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Calling the oppressors to account for four centuries of terror.

God is not dead--nor is He an indifferent onlooker at what is going on
in this world. One day He will make requisition for blood; He will call
the oppressors to account. Justice may sleep, but it never dies. The
individual, race, or nation which does wrong, which sets at defiance
God's great law, especially God's great law of love, of brotherhood,
will be sure, sooner or later, to pay the penalty. We reap as we sow.
With what measure we mete, it will be measured to us again. (1)

This 1902 statement by Francis Grimke, an ex-slave and Princeton Theological Seminary graduate, is an apt summary of the major themes of justice, hope, and love in African American religion from slavery to the present. These themes were created out of the African slaves' encounter with biblical religion (via the white missionaries and preachers) as they sought to make meaning in a strange world.

To make meaning in any world is difficult, because human beings, like other animals, are creatures of nature and history. We can never be what we can imagine, but to be slaves in a foreign land without the cultural and religious support of a loving family and a caring community limits human possibilities profoundly. Because Africans were prevented from freely practicing their native religion, they merged their knowledge of their cultural past with the white man's Christian religion. From these two sources, Africans created for themselves a world of meaning that enabled them to survive 246 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation--augmented by a reign of white terror that lynched more than 5,000 black people.

The black religious themes of justice, hope, and love are the product of black people's search for meaning in a white society that did not acknowledge their humanity. The most prominent theme in this trinity of divine virtues is the justice of God. Faith in God's righteousness is the starting point of black religion. African Americans have always believed in the living presence of the God who establishes the right by punishing the wicked and liberating their victims from oppression. Everyone will be rewarded and punished according to their deeds, and no one--absolutely no one--can escape the judgment of God, who alone is the sovereign of the universe. Evildoers may get by for a time, and good people may suffer unjustly under oppression, but "sooner or later, ... we reap as we sow."

The "sooner" referred to contemporary historically observable events: punishment of the oppressors and liberation of the oppressed. The "later" referred to the divine establishment of justice in the "next world" where God "gwineter rain down fire" on the wicked and where the liberated righteous will "walk in Jerusalem just like John." In the religion of African slaves, God's justice was identical with the punishment of the oppressors, and divine liberation was synonymous with the deliverance of the oppressed from the bondage of slavery--if not now, then in the "not yet." Because whites continued to prosper materially as they increased their victimization of African Americans, black religion spoke more often of the later than the sooner, more about justice in the next world than in this one.

The theme of justice is closely related to the idea of hope. The God who establishes the right and puts down the wrong is the sole basis of the hope that the suffering of the victims will be eliminated. Although African slaves used the term heaven to describe their experience of hope, its primary meaning for them must not be reduced to the pie-in-the-sky, otherworldly affirmation that often characterized white evangelical Protestantism. The idea of heaven was the means by which slaves affirmed their humanity in a world that did not recognize them as human beings. It was their way of saying that they were made for freedom and not slavery.
 Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom!
 Oh Freedom, I love thee!
 And before I'll be a slave,
 I'll be buried in my grave,
 And go home to my Lord and be free.

Black slaves' hope was based on their faith in God's promise to protect the needy and to defend the poor. Just as God delivered the Hebrew children from Egyptian bondage and raised Jesus from the dead, so God will also deliver African slaves from American slavery and will "soon" bestow upon them the gift of eternal life. That was why they sang:
 Soon-a-will be done with the trouble
 of this world;
 Going home to live with God.

Black slaves' faith in the coming justice of God was the chief reason they could hold themselves together in servitude and sometimes fight back, even though the odds were against them.

The ideas of justice and hope should be seen in relation to the important theme of love. Theologically God's love is prior to the other themes. But in order to separate love in the context of black religion from a similar theme in white religion, it is important to emphasize that love in black religion is usually linked with God's justice and hope. God's love is made known through divine righteousness, liberating the poor for a new future.

God's creation of all persons in the divine image bestows sacredness upon human beings and thus makes them the children of God. To violate any person's dignity is to transgress "God's great law of love." We must love the neighbor because God has first loved us. And because slavery and segregation are blatant denials of the dignity of the human person, divine justice means God "will call the oppressors to account."

Despite the power of black faith, belief in God's coming justice and liberation was not easy for African slaves and their descendants. Their continued suffering created the most serious challenge to their faith. If God is good, why did God permit millions of blacks to be stolen from Africa, to perish in the middle passage, and to be enslaved in a strange land? No black person has been able to escape the existential agony of that question.

