James H. Cone’s Critique of Nonviolence


For some time, I have had a strong sermon-on-the-mount (pacifist? nonviolent?) impulse when it comes to my political theology. While a few years ago I might have gone so far as to identify as something of an Anabaptist on this issue (what can I say? I was listening to a lot of Greg Boyd podcasts!), I’ve since found Moltmann’s more nuanced approach to be helpful: The Kingdom of God is not a peaceable kingdom (jib-jab at Hauerwas!) but a peacemaking kingdom. Moltmann shares that when he returned home from the prison camps after WWII, he vowed to never pick up a weapon again – but if he was given an opportunity to kill a tyrant, he would do so!

The method of nonviolent resistance is something I’ve always admired in Martin Luther King Jr. In Stride Toward Freedom, King describes his approach this way:

My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolence resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violence resister, but he resisted wi th love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.

Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom, 79-80

This is truly inspiring!

As you may gather from my previous post, James Cone is a big fan of Martin Luther King Jr.  When I first started to read Cone, I was surprised to rather quickly discover that one area where he differs from his hero MLK is on nonviolence, an area of King’s thought that I (like many others) have found to be so compelling. Cone claims that King’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.”   In this probing passage of  God of the Oppressed, Cone explores the topic of violence vs nonviolence in America as it relates to the black struggle for liberation, offering a scathing critique of nonviolence (which I should point out is not quite the same as defending violence). I’m inclined to agree with Cone at least on this point: it is especially problematic for oppressors [including all who benefit from systems of oppression] to urge the oppressed to keep their cool and walk in the nonviolent way of love. 

With an authentic ethic of liberation as our point of departure, it is now possible to say a word about violence. Because the oppressed have been victims of mental and physical dehumanization, we cannot make the destruction of humanity, even among oppressors, an end in itself. Such a procedure contradicts the struggle of freedom, the essence of our striving. Our intention is not to make the oppressors the slaves but to transform humanity, or, in the words of Fanon, “set afoot a new man.” Thus hatred and vengeance have no place in the struggle of freedom. Indeed, hatred is a denial of freedom, a usurpation of the liberation struggle. The ethic of liberation arises out of love, for ourselves and for humanity. This is an essential ingredient of liberation without which the struggle turns into a denial of what divine liberation means.

However, the radical rejection of hatred and vengeance does not mean that we accept white people’s analysis of violence and nonviolence. We are well aware that they derive their analysis of these terms from a theological and political interest that supports the status quo, whereas we must analyze them in accordance with our struggle to be free. We cannot let white rhetoric about nonviolence and Jesus distort our vision of violence committed against black people. Therefore, one of the tasks of the black ethicist is to untangle the confused and much discussed problem of violence and nonviolence and Jesus’ relationship to both. At least three points ought to be made.

(1) Violence is not only what black people do to white people as victims seek to change structure of their existence; it is also what white people did when they created a society for white people only, and what they do in order to maintain it. Violence in America did not begin with the black power movement or with the Black Panther Party. Neither is it limited to the Symbionese Liberation Army. Contrary to popular white opinion, violence has a long history in America. This country was born in violent revolution (remember 1776?), and it has been sustained by the violent extermination of red people and violent enslavement of black people. This is what Rap Brown had in mind when he said that “Violence is American as cherry pie.”

White people have a distorted conception of the meaning of violence. They like to think of violence as breaking the laws of their society, but that is a narrow and racist understanding of reality. There is a much more deadly form of violence, and it is camouflaged in such slogans as “law and order,” “freedom and democracy,” and “the American way of life.” […]

I contend, therefore, that the problem of violence is not the problem of a few black revolutionaries but the problem of a whole social structure which outwardly appears to be ordered and respectable but inwardly is “ridden by psychopathic obsessions and delusions” – racism and hatred. Violence is embedded in American law, and it is blessed by the keepers of moral sanctity. This is the core of the problem of violence, and it will not be solved by romanticizing American history, pretending that Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Vietnam are the first American crimes against humanity. If we take seriously the idea of human dignity, then we know that the annihilation of Indians, the enslavement of Africans, and (Reinhold Niebuhr notwithstanding) the making of heroes out of slaveholders, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were America’s first crimes against humankind. And it does not help the matter at all to attribute black slavery to economic necessity or an accident of history. America is an unjust society, and black people have known that for a long time.

