal rights in their moment of fame, as they pour gas on the fires of hate and then fly away to their vacation homes in the south of France. I am grieved that everyone I speak to is either terrified or furious. I am grieved that I see very little forgiveness. Very little hope. And very little love.
1) My Introduction to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Freedom Movement
I recently read a post online that had an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 composition, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This post reminded me of Dr. King’s legacy. I grew up in inner-city Atlanta during the tumultuous 60s, so I became personally familiar with Dr. King’s work at very young age. I was in the first “crop” of desegregated white kids who were integrated into a black public school. So, as one five white kids at C.D. Hubert elementary school, along the Memorial Drive corridor, I learned a lot about Martin Luther King. And much to my racist grandmother’s dismay, he gradually became one of my boyhood heroes. As I grew into an adult, I continued to study Dr. King’s thoughts and I realized how deeply his thinking was rooted in his understanding of the Christian gospel. Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham was no exception. He wrote the letter, from the floor of a jail cell, in the early days of the civil rights movement. In the letter, Dr. King defended himself against accusations being made against him by white, Alabama clergymen. These clergymen chided Dr. King as being a trouble-making outsider, and they made allegations that his social protests fostered meaningless violence.
Dr. King gave an excellent defense of his actions, and he did so by demonstrating how his strategy of non-violent civil disobedience was rooted in the Christian gospel. Dr. King referenced the book of Daniel and the early church. He quoted Saint Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, and Dr. Paul Tillich. The gospel of grace was rooted in Dr. King’s heart. In fact, it was so deeply rooted in him that, before every protest that he led, he asked all his demonstrators to meet together with him so he could teach them the nature of Christian civil disobedience that is found in the scriptures. He then called everyone to prayer, to repent of anger, and to ask for the grace of Christ to help them endure the mistreatment that they would inevitably face. In his letter from Birmingham, Dr. King beautifully unpacked his heart for the gospel, equality, and freedom. Amazingly, he was so confident in Christ’s provision of grace that, at the end of the letter, he tacitly invited his accusers to repent and join him in the Christian fight for civil justice. He said, “One day (you) will know that when these disinherited children of God who sat down at (whites only) lunch counters – they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.” Wow! Those are amazing words.
Again, Dr. King brilliantly defended his position in a way that invited reconciliation and courted allies from among the white, Christian community. This was made possible because Dr. King’s movement was not primarily informed by a “black against white” mentality. No. It was a movement primarily informed by Christian values. As I said earlier, Dr. King’s Birmingham letter drips with the gospel in almost every line that he writes. And because Christian forgiveness, non-violence, charity and love fueled Dr. King’s actions, he slowly expanded the civil rights movement of the 60s to include blacks and whites, democrats and republicans, Christians and Jews, and other freedom loving people from around the globe. Again, it was not a black revolution movement. It was an American freedom movement. As proof, you need simply recall the last words of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech. At the beginning of his clarion call for freedom, Dr. King said, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” Then, on ten different occasions at the culmination of the speech, Dr. King used the phrase “Let freedom ring!” At the end, he thundered with passionate joy – almost singing, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! We are free at last!” Dr. King’s posture of peacefully standing firm for freedom, believing in the miraculous grace of the gospel, refusing to lash out, always forgiving his enemies, and continually inviting those who loved freedom – this was integral to the success of Dr. King’s movement. Yet, Dr. King’s vision has not endured.
2) My Introduction to Rev. Dr. James H. Cone and the Black Liberation Movement
Often, when we reference the civil rights movement of the 60s, we automatically think of Dr. King. Yet, we have to remember that the movement was not exclusively led by Dr. King. There were many other competing philosophies among African-American leaders regarding the means of gaining equality. And there was sharp disagreement about what the goals of the movement should be. Among these voices were the Nation of Islam movement led by Malcolm X; the Black Panther movement led by Huey P. Newton; and there was also the rising concepts of black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Afrocentrism that was formulated in the 1920s by W.E.B. Du Bois. All of these competing movements and philosophies continually swarmed around Dr. King. There was immense pressure on him to bow the knee to these radicalized philosophies in a show of solidarity with the black community. But, while he maintained respect for everyone within the black community, Dr. King consciously separated himself from the philosophies of violence and white hate. This drew strong criticism from other African Americans. For example, after Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech”, Malcolm X publicly condemned Dr. King. He mockingly said, “While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare.”
