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
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).