On Violence: James Cone and Martin Luther King Jr.

In the last post, I quoted James Cone, who had this critique of Martin Luther King Jr.’s perspectives on violence and nonviolent:

[Martin Luther King Jr’s] dependence on the analysis of love found in liberal theology and his confidence that the ‘universe is on the side of justice’ seem not to take seriously white violence in America. I disagreed with his conceptual analysis of violence and nonviolence, because his distinctions between these terms did not appear to face head-on the historical and sociological complexities of human existence in a racist society. James Cone, _God of the Oppressed_, 203

Tyler asked if I’d comment further on this critique, and as it connects to some previous posts of mine on nonviolence (I, II), I thought it’d be worth lingering on this criticism. 

Cone suggests that his theology is “very similar to King’s despite our apparent difference[s]” (203). Both “recognize that a fight is on and black survival and liberation are at stake. Therefore, we do not need to debate the relative merits of certain academic distinctions between…violence and nonviolence” (203-204, emphasis added).

The distinction between violence and violence is academic for Cone in that it abstracts from the overwhelming violence of simply living in a racist world: “no one can be nonviolent in an unjust society” (201). When life itself is irreducibly linked to violent domination and oppression, the question at hand is not violence or nonviolence but the “creation of a new society” (202)–survival, and liberation.

For Cone, King errs in not taking account the violent constitutions of subjectivities in a racist world. To be is already a violent affair and to frame the discussion of ethics and life between the imagined options of violence or nonviolence is to misunderstand the history that shapes our social existence.

The question, for Cone, and he thinks also, at the core, for King, is not about an ethical program based on “good and evil, right and wrong.” Instead, the basis of action is the decision “between the old and the new age” (206). For Cone, we bear witness to the new age most fundamentally not by nonviolence, which is ultimately an ethical abstraction, but by participating in Christ’s present work to overthrow oppression and create “a new humanity” (203).

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5 Responses to On Violence: James Cone and Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. Tyler says:

    This — along with your older posts — is very helpful, Tim. Much appreciated. At the same time, I’ll admit, I don’t quite understand how nonviolence as an ethical category is more of an abstraction — or more academic — than saying that violence is inherent in existence. I can see the problems with violence and nonviolence as fixed, static categories that cannot be redefined in more complex circumstances. But to me it seems like the ethical categories of violence and nonviolence are more intuitive (and therefore less abstract?) and less imagined than the fundamental violence in existence that I think you are talking about. Perhaps Cone may attribute my inability to understand to my whiteness (which very well may be true…).

    In a sermon on loving your enemies from the late 50’s, King says something a little bit different than the ‘universe is on the side of justice’. He says that it is our job to realize that Jesus wasn’t playing when he said love your enemies and that in loving your enemies the cycle of violence is broken. The universe, in his description in this sermon, isn’t something that always goes with justice, but is something that can be made to be on the side of love or it can continue to be on the side of hate. For most of history, we can assume, it has been on the side with hate. It is our task to ‘inject’ love — which he says is both creative and redemptive — into the universe against the power of hate.

    Is it possible that from this view King does recognize violence in hate that is part and parcel with being, but that he still imagines nonviolence to be a possibility through love? In other words, maybe King takes seriously white violence while simultaneously believing that Christ’s command can be creative in history to allow for a nonviolent way of being?

    • Tim McGee says:

      I think Cone’s point is that given the way a racist society is configured, it is impossible to be “nonviolent” unless violence is interpreted in such a way that abstracts from our actual lives. To use Richard Wright as an example, he says,

      “I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings.”

      What Wright is pointing out, and Cone would agree, is that there is no way to white or black in America and not have one’s very subjectivity formed by spectacular violence (it’s not a question of metaphysics but a question of the social conditions of human life).

      I think, for Cone, King’s approach is suspect because King uses an ethical analysis that prioritizes an abstract, individual actor (the “liberalism” he mentions) and a very narrow definition of violence. One way to reinterpret Cone’s challenge would be to ask: were the white people who opposed the civil rights movement but did not personally attack and physically harm black people “nonviolent”?

      Cone agreed with much of what King did, and so wasn’t opposed to nonviolence. Perhaps, for him, the fundamental aim wasn’t to be nonviolent and hope that liberation would come but to seek liberation and hope that it could proceed without destroying human life.

  2. Tyler says:

    I appreciate the response, Tim. It does help clarify what’s at stake. Best.

  3. Tyler says:

    Tim, I was wondering if I could email you with some questions about nonprofits in the Durham area as someone looking to relocate there soon. Much appreciated.

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