Underneath all the radicalized African-American movements in the 60s, no voice was more popular, clear, and direct as the voice of Rev. James H. Cone. Cone was the father of Black Liberation Theology and his concepts rooted themselves deeply in the African-American psyche. Even today, Cone’s voice endures and reverberates loudly. His Black Liberation theology continues to thrive as it is:
- propagated by Union Theological Seminary in New York;
- proliferated in African-American studies in almost every university;
- politicized by leaders like: Rev. Cornell West, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Minister Louis Farrakhan,
- and popularized by celebrity activists like: Beyoncé Knowles, Jay Z, Maya Angelou, Spike Lee, Kanye West, Jesse Williams, and DeRay Mckesson.
On a personal level, I was first introduced to James Cone while attending Martin Luther King Middle School in 7th and 8th grade. I was in an accelerated learning program that trained me in classic logic, rhetoric and debate. In one of our accelerated classes, we students were instructed to read the writings of Dr. James Cone, which called for a violent revolution against white oppression, and then we were challenged to compare Cone’s ideology with Dr. King’s thoughts on non-violent resistance. It was an awkward situation for me – being the only white kid in the accelerated program. The discussions we had in class were often very passionate as most of my African-American classmates sided with Cone’s radicalized rhetoric over and against Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence. The deference toward Dr. Cone’s violent radicalism was especially ironic since our school was named after Dr. King.
Later in my 8th grade year, I saw the radical ideas of James Cone move from theory to practice. It was during the week when the television mini-series ROOTS was broadcast on national television. In one particular episode, there was a scene that depicted the whipping of a black slave – Kunte Kinte (played by Levar Burton). The next day at school, the majority black population of the school rioted against the handful of white students and teachers. Fights broke out. The police were brought in and the white students were escorted home and given a week out of school until things calmed down. Not only did I get my butt kicked by several students, but the experience also scared the living crap out of me as I left the school with African-American students screaming, “Roots! Roots! Roots!” and pumping their fists in the air as a demonstration of black power solidarity.
In fact, the thing that made my experience most frightening was how much Cone’s writing had contributed to the riot. Allow me to explain. In our studies, we read two of Cone’s books: “A Theology of Black Liberation” and “Black Theology and Black Power“. Here is a list of some of Cone’s most notable quotes found in those books…
3) Quotes from James Cone:
— “In order to be Christian theology, white theology must cease being white theology and become black theology by denying whiteness as an acceptable form of human existence and affirming blackness as God’s intention for humanity.”
— “Black theology maintains that ALL acts which participate in the destruction of white racism are Christian, as the liberating deeds of God. ALL acts which impede the struggle of black self determination and black power are anti-Christian, the work of Satan.”
— “We will not let whitey cool us down with his pious love ethic but will seek to enhance our hostility, bringing it to its full manifestation.”
— “Black thinkers cannot be black and identify with the powers that be. To be black is to be committed to destroying everything this country (America) loves and adores.”
— “The black experience is the feeling one has when attacking the enemy of black humanity by throwing a Molotov cocktail into a white-owned building and watching it go up in flames. We know, of course, that getting rid of evil takes something more than burning down buildings, but one must start somewhere.”
— “We realize that the black revolution in America is the revelation of God. Revelation means black power – that is, the complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary.”
— “As the oppressed now recognize their situation in the light of God’s revelation, they know that they should have killed their oppressors instead of trying to “love” them.”