(2) If violence is not just a question for the oppressed but primarily for the oppressors, then it is obvious that the distinction between violence and nonviolence is an illusory problem. “There is only the question of the justified and unjustified use of force and the question of whether the means are proportionate to the ends” [Moltmann, Religion, Revolution and the Future, 143]; and the only people who can answer the problem are the victims of injustice. It would be the height of stupidity for the victims of oppression to expect the oppressors to devise the means of liberation. […]

(3) If Violence versus nonviolence is not the issue but, rather, the creation of a new humanity, then the critical question for Christians is not whether Jesus committed violence or whether violence is theoretically consistent with love and reconciliation. We repeat: the question is not what Jesus did, as if his behavior in first century Palestine were the infallible ethical guide for our actions today. We must ask not what he did, but what he is doing – and what he did becomes important only insofar as it points to his activity today. To use the Jesus of history as an absolute ethical guide for people today is to become enslaved to the past, foreclosing God’s eschatological future and its judgment on the present. It removes the element of risk in ethical decisions and makes people slaves to principles. But the gospel of Jesus means liberation; and one essential element of that liberation is the existential burden of making decisions about human liberation without being completely sure what Jesus did or would do. This is the risk of faith.

God of the Oppressed, 217, 218, 222

It is noteworthy that this is not a critique leveled against conservative white Christians. Actually, as we see below, Cone is especially critical of liberal white Christians, people who in their biblical criticism have whittled the Gospel narratives down to a palatable core, all the while missing out on the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry and message as it relates to the situation of the oppressed.

My difficulty with white theologians is their use of Jesus’ so-called “nonviolent” attitude in the Gospels as primary evidence that the oppressed ought to be nonviolent today. Not only Rudolf Bultmann and other Form critics demonstrated that there are historical difficulties in the attempt to move behind the kerygmatic preaching of the early Church to the real Jesus of Nazareth, but the procedure is ethically questionable, especially for white defenders of the status quo. It is interesting that many white scholars are skeptical about practically everything that the Gospels record about Jesus’ ministry except his political involvement. They are sure that he preached love, which they invariably interpret to mean an acceptance of the political status quo. His gospel, they contend, was spiritual or eschatological but had nothing to do with political, revolutionary struggle. This is a strange form of logic, especially since they are the same scholars who adhere rigidly to the form-critical method and also universally proclaim that the Kingdom about which Jesus preached included the whole of reality. Why is it that they do not express the same skepticism when dealing with Jesus’ politics as they do with everything else? How can they be so sure that Jesus was not violent?  Why is it that they say that Jesus preached the Kingdom, an all-encompassing reality, but suggest that it had nothing to do with politics? How can they say that the God of Jesus was Yahweh of the Old Testament, but shy away from his political involvement on behalf of the oppressed? How could Jesus be God’s representative on earth, and not be concerned about social, economic, and political injustice? I think the answer to these questions is obvious. White theologians’ exegesis is decided by their commitment to, and involvement in, the social structures of oppression. They cannot see the radical and political thrust of Jesus’ person and work because their vision is committed to the very structures that Jesus despised. They are the contemporary representatives of the scribes and lawyers who cannot recognize the essential fallacy of their perspective.

God of the Oppressed, 222-223


5 thoughts on “James H. Cone’s Critique of Nonviolence”

  1. Thank you for this post.

    I would be interested if you could point me in the direction of a source for:

    “Moltmann shares that when he returned home from the prison camps after WWII, he vowed to never pick up a weapon again – but if he was given an opportunity to kill a tyrant, he would do so!”

    I’ve tried searching for one but have been unsuccessful so far!

    And help appreciated,

    Grace and Peace,

    1. Hi Samuel. Thanks for reading! He made this comment during the Emergent Village Theological Conversation in 2009. You can find links to the audio on the resources page here. Off the top of my head I’m not sure which episode this is in – but there is one where he tells his life story (episode 1) and another where they interview him about political theology (episode 4) – most likely in one of those two!

      Hope that helps!

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