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James Cone’s Gospel of the Penniless, Jobless, Marginalized and Despised

Posted on Jan 9, 2012
Mr. Fish

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

Cone’s chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr, the most important Christian social ethicist of the 20th century and a theologian whose work Cone teaches, exposes Niebuhr’s blindness to and tacit complicity in white oppression. Slavery, segregation and the terror of lynching have little or no place in the theological reflections of Niebuhr or any other white theologian. Niebuhr, as Cone points out, had little empathy for those subjugated by white colonialists. Niebuhr claimed that North America was a “virgin continent when the Anglo-Saxons came, with a few Indians in a primitive state of culture.” He saw America as being elected by God for the expansion of empire and, as Cone points out, “he wrote about Arabs of Palestine and people of color in the Third World in a similar manner, offering moral justification for colonialism.”

Cone reprints a radio dialogue between Niebuhr and writer James Baldwin that took place after the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls. Niebuhr, who spoke in the language of moderation that infuriated figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Baldwin, was disarmed by Baldwin’s eloquence and fire.

Baldwin said:

The only people in this country at the moment who believe either in Christianity or in the country are the most despised minority in it. … It is ironical … the people who were slaves here, the most beaten and despised people here … should be at this moment … the only hope this country has. It doesn’t have any other. None of the descendants of Europe seem to be able to do, or have taken it on themselves to do, what Negros are now trying to do. And this is not a chauvinistic or racial outlook. It probably has something to do with the nature of life itself. It forces you, in any extremity, any extreme, to discover what you really live by, whereas most Americans have been for so long, so safe and so sleepy, that they don’t any longer have any real sense of what they live by. I think they really think it may be Coca-Cola.


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“If Niebuhr could ignore it, there must be something defective in that faith itself,” Cone said. “If it weren’t defective, then they wouldn’t put black people on crosses. Niebuhr wouldn’t have been silent about it. I look around and see the same thing happening today in the prison industrial complex. You can lynch people by more than just hanging them on the tree. You can incarcerate them. How long will this terror last? I’m Christian. Suffering gives rise to faith. It helps you deal with it. But at the same time, suffering contradicts the faith that it gave rise to. It is like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I can’t give up with the wrestling.”

Cone wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. But Barth, he admits, never moved him deeply. Cone found his inspiration in the black church, along with writers such as Baldwin, Albert Camus and Richard Wright, as well as the great blues artists of his youth. These artists and writers, not the white theologians, he said, gave him “a sense of awe.” He saw that “for most blacks it was the blues and religion that offered the chief weapons of resistance.” It was religion and the blues that “offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.” In the words of great poets and writers, in the verses of the great blues singers and in the thunderous services of the black church, not in the words of white theologians, Cone discovered those who were able to confront the bleak circumstances of their lives and yet defy fate and suffering to make the most of what little life had offered them. He had through these connections found his own voice, one that was powerfully expressed in his first work, the 1969 manifesto “Black Theology & Black Power.” Cone understood that “when people do not want to be themselves, but somebody else, that is utter despair.” And he knew that his faith “was the one thing white people could not control or take away.”

He quotes the bluesman Robert Johnson:

I got to keep movin’, I got to keep movin’,
Blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worrin’ me,
There’s a hellhound on my trail.

“I wanted to go back to study literature and get a Ph.D. in that at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and do it with Nathan Scott [who was then teaching theology and literature at the University of Chicago],” he said. “But the freedom movement was too urgent. I said to myself, ‘You have a Ph.D., if you ain’t got nothing to say now, you ain’t never going to have anything to say.’ I’ve never taught a course on Barth.

“I like people who talk about the real, concrete world,” he said. “And unless I can feel it in my gut, in my being, I can’t say it. The poor help me to say it. The literary people help me to say it—Baldwin is my favorite. Martin King is the next. Malcolm is the third element of my trinity. The poets give me energy. Theologians talk about things removed, way out there. They talk to each other. They give each other degrees. The real world is not there. So that is why I turn to the poets. They talk to the people.

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By Wishingforsanity, January 9, 2012 at 10:58 am Link to this comment

There is but one true evil in this world. A human creation to enslave other humans and I’m
not referring to Global warming. I’m referring to religion. From the seemingly innocuous
Buddha to the “in your face Evangelical Right.”

Here’s me dream…I get to ask one question at the “morons on parade” at the 689th GOP
debate. Pretty sure that’s next week.  It goes a little something like this…“Putting aside
your faith (pause for boos from rabid god fearing crowd) would ALL of you please point to
whomever who feel is the stupidest, most vapid, war mongering, fear mongering, money
starved, constitution eviscerating candidate here on stage tonight.”
(another pause as their feeble brains try and come up with an answer that doesn’t involve
some mythological deity)

“Wow, that was unexpected, you all pointed to yourselves in the first showing I can think
of where you’ve actually managed to, and I use this word carefully, thought for
yourselves. Amazing. Truly amazing.”

Call it a wet dream, unless your Santorum of course, but at let I’ve still got a dream.

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By bpawk, January 9, 2012 at 10:08 am Link to this comment

While reading this article, especially “...He writes for the forgotten and abused, the marginalized and the despised… those who are penniless, jobless, landless and without political or social power…” I could see that between the lines what you are saying is that religion acknowledges injustice in the world by overlays a kind of superjustice that is acknowledged to be not on earth (the meek will inherit the earth, they’ll get theirs (the evil) on judgment day, etc.).  If you are acknowledging there’s no justice by creating a superjustice when you die, why don’t you try to fix the injustice now? This is why a lot of people don’t like religion - they don’t address the here and now issues of injustice but instead explain away their apathy to say there’s something better after they die. This lets the bad folks away with exploiting others and lets the apathetic voters off the hook. While I like the empathy, nothing really gets done to make the world a better place because people accept their lot in life (rich think they are ordained to be rich, poor think this is God’s plan for them).