In their attempt to resolve the existential and theological dilemma that slavery and segregation created, African Americans in the nineteenth century turned to two texts: Exodus and Psalm 68:31. They derived from Exodus the belief that God is the liberator of the oppressed. They interpreted Ps 68:31 as an obscure reference to God's promise to redeem Africa: "Princes shall come out of Egypt, and Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God." Despite African Americans' reflections on these texts, the contradictions remained between their sociopolitical oppression and their religious faith.

A free black woman named Nellie from Savannah, Georgia, expressed the challenge black suffering created for faith:
It has been a terrible mystery, to know why the good Lord should so long
afflict my people, and keep them in bondage,--to be abused, and trampled
down, without any rights of their own,--with no ray of light in the
future. Some of my folks said there wasn't any God, for if there was he
wouldn't let white folks do as they do for so many years." (2)

Throughout the twentieth century African Americans continued their struggle to reconcile their faith in the justice and love of God with the persistence of black suffering in the land of their birth. Writer James Baldwin expressed the feelings of most African Americans: "If [God's] love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?" (3) It was Martin Luther King Jr., a twenty-six year-old Baptist preacher, who, empowered by black faith, confronted the evil of white supremacy and condemned it as the greatest moral evil in American society. He organized a movement that broke the backbone of legal segregation in the South. From the beginning of his role as the leader of the year-long Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott (1955-56) to his tragic death in Memphis, Tennessee (April 4, 1968), King was a public embodiment of the ideas of love, justice, and hope. The meaning of each was dependent on the others. Though love may be placed appropriately at the center of King's faith, he interpreted love in the light of justice for the poor, liberation for all, and the certain hope that God has not left this world in the hands of evil people.

King took the American democratic tradition of freedom and combined it with the biblical tradition of liberation and justice as found in the Exodus and the prophets. Then he integrated both traditions with the New Testament idea of love and hope as disclosed in Jesus' cross and resurrection. From these three sources, King developed a radical practice of nonviolence that was effective in challenging all Americans to create the beloved community in which all persons are equal. While it was Gandhi's method of nonviolence that provided the strategy for achieving justice, it was, as King said, "through the influence of the Negro Church" that "the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle" (4) against the evil of white supremacy.

As a Christian whose faith derived from the cross of Jesus, King believed that there could be no true liberation without suffering. Through nonviolent suffering, he contended, blacks would not only liberate themselves from the necessity of bitterness and feeling of inferiority toward whites but would also prick the conscience of whites and liberate them from a feeling of superiority. The mutual liberation of blacks and whites lays the foundation for both to work together toward the creation of an entirely new world.

In accordance with this theological vision, King initially rejected black power because of its connotations of revenge, hate, and violence. He believed that no beloved community of blacks and whites could be created out of bitterness. Only love, which he equated with nonviolence, can create justice. When black-power militants turned away from nonviolence and openly preached self-defense and violence, King said that he would continue to preach nonviolence even if he became its only advocate.

He took a similar position regarding the war in Vietnam. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and against the advice of his closest associates in black and white communities, King stood before a capacity crowd at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, and condemned America as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." (5) He proclaimed God's judgment against America and insisted that God would break the backbone of U.S. power if this nation did not bring justice to the poor and peace to the world. God, King believed, was going to call America to account for its violence in Vietnam and in the ghettos of U.S. cities.

During the crises of 1967-68, King turned to his own religious heritage for strength to keep on fighting for justice and for the courage to face the certain possibility of his own death. "It doesn't matter with me now," King proclaimed in a sermon the night before his assassination, "because I've been to the mountaintop ... and I've seen the Promised Land." (6) It was the eschatological hope, derived from his slave grandparents and mediated through the black church, which sustained him in the midst of the trials and tribulations in the black freedom struggle. He combined the justice and love themes in the prophets and the cross with the message of hope in the resurrection of Jesus. Hope, for King, was based on his belief in the righteousness of God as defined by his reading of the Bible through the eyes of his slave foreparents. The result was one the most powerful faith responses to the theodicy question in African American history.
Centuries ago Jeremiah raised the question, "Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician?" He raised it because he saw the good people
suffering so often and the evil people prospering. Centuries later our
slave foreparents came along and they too saw the injustice of life and
had nothing to look forward to, morning after morning, but the rawhide
whip of the overseer, long rows of cotton and the sizzling heat; but
they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries, and
they took Jeremiah's question mark and straightened it into an
exclamation point. And they could sing. "There is a balm in Gilead to
make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick
soul." (7)

King's approach to evil did not satisfy all blacks. There is another side in black religion that is rooted in blackness and its identity with Africa and its rejection of America and Christianity. From the time of its origin in slavery to the present, black religion has been faced with the question of whether to advocate integration into American society or separation from it. The majority of the participants in the black churches and the civil-rights movement have promoted integration, and they have interpreted justice, hope, and love in the light of the goal of creating a society in which blacks and whites can live together in a beloved community.

