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.  Continue reading James H. Cone’s Critique of Nonviolence