There is an American catechism. It goes something like this:
The United States is not an empire.
This is the land of opportunity.
We judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
We are a shining city on a hill.
We are -and have always been- a beacon of freedom for the world.
If our country has erred, its errors were well-intentioned.
Anyone can be successful if he is willing to work.
Private property is the basis of personal liberty.
Our destiny is manifest.
If you believe the above, what I am about to say will likely annoy you. But I would like to ask one question of everyone: How many of these catechistic statements do you truly accept? Any, all, or none? One more question: Do you believe that human liberation will come about by reform or revolution?
Reverend-Doctor James Hal Cone was born in the small hamlet of Fordyce, Arkansas in that Depression summer of 1936. FDR was on the ballot and our country was about to decide if Roosevelt’s New Deal “revolution” should continue or be dropped into the dustbin. When Cone turned three months old, the voters said: “Let the revolution continue!” Perhaps no one group said this more completely than the white voters of Cone’s native South.
Southern whites said, yes, the bankers and financiers of Wall Street should not find favour in Washington. It was time for the wealthy to share their wealth and help make “every man a king,” as Mr. Kingfish himself, Louisiana Senator Huey Long had said.
Which men should be made kings? Not every man. White men. This was no secret. Men meant white men. People meant white people. Everyone in the South knew this: Cone’s parents, Southern sheriffs, Congressmen, businessman, farmers, Senators, Governors. The president knew it, too. FDR’s wife, Eleanor, kept pushing her husband to stand up to the Southern Barons who dominated the United States Congress; those men who held the legislative keys to FDR’s political kingdom. Mrs. Roosevelt said: “Push an anti-lynching law! You will never be more popular and with more political capital than you have right now! You won all but two states! The Congress is now filled with liberals!” But FDR did not act.
Lynching, like Jim Crow, continued.
In the late 1960s, when James Hal Cone was a newly minted PhD in theology, having completed his studies at the prestigious Northwestern University, Catholic (and some Protestant) theologians across Latin America were in ferment. They began standing up and declaring that human liberation would not -could not-come from prayer alone. Priests had to go into favelas and barrios, slums and minifundias and preach the Gospel of liberating the mind, the soul, the spirit and the belly. They had to bring the practical program of socialism into their parishes. They would agitate for land reform, milk for children, public education, democratic elections, widely available health care, social citizenship. They would -their Church would- stand on the side of the poor, the oppressed. They would oppose the oligarchs, the dictators, the absentee landlords and traditional tycoon patriarchs. The liberationists declared that Jesus was, first and foremost, a liberator of the poor. He was present among the poor. That old line about the rich man, the camel and the eye of the needle? That was merely cute and quaint poetry: That was the real deal.
Cone took note.
At that time, in these United States, young men like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown were coming forward from within the ranks of the student and nonviolent Civil Rights movements and saying it was time for black people to get theirs, too. If that meant a confrontation with whites in power, so be it. If that meant offending the sensibilities of politicians and good liberal allies, they would do that, too. If that meant saying that the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King was an illusion, that the United States was not a place of brotherhood; Carmichael and Brown would not hesitate to proclaim it.
Cone was listening.
And then, in the midst of urban riots that burned down black neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, Harlem and in countless other cities and towns, leaders like Dr. King, Malcolm X., and Bobby Kennedy were taken down by bullets.
Cone was watching.
In the midst of all of this turmoil which, some thought, was insurrection, Dr. Cone molded his ministry. In 1969, a new movement dawned. A theological movement; a fraternal turning toward the same horizons drawing many black activists. That year, Dr. Cone made his declaration: In America, there would be liberation theology, too. Black Liberation Theology.
His book, Black Theology and Black Power, was a manifesto that made it clear how black power and the liberation of the human spirit were both responsibilities of the American theologian. He pointed an accusing finger at the greatest American theologian of the day, Reinhold Niebuhr, a darling of the political establishment and declared that Dr. Niebuhr has been derelict in his ministerial and scholarly duties. American theologians had not accounted for the role of American Christianity in endorsing American slavery and Jim Crow.
But there was more.
Cone believed that at the heart of the Christian Gospels was a divine commitment by God to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Jesus, Cone claimed, was the symbol of God’s identification with the poor, the condemned, the despised and the forsaken. The Gospels reported that Jesus built his ministry among society’s outcasts and that society would be judged not by its wealth or its monuments, but the condition of its outcast. In 1969, the outcasts of the United States were the poor, the black, the brown and American women. (Later, Cone would amend his work and include the LGBTQ community.)
In 1970, Cone took a further step with A Black Theology of Liberation and then five years later, crowned this period of his work with his opus, God of the Oppressed. No theologian before him had taken the suffering of the American poor and people of color and made it the cornerstone of their theology. Why was this? Cone asked. Because American theologians were predominantly white. White theologians reflected the faith of white America and white Americans embraced the great American catechism: the United States was and is and always has been a beacon to the world.