While integrationists emphasized the American side of the identity of African Americans, black nationalists rejected any association with the U.S. and instead turned toward Africa for identity and hope for coping with suffering. Nationalists contended that blacks will never be accepted as equals in a white racist church and society. Black freedom can be achieved only by blacks separating themselves from whites--either by returning to Africa or by forcing the U.S. government to set aside a separate territory in the U.S. so that blacks can build their own society.

The nationalist perspective on the black struggle for justice is deeply embedded in the history of black religion. Some of its proponents include Martin Delaney, often called the founder of black nationalism; Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association; and Malcolm X of the religion of Islam. Black nationalism was centered on blackness and saw no value in white culture and religion.


The most persuasive interpreter of black nationalism during the 1960s was Malcolm X, who proclaimed a challenging critique of King's philosophy of integration, nonviolence, and love. Malcolm advocated black unity instead of the beloved community, self-defense in lieu of nonviolence, and self-love in place of turning the other cheek to whites.

Malcolm rejected Christianity as the white man's religion. He became a convert initially to Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and later to the worldwide Islamic community. His critique of Christianity and American society as white was so persuasive that many blacks followed him into the religion of Islam, and others accepted his criticisms even though they did not become Muslims. Malcolm pushed civil-rights leaders to the left and caused many black Christians to reevaluate their interpretation of Christianity.
Brothers and sisters, the white man has brainwashed us black people to
fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus! We're worshiping a
Jesus that doesn't even look like us! Now just think of this. The
blond-haired, blue-eyed white man has taught you and me to worship a
white Jesus, and to shout and sing and pray to this God that's his God,
the white man's God. The white man has taught us to shout and sing and
pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-
hereafter, when we're dead, while this white man has his milk and honey
in the streets paved with golden dollars right here on this earth! (8)

During the first half of the 1960s, King's interpretation of justice as equality with whites, liberation as integration, and love as nonviolence dominated the thinking of the black religious community. However, after the riot in Watts (Los Angeles, August 1965), some black religious activists began to take another look at Malcolm X's philosophy, especially in regard to his criticisms of Christianity and American society. Malcolm's contention that America was a nightmare and not a dream began to ring true to many black clergy as they watched their communities go up in flames.

The rise of black power in 1966 created a decisive turning point in black religion. Black power forced black clergy to raise the theological question about the relation between black faith and white religion. Although blacks have always recognized the ethical heresy of white Christians ("Everybody talking about heaven ain't going there") they have not always extended their race critique to Euro-American theology. With its accent on the cultural heritage of Africa and political liberation "by any means necessary," black power shook black religious leaders out of their theological complacency.

Separating themselves from King's absolute commitment to nonviolence, a small group of black clergy, mostly from the North, addressed black power positively and critically. Like King and unlike black-power advocates, black clergy were determined to remain within the Christian community. This was their dilemma: How could they reconcile Christianity and black power, Martin King and Malcolm X?

Under the influence of Malcolm X and the political philosophy of black power, many black theologians began to advocate the necessity for the development of a black theology. They rejected the dominant theologies of Europe and North America as heretical. For the first time in the history of black religion, black clergy and theologians began to recognize the need for a completely new starting point in theology, and they insisted that it must be defined by people at the bottom and not the top of the socioeconomic ladder. To accomplish this task, black theologians focused on God's liberation of the poor as the central message of the gospel.

To explicate the theological significance of the liberation motif, black theologians began to reread the Bible through the eyes of their slave grandparents and started to speak of God's solidarity with the wretched of the earth. As the political liberation of the poor emerged as the dominant motif, justice, love, and hope were reinterpreted in its light. For the biblical meaning of liberation, black theologians turned to the Exodus, while the message of the prophets provided the theological content for the theme of justice. The gospel story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus served as the biblical foundation for a reinterpretation of love, suffering, and hope in the context of the black struggle for liberation and justice.

There are many blacks, however, who find no spiritual or intellectual consolation in the Christian answer to the problem of theodicy. After nearly four hundred years of black presence in what is now known as the United States of America, black people still have to contend with white supremacy in every segment of their lives. This evil is so powerful and pervasive that no blacks can escape it. But poor blacks bear the heaviest brunt of it. The persistence of racism makes the creation of meaning difficult for blacks inside and outside of the church.

