George Floyd and James H. Cone:
A Conversation With My Adult Children
The May 25, 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, despite his multiple cries of, “I can’t breathe,” has compelled me to turn to Black theologian James H. Cone for a personal lesson in rebellion. Having spent over a decade working in the civil rights field, and three times as many teaching theology, I wondered whether my fight for racial, spatial and socioeconomic justice hadn’t atrophied; at least my adult children suspected it. What follows is my journey through Cone’s anger in search for an answer. While the future of policing and many other critical facets of our society are uncertain, Cone challenges us to “transmute defeat into triumph, ugliness into beauty, despair into hope, the cross into the resurrection.”1James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011), 69. Of course, our responses will be unique to who we are and where we are situated, especially generationally, but we may benefit from Cone’s theological perspective.
According to Cone, who is considered one of the fathers of Black theology, the Christian task is to rebel against all masters, destroying their pretensions to authority and ridiculing their symbols of power.2James H. Cone, The Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), 39. In 1969, he captured his anger over the oppressive conditions Blacks faced in his first work, Black Power, Black Theology, and carried it through to his last in 2011, The Cross and The Lynching Tree. This fury drove Cone to throw off traditional White theology in the development of a distinctly Black theology in which God liberates the marginalized through the crucified Black Jesus.
Drawing upon his experiences growing up in Bearden, Arkansas during the Jim Crow era, Cone harnessed his anger as he effected a theological synthesis of Black Power, Malcolm X, the Beloved Community of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. The outcome was a militant defense of Black dignity bound up in Christian love. His early impulses emerged after the assassination of King and the Detroit riots in the summer of 1967. But later in his career, he worried that Black theologians had not wrestled long enough with Malcolm in its turn to Martin. As the early Malcolm stressed, “There’s no such thing as nonviolent revolution…Revolution is bloody…Revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way.”3 November 1963 speech at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference, in Bruce Perry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1992), 237. Cone concluded that a “double-edged sword to slay the dragon of theological racism,” is imperative.4James H. Cone, “Looking Back, Going Forward,” in Darren C. Marks, ed., Shaping a Theological Mind (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002), 10.
After the Floyd killing, my adult children challenged my negative response to the violence in the same way that Cone challenged Whites’ responses to the Detroit riots. I had quickly called for an end to the rioting in the name of King’s commitment to nonviolence, but they insisted that riots are necessary to further the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, one of them asserted that we deserve the violence because we have done so little to stem police brutality and systemic racism. They asked me to stop referring to my past work with Black community leaders and governmental entities, even though the battles we tackled remain germane today, including implicit bias, racial profiling, segregated schools, gentrification and more. That was then, they say, and this is now.
My response to this criticism, by which I unequivocally stand, is that there is never one right answer to any civil rights issue. For example, some low-income parents of color believe that school integration is necessary, while others view it as a one-way exchange that threatens their voices. Similarly, a community may be divided over whether to use in-place development strategies to increase opportunities in struggling neighborhoods or to push for mobility programs through housing vouchers or other means. In my experience, it is always a bit of both, either or neither.
However, the more I listened to my kids deconstruct what was happening in the Twin Cities, and elsewhere in the world, the more I wondered whether I had forgotten Cone’s fierce anger toward the oppression of African Americans. So I took time to recapture his guttural reaction to the era. During the 60s, Cone described Black theology as one of revolution, not change of heart, which needed to radically assault the structure of White racism intending to destroy its power. As if speaking to me, he insisted that Whites often call for nonviolence and condemn Black Power movements in the ghetto. Even loving one’s neighbor may mean joining a violent rebellion.5James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power: 20th Anniversary Edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989), 7. The White Christ, claimed Cone, gave Blacks slavery, segregation, and lynching while telling them to be patient, turn the other cheek and await a spiritual redemption.6Cone, Lynching Tree, 119. Just as the Black Christ died in defiance to the oppressing political and religious structures of his time, Cone argued so too must Blacks commit to “destroying everything this country loves and adores.”7James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1986), 19-20. In fact, the gospel of liberation is bad news to all oppressors and death to their riches and power.8James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997), 84.