— “The goal of black theology is the destruction of everything white, so that blacks can be liberated from alien gods.”
— “What we need is the divine love; as expressed in black power, which is the power of blacks to destroy their oppressors, here and now, by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject God’s love.”
— “Black theology will accept only a love of God which participates in the destruction of the white oppressor.”
— “God’s love for white oppressors could only mean wrath – that is, a destruction of their whiteness and a creation of blackness.”
— “It is necessary to speak of the black revolution rather than reformation. The idea of reformation suggests that there is still something “good” in the system itself, which needs only to be cleaned up a bit. This is a false perception of reality. The system is based on whiteness, and what is necessary is a replacement of whiteness with blackness.”
— “Being free in America means accepting blackness as the ONLY possible way of existing in the world.”
— “Most whites believe in “freedom in democracy” and they fight to make the ideals of the Constitution an empirical reality for all. But, this country was founded for whites and everything that has happened in it has emerged from the white perspective. The Constitution is white, the Emancipation Proclamation is white, the government is white, business is white, the unions are white. What we need is the destruction of whiteness, which is the source of human misery in the world.”
— “The black Christ is he who nourishes the rebellious impulse in blacks so that at the appointed time the black community can respond collectively to the white community as a corporate “bad nigger,” lashing out at the enemy of humankind.”
— “I believe that all aspiring black intellectuals share the task that LeRoi Jones has described for the black artist in America: “To aid in the destruction of America as he knows it:”
— “The charge of black racism cannot be reconciled with the facts. While it is true that blacks do hate whites, black hatred is not racism.”
— “The idea of integration assumes that white people have something which blacks want or should want, as if being close to white people enhances the humanity of blacks. This question — “What about integration?” — completely ignores the beastly behavior of the “devil white man” (Malcolm X’s designation). Black people cannot accept relationship on this basis.”
— “In time of war, men want to know who the enemy is. Who is for me and who is against me? That is the question. The asserting of black freedom in America has always meant war.”
— “The white liberal wants to be a friend to black people, that is, to enjoy the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the “Negro.” He wants change without risk, victory without blood. The liberal white man is a strange creature; he verbalizes the right things. He intellectualizes on the racial problem beautifully. He roundly denounces racists, conservatives, and the moderately liberal. Or he may go so far as to make the statement: “I will let my daughter marry one,” and this is supposed to be the absolute evidence that he is raceless. But he is still white to the very core of his being. What he fails to realize is that there is no place for him in this war of survival. Blacks do not want his patronizing, condescending words of sympathy. They do not need his concern, his “love;” or his money.”
— “Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man “the devil:”
— “Violence may be the black man’s expression, sometimes the only possible expression, of Christian love to the white oppressor.”
— “If there is any contemporary meaning of the Antichrist (or “the principalities and powers”), the white church seems to be a manifestation of it. It is the enemy of Christ.”
— “Unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.”
4) My observations of the modern Black Liberation Movement and the BLM
Under his leadership in the 60s, Dr. King made it quite clear that he did not subscribe to James Cone’s ideas. He rejected the militant philosophy of Cone and Malcolm X and denounced any radicalized movement. Dr. King believed that a radicalized movement would do nothing to achieve equality and would indeed destroy the fabric of American ideas of freedom. In fact, in his Birmingham letter, Dr. King himself publicly denounced a radicalized revolution. King said, “(A radicalized civil rights movement) is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil’.”