Not so, said Cone. Not so at all.
Go down to the Mississippi Delta and visit Emmet Till’s watery grave. Visit the driveway of the Evers’ home in Jackson where Mr. Medgar Evers -a military veteran- was taken out by an assassin’s bullet coming home late from work (his wife and children watching). Follow the cause of Ida B. Wells as she fought to make lynching of black men illegal. Stand on the front porch of a Fordyce, Arkansas home alongside Dr. Cone’s father as he is prepared to fend off the Klan with a gun. Walk with Dr. King through Cicero, Illinois and take a stone to your temple as whites tell you to go back to the jungle. Watch the good people of liberal Boston, Massachusetts fly Nazi flags because they don’t want their children bussed into classes with blacks.
And if that is not enough, go and have a look at the images of children running down a country road in Vietnam, covered in napalm.
The spirit of Jesus, Cone said, was alive and well in the tiny rural churches of the Black Belt south where folks came to pray and be lifted up from the indignity of their second-class condition. They came together in a place where they didn’t have to answer to “boy,” “uncle” or “auntie” or accept being called by their first name no matter how old they were.
Sunday morning was when Jesus would come down and visit the churches as the congregants sang their spirituals. The word of the Lord would remind the congregation that their savior died to identify with them: the poor, the illiterate, the humble, the “criminal” and the outcast. And woe to any nation -any empire- no matter how great! For no nation, no empire that ignored God’s word and treated its own people as lowly subjects could ever be pleasing to God. And lest we, the non- initiated, think that he, James Cone -or the Black Church- was pushing a philosophy of quietism, of pie-in-the-sky piety, we should not forget that it was the Black Church that stirred the slave rebellions, the Underground Railroad, the anti-lynching campaigns, radical labor movements, anti-share cropping movements and led the Civil Rights struggles of mid-twentieth century America. That spirit, that clear-eyed appraisal of the value of the human person was fully at home in the bosom of the Black Church. Just listen to the spirituals! Cone said. Go have a drink at the roadhouses and juke joints on Saturday night as singers sang and shouted the blues! In their poetry, symbolism and innuendo were unmistakeable messages of resistance. Messages of transformation.
I am an American. I am a son of the upper middle class. I am Caucasian. And not only that, I am Jewish. I did not grow up worshipping Jesus or attending Church.
What I did grow up with were all of the various privileges of my gender, skin tone and my class position. I am one of those folks those on the political right would like to say is a bleeding heart; that I am a “snowflake,” someone who prefers to bite the hand that feeds him rather than reckons with the divine blessings of my country which bestowed upon me the many privileges I enjoy.
Truth is, I know about my privilege. I just want that privilege shared. It would be easy for me to tell you that because I am a socialist, I love James Hal Cone and the liberation theologians because of their devastating rejoinder to capitalism. That I can read Cone for his critique of the powers that be without reckoning with the spiritualism at the heart of his philosophy.
As a Socialist and as a non-Christian, I might seem open to the accusation that I am simply calling on allies wherever I can find them. But that just isn’t so.
I consider Dr. Cone a mentor because he left behind a body of work and an example of someone whose ministry was to go to the vulnerable and offer hope, protection, and solidarity. He wrote from the position that life mattered more than wealth. That position comports not only with my socialism but with my Judaism.
As Jews, we are taught to “choose life!” Our actions, our practices, our rituals are all supposed to be subordinate to the imperative to choose life. This is where Dr. Cone’s identification with the oppressed and my commitment to life connect and flourish.
My politics are, foremost, a spiritual politics. They are a politics of embodiment. I identify, as Dr. Cone did, with the suffering man and woman on the Cross. Whether that cross is real or metaphorical, suffering is not. I am driven by a revulsion to the omnipresent mantras of Do for yourself! Find your brand! Me! Me! Social media; self-promotion; market ingenuity!
When Dr. Cone died in April, nearly fifty years to the day Dr. King was taken away, I found myself drawn back to that troubled era when American leaders bled in public. Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy, JFK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton; they all actually bled in public.
It is a startling thing to be reminded that there is red blood -King Crimson- running through our veins. It is a startling thing to be reminded that the plans of a lifetime: estates, bequests, legacies . . . can all end up in probate.
If we live without concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast, the detested and yes, the “criminal,” then we fail to recognize our common blood. We, that is, Jew, Gentile, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, Pietist, Woman, Man, Zhim, Abortionist, Prohibitionist, all should be measured by whether we have actually bled for others. That should form the contours of our national catechism.
Jeremy Nathan Marks is a writer, teacher, poet, Socratic educator and podcaster based in London, Ontario with his partner Michelle and two young daughters.
Article by Jeremy Nathan Marks of DEMOI Independent Learning | The Black Lion is a humble interdisciplinary journal that values your voice. For contribution opportunities, Join As A Contributor; to learn more about submitting to the journal’s creative magazine, visit the The Wire’s Dream Magazine: Submit. | Copyright Policy