Is God still going to call the oppressors to account? If so, when? Black churches seem to have no meaningful answer to these questions. They simply repeat worn-out religious cliches: "All things work out for the good for them who love the Lord." "God will make a way out of no way." "By and by when the morning comes," "we'll understand it better by and by." Black suffering in America and throughout the world, however, seems to be a blatant contradiction of that faith claim. Black suffering is getting worse, not better, and we are more confused than ever about the reasons for it. White supremacy is so clever and evasive that we can hardly name it. It claims not to exist, even though black people are dying daily from its poison.

No people are more religious than blacks. We faithfully attend churches and other religious services, giving reverence and love to the One who called us into being. But how long must black people wait for God to call our oppressors to account? How long is it going to take for black people to get justice in America?

Theology's task is to give reasons for the Christian hope in the face of horrendous human suffering. How can Christians hope in the face of unspeakable evil? No one wants a hope that has not been tested in life's great agonies?

"Suffering precedes thinking," wrote Ludwig Feuerbach. It creates thought, forcing people to search their faith for meaning and purpose in a world of deep contradictions. If the massive suffering of black people does not cause them to think deeply and critically about the reasons for their absurd predicament, then what will shake them out of their spiritual complacency? What will it take for blacks to stop preaching pie-in-the-sky as an answer to worldwide black suffering? Whether in Harlem, New York, Chicago's South Side, or Nairobi, Kenya, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save?" (Hab 1:2)

There is no easy answer to this theological problem, no easy way to deal with the absurdities and indignities of American life. We must reflect theologically, probing the depth of our faith in our effort to deepen it. This is an urgent and necessary task, because an uncritical faith cannot sustain you through life full with trouble.

Black and womanist theologicans have no satisfactory answers for the theodicy question, either--at least, not for those blacks, who like Job, "will not put away [their] integrity" or "speak falsehood" (Job 27:5, 4) about what is happening to them in this world. We can write about God's justice and love from now to the end of time. But until our theological discourse engages white supremacy in a way that empowers poor people to believe that they can destroy the monster, our theology is not worth the paper it is written on.

Most black churches preach a cheap spirituality, a "cheap grace," to use Bonhoeffer's classic language. It doesn't cost us much, except a little time on Sunday. Our preachers are well trained in the art of proclamation. They can open up the doors of heaven without leaving earth, giving people a transcendent entertainment that surpasses anything on Broadway in New York City.

Martin Luther King Jr. described "the existence of evil in the world ... as the great enigma wrapped in mystery." (9) There is no intellectual or theoretical answer that will ease the pain of police brutality and the daily insults to black humanity woven into the fabric of this society and its churches. The Christian answer to suffering is both practical and spiritual. We solve the mystery of evil's existence by fighting it. And faith is real only to the degree it endows us with the courage to fight.

On the one hand, suffering challenges faith, causing us to doubt and question faith's credibility, its authenticity in a world of trouble and sorrow. "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, nobody knows my sorrows." On the other hand, faith challenges suffering, refusing to let trouble have the last word, the final say about life's meaning and purpose. "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, Glory Hallelujah!" The "Glory Hallelujah" is faith's stubborn tenacity, grounded in its political struggle against the perpetrators of evil.

In 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois said: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line--the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." (10) That message is as true today as it was when he uttered it. There is still no justice in the land for black people. "No justice, no peace," proclaimed blacks to whites during the 1992 Los Angeles riot and the years that followed. "No love, no justice" was Martin King's way of proclaiming to all who would listen. King's words are what whites want to hear when there is a racial disturbance, protesting the limits of black patience with white supremacy. But African Americans want to know whether there is any reason to hope that the twenty-first century will be any less racist than the previous four centuries. Is there any reason to hope that we will be able to create a truly just society where justice and love flow freely between whites and blacks and among all peoples of the earth? Let us hope that enough people will bear witness to justice and love so as to inspire others to believe that with God and the practice of freedom fighters "all things are possible."

1. The Works of Francis J. Grimke, ed. C. G. Woodson (Washington D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1942), 1:354.

2. Cited in Albert J. Raboteau, "'The Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of Faith': Suffering in the Christianity of American Slaves," in The Courage to Hope: From Black Suffering to Human Redemption, ed. Quinton H. Dixie and Cornel West (Boston: Beacon, 1999), 31.

3. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dell, 1964), 46.

4. Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter From Birmingham Jail," in his Why We Can't Wait (New York: Harper, 1963), 90-91.

5. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 233.

6. A Testament of Hope, 286.

7. Martin Luther King Jr., "Thou Fool," sermon at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, August 27, 1967.

8. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 222.

9. Martin Luther King Jr., "Religion's Answer to the Problem of Evil," in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume 1, Claybone Carson, senior editor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 432.

10. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1961), 23.

James H. Cone

Union Theological Seminary
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Author:Cone, James H.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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