Those words of Dr. King were directly aimed at James Cone’s teaching. Sadly, in our present day civil rights movement, I believe that Dr. King’s Judeo-Christian love ethic of frreedom and equality has died, and Dr. Cone’s radical philosophy of militant Black Liberation has re-emerged and taken deep root in the African American worldview. In the introduction of his book “Rhetoric of Black Revolution“, activist Molefi Kete Asante (formerly Arthur Smith) affirmed this shift away from Dr. King. He said, “No period in American history has been so thoroughly volatile with the rhetoric of militant blacks as the last fifteen years. With the emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr., as the great moral force in the struggle for equality, Americans once looked forward to the idyllic state when prejudice and racism would give way to the dream of brotherhood. But King was killed. Even before the murder of the eloquent drum major for justice, the civil rights movement appeared to be exhausting itself. The decline of the nonviolent campaign was accompanied by the rising voices of Black Power advocates and black nationalists who insisted on human rights for all Americans at any cost whatsoever. Where King and others had pleaded, the militants demanded. In city after city, enraged blacks went on rampage against what they considered the system of their oppression.”
According to Asante, this is the ideology that prevails today. We can observe this ideology clearly in the Black-Lives-Matter (BLM) movement that is driven by Cone’s vision of militant black liberation. The desire for black power has overwhelmingly supplanted the desire for freedom, equality and reconciliation. As a result, the current BLM has become a reactionary movement that is informed by the underlying rhetoric of James Cone; a movement that is often fueled by an outright hate for white people. The demonstrations we often see are not generally non-violent, freedom protests that call for justice and equality. They are more commonly chaotic riots that call for death and anarchy. The BLM rhetoric, in keeping with Cone, does not generally invite white involvement. Instead it tends to demonize white people and emphatically demands that they shut up and sit down. This was made most clear in the much lauded speech given by Jesse Williams at the 2016 BET awards. Williams gave an intensely polarizing speech that worked to divide, not unify. Williams said, “We’re done watching and waiting while this invention called “whiteness” uses and abuses us, burying ‘black people’ out of sight and out of mind, while extracting our culture, our dollars, and our entertainment like oil, like black gold.” Williams’ speech was not a call for equality and justice, it was an inflammatory call for violent revolution against whites. After the speech, several white celebrities took to Twitter to support Williams – most notably Justin Timberlake. But Timberlake and other white supporters were summarily told to shut up and sit down – simply because they were white. As the movement has progressed over the last few years, the rhetoric of Cone has taken the lead in informing the movement. The following are a few observations that indicate how the BLM espouses the ideas of James Cone and Black Liberation Theology:
a) The BLM has adopted a clear political platform based on Black Liberation ideology: On August 1, 2016, The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of over 50 black-led organizations, released a wide-reaching and in-depth political platform detailing the coalition’s policy demands. The platform, which goes beyond criminal justice and rivals even political-party platforms in thoroughness—complete with issue briefs, a glitzy website, and a coordinated social-media strategy—reflects a good deal of organization and effort. Even as many still contend that the BLM movement does not have clear goals or a cohesive leadership, this platform is a firm indication that the movement is building and that it is driven by the ideals of the Black Liberation movement.
The general platform states: We stand with descendants of African people all over the world in an ongoing call and struggle for reparations for the historic and continuing harms of colonialism and slavery. We also recognize and honor the rights and struggle of our Indigenous family for land and self-determination… Together, we demand an end to the wars against Black people. We demand that the government repair the harms that have been done to Black communities in the form of reparations and targeted long-term investments. We also demand a defunding of the systems and institutions that criminalize and cage us. This document articulates our vision of a fundamentally different world (Black Liberation and Afrocentrism)… This agenda continues the legacy of our ancestors who pushed for reparations, Black self-determination and community control.
So, the question is currently staring all Americans in the face: Where do we go from here? Tragically, Dr. King’s perspective on the dangers of radicalism have now become commonplace in America. Radicalism is the prevailing nature of our current cultural rhetoric. Not just in the BLM movement, but in almost every movement in America. Across the board – whether conservative or liberal, black or white, evangelical or muslim, gay or straight, poor or rich – our nation seems to currently be made up of people “who have lost faith in America, repudiated Christianity, and concluded that (anyone opposed to our particular agenda) is an incorrigible devil.” To make matters worse, we currently have no dominant leaders today in America who employ Dr. King’s brand of loving, self-sacrificial, freedom exalting leadership. The leaders we hear supposedly decry civil injustice, yet their solutions seem to all commonly call for a vengeful revolution that desires to reorder the American social power base to favor their particular people group. This is true of whites and blacks. Gay and straight. Evangelicals and Muslims. Hardly any of our current civil rights and social movements seek to affirm American freedom that holds to constitutional integrity. On the contrary, we seem to all be seeking a re-ordered brand of slavery with our own people group managing things from the top.
