By Katherine Gaines
In the marginalized voices book club, we’re reading James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. We recently read a chapter on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had grown up knowing about Dr. King and discussing his non-violent resistance with my father. I am amazed that I did not know anything about King’s faith other than the fact that he was a Pastor of a church in Alabama. Cone explained how King’s non-violent resistance was his theology rather than King’s theology influencing his non-violent resistance:
“In considering the subject of God and the problem of race in America, King reflected that God’s love created blacks and whites and other human beings for each other in community (thesis). White supremacy was the sin that separated them in America and in much of the world (antithesis). God reconciled humanity through Jesus’ cross, and thereby white supremacy could never have ‘the final and ultimate word’ on human relationships (synthesis).” (pp. 70-71)
Perhaps the reason I was unaware of King’s theology, other than the obvious fact that I am a white woman of privilege, was that “many activists in the black freedom movement did not share King’s faith in Jesus, especially in the salvific power of Jesus’ death. While accepting nonviolent direct action as the best political strategy for blacks to fight white supremacy, they rejected King’s religious faith. But for King nonviolence was more than a strategy; it was the way of life defined by love for others – the only way to heal broken humanity. Hate created more hate and violence more violence. King believed that the cycle of violence and hate could be broken only with nonviolence and love, as revealed in Jesus’ rejection of violence and his acceptance of a shameful death on a cruel cross.” (p. 85)
Cone states that for Dr. King, “Jesus never promised that his disciples would not suffer. Quite the opposite: suffering is the inevitable fate of those who stand up to the forces of hatred.” (p. 88) “Who can doubt that those who suffered in the black freedom movement made America a better place than before? Their suffering redeemed America from the sin of legalized segregation.” (p. 89). This view of redemptive suffering was criticized for legitimizing suffering, but Cone states that “whatever we may say about the limits of King’s perspective on the cross and redemptive suffering, he did not legitimize suffering. On the contrary, he tried to end it, sacrificing his own life for the cause of others. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). That was precisely what King did. He, along with a host of others, black, white, and other Americans of many walks of life, sacrificed their bodies and lives for our freedom today. Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet, we are not what we used to be and not what we will be.” (p. 92)
King unwavering believed that love “‘is the most durable power’ in the world. It would conquer evil, even white supremacy.” (p. 87) I believe that there is no tool more powerful for justice than love.