As I explored Cone’s fury more fully, I thought it would be helpful to compare the Detroit riots with those that have been unfolding in the Twin Cities during the past few months. What I first noticed was that both movements began with police action and led to violence, including unrelated gun turbulence. In Detroit, in the early morning of July 23, 1967, police raided one of the unlicensed after-hours bars known as blind pigs (speakeasies) in the Virginia Park area where around 60,000 low-income dwellers, largely of color, were crowded into small subdivided apartments in less than one square mile. As the police corralled the final arrestees, a crowd gathered and a brick was thrown at the window of a police vehicle precipitating protests, arson looting, and gun thefts. Although the State Police and National Guard were called up, the violence lasted five days, resulting in 43 people dead, over 300 injured and nearly 1,400 buildings burned.
The second thing I noted was that both racialized uprisings were grounded in generational economic strife, structural inequalities, and misgovernance. As in 1967, this includes, employment discrimination, intense housing segregation, and criminal justice disparities. The Twin Cities, for example, has one of the nation’s biggest income and educational achievement gaps between Blacks and Whites, ranks 50th in racial disparities in high school graduation rates, and incarcerates eleven-times more Blacks than Whites. Moreover, the same questions that were asked in 1967 are emerging in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing: Was it a riot, rebellion or revolution? Was it looting or legitimate grieving? Were the main actors even Black? The media has always colored how people address these tensions, though far more so today with the internet and social media. Too many accounts and interpretations of events bombard us, often from less than verifiable sources, accompanied by a plethora of YouTube videos, all of which makes me wary of what my adult children and I are processing. For example, on June 24, 2020, Fox News hosted Hawk Newsome, who was introduced as the head of Black Lives Matter for Greater New York. He stated that “If the U.S. doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it.” Yet, on June 26, a local ABC affiliate in San Francisco reported that the Black Lives Matter Global Network had distanced itself from Newsome as an unaffiliated activist. From a theological perspective, there was an interesting exchange in the above-mentioned Fox News interview. The host quoted a passage from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in Atlanta: “Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, ‘White power!’, when nobody will shout, ‘Black power!’, but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”9 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention, August 16, 1967, Atlanta, Georgia. See https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-address-delivered-eleventh-annual-sclc-convention Newsome retorted, “Jesus Christ is the most famous Black radical revolutionary in history. And he was treated just like Dr. King. He was arrested on occasion and he was also crucified or assassinated. This is what happens to Black activists. We are killed by the government.” Newsome’s claims propel us back to Cone’s final work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, in which he equated those in power today with the religious authorities of the Jesus’ time “who were threatened by his teachings about the reign of God’s justice and love,” as well as the state authorities “who executed him as an insurrectionist.”10Cone, Lynching Tree, 156.
As I write this, I am formulating a conversation with my adult children that may go like this: “Please respect that I am a theologian and an activist with my head still in the game. Theology can help us make sense of what has happened after George Floyd, and the other Blacks both male and female before him, fell to police brutality. The Reverend Dr. King was a Baptist theologian who was propelled into a leadership role in the civil rights movement after being called upon to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. But he is not the old guard, any more than Malcolm X and the Black Power movements are. James Cone, who I believe is one of the leading theologians in the field, is also part of the “now” guard, having wed King’s unconditional love of one’s adversary with Black Power movements like Black Lives Matters. I challenge you to consider the same synthesis today.”
I may go on to say, “Cone claims rightly that there is a difference between vengeance, which is inflicting punishment by returning violence with violence, and self-defense, which is carried out when one’s right to live with dignity is assaulted. He asks us to be ‘creative bearers of the new social order,’ which involves challenging power structures like policing, without crushing them or impairing benevolent actors within them. We must fight for justice through love, without hatred and without despair.11James H. Cone, Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 1986), 38. I will strive to understand your standpoint, hoping that you will do the same with mine. But most importantly, I ask you to see that there is never one right answer. We need to be open to all experiences within both the Black and larger communities. Because of this, I will stand by the broader cry, “Black Lives Matter, the Beloved Community Matters.” I hope I have the wherewithal to carry this conversation off. ♦
Marguerite Hattouni Spencer is a Senior Adjunct Faculty member of the Department of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, specializing in courses at the intersection of law, religion, and civil rights. She holds an A.M.R.S from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School.