I have written all of this in the prayerful hope that Americans might recover the heart of freedom loving fathers and mothers – people like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Betsy Ross, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. For Christians, my hope is deeper still – I pray that we might recover the heart of Christ. My hope is that Christians might collectively – black and white – learn to place our trust in the power of the gospel in order to bring about change and produce freedom. I am praying that we will learn to speak with a humble and repentant heart; that we will speak on the side of a gospel that includes every tongue, language, and nation; that we will learn to speak on the side of Christ. In the book of Joshua, before the battle of Jericho, Joshua asked Christ, “Whose side are you on.” Christ answered, “No! Neither! But I am the Commander of the Lord’s Army. Whose side are you on?” (Joshua 5:13-15) We need to ask ourselves that question continuously. Whose side am I on? Am I on my side, their side, or Christ’s side? We need to learn to refuse the temptation to make our experience – as a black person, white person, LGBT person, rich person, poor person, or abused person – into an idol that earns us a special right to speak, while disqualifying all other voices. Because when we do this – when we set our experience above all others – then we inadvertently create barriers instead of doors. We create hate instead of love. We create judgment instead of mercy.
I know this temptation well. I grew up in the inner-city of Atlanta as a poor, “white trash” kid, who suffered abuse of almost every kind. For so long, I used my painful experience as a weapon and a badge of honor. I often qualified my sense of subtle superiority with “You just don’t know what it’s like to be me…” I didn’t realize that this posture came from a twisted sense of pride in me and it pushed people away, instead of inviting them in. We all need to examine our hearts and fight against this temptation. If we have already yielded to the temptation, then we need to repent.
Today, Black Christian leaders must understand that they face the same challenge as Dr. King in the 1960s. As I have stated, I believe the BLM movement is permeated with a tremendous amount of militant, radical Black nationalism that demonizes all whites, exalts the supremacy of African culture above European culture, and vilifies European culture as the epitome of evil. Black Christian leaders cannot ignore this. They have to speak to it and condemn it. White Christian leaders must also condemn the same mentality that exists among whites. Dr. King condemned the reactionary radicalized movements of his day and he worked to create an alternate movement that was deeply rooted in his Christian faith. Black Christian leaders must work together with White Christian leaders to do the same. So, if there is no current evangelical alternative that speaks to injustice, then let’s pray that Christ will give us the grace to create one. One thing is for sure, the current agenda choices aren’t viable in affirming freedom, liberty, and justice.
I believe that there are many, many, many people in this country – black and white – who want to stand together in a common fight for freedom and equality. They lament the injustices made against African-Americans. They lament the calculated murder of police officers in Dallas. They lament the senseless killing of those in the LGBT community. They lament the continuous attacks that are led by radicalized Muslims. It grieves them deeply to see the violent face of racism and class-ism. But as Christians – black and white – we must learn to lament together in the face of ALL injustice. Because, if all lives do not matter, then truly no life matters at all.
So, I am praying that Christ will move his church toward greater humility, to help us repent often, to help us to be courageous, to help us stand against evil, to help us love our enemies, to help us to be wise with our words, and to help us trust in the presence, grace, and power of God. Meanwhile I long for the day when our souls will be at rest and Christ’s church will sing together at throne of God, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! We are free at last!”
Tim Melton, Associate Pastor, Surfside PCA Church (Myrtle Beach, SC)