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By balkas, January 9, 2012 at 10:00 am Link to this comment

blacks loving white people or whites loving blacks? please don’t!! blacks [or whites] first of all and
before you do anything else, respect ALL PEOPLE AND PEOPLES!!
i strongly aver that one cannot love another person if that person is of another ‘faith’, culture, or
respect=right of a person to live in peace, to work, to KNOW, to obtain healthcare.
and i give no hoot what you think of me or whether you love me or not.

the poor white trash don’t need love of even one black person- they need blacks’ support in
obtaining basic human rights.
and since 99.999 of blacks would vote for a denial of these rights, they can shove their love for the
white people—and especially for the onepercenters. thanks

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By balkas, January 9, 2012 at 9:36 am Link to this comment

seems CE identifies [or conflates] ‘faith’ [danger word] with instinct to survive,
hope for better life.
survival instinct and hope [btw, both terms i treat as undefinable] runs eternal, i
aver, and almost under any condition; whether imposed by other people or nature.
yes, if pain is too great or if a person is caught in a fire in a building, a person
would jump to death rather than be roasted alive.
and [cagily, is it?] suggest that survival instinct and eternally hoping is solely a
function of ‘religion’, jesus, bible, clerical ‘teachings’ or their science?
is this guy aware of the fact that such thinking [science] is so vitiating and vicious?
probably not, i suggest.
i don’t think anybody is evil. that includes CE. thanks

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By balkas, January 9, 2012 at 9:10 am Link to this comment

i suggest that blacks of afrika were more civil to one another before
arrival there of arab and christian voodoo-logists, than after their arrival.
but even, germanic and slavic peoples ca even 2k years ago—who at that
time still inhabited an area around the black, caspian, and azov seas—
were by far more civilized and peaceful before they came in touch with
evil roman empire and evil christianity, than after.
in n. america, it had been christianity which utterly destroyed indigenous
millennial adaptation for survival. thanks, bozhidar balkas

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By balkas, January 9, 2012 at 8:56 am Link to this comment

[indigenous[ primitive culture=high civilization and civility.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 9, 2012 at 8:37 am Link to this comment

I read these comments, as an agnostic, and I think: “How would I have stood up to the constant and very real threat of ‘Judge Lynch’ if I were growing up Black in the Deep South?”  I don’t know the answer to that.

I am well old enough to remember the dogs and fire hoses of Bull Connor and of Wallace trying to block admission to the Univ. of Alabama.  Growing up White, progressive and Northern made what went on down there horrifying but easy to ignore what was going on in my own back yard.

Cone’s frustration with White Christians is understandable.  They STILL think much the same way—they call it the “TeaParty” and “Values Voters” but they are basically the old southern white racists.  Cone (or Hedges) doesn’t even address what was the BASIC justification for their evil: Whites actually questioned and debated whether Black people had souls or not (and, of course, concluded they did not—else how justify racism and slavery?).

There have always been fine Christians and evil ones, both devout and pious, whether Dr. Cone…or Tomas de Torquemada. Piety can take you to being Mother Teresa, or to being a Taliban torturer (or any other religious fanatic trying to force, by force, his religion on others).

Where is the line?  I think it’s obvious.  You can say “You have to choose”  but once you say “If you don’t choose as I tell you, you will go to hell and be an Enemy of God”, you have crossed the line into the Inquisition, the Taliban, the murderers claiming God’s mandate.

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By balkas, January 9, 2012 at 8:35 am Link to this comment

language is self-reflexing. you make a statement and you can make another statement about the first
statement. once you make another statement, you can make statement’s about the statement just made, and
then go on making statements about statements ad infinitum.
a faith, any, is really making statements about statements. this process is unending.
ie, one can say s’mthing about s’mthing else in perpetuity. it makes no difference if you talk about the
meaning of cross, jesus, bible, quran, mohammed, yahweh, torah, talmud, mein kampf, das kapital, life on
earth, the statements made about the above listed THOUGHTS [which cause etern disputes, rancor, anger,
hatred, etc] are self reflexing.
thus, ALL ‘FAITHS’ [means: watch it, danger word; may make you blood boil] are self-reflexing. and, because
of that self-splitting—by this time, have split in thousands of ‘faiths’ or cults, as i call them.

factual statements, such as: sun is shining, it’s raining, tree is blooming, i have a carrot seed in my hand- in
short, about what can be seen, are not self-reflexing—just one look at the sunshine, rain, the seed, is worth
more than all talking one could think of.
so, don’t get caught in this vicious maize. or you’d lose your peace every time you listen to any cleric. tnx

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By SharonMI, January 9, 2012 at 8:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I was stunned to read that in this age of Obama, lynching is back…and self-lynching to boot:

This time it’s self-lynching, so not white-on-black, hmmm, could “self-lynching” become the new self-immolation of political protest?

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By prisnersdilema, January 9, 2012 at 8:23 am Link to this comment

The Christian right bears responsibility for the Repuglican rights rise to power, and the
aftermath of that rise. America’s endless wars and the looting of the treasury were all
made possible by them, and their foolish clinging on to ideology that has been used
against them to justify evi in all it’s forms….

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By John Sullivan, January 9, 2012 at 8:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Legitimate spirituality is the domain of the individual. Religion is simply power.

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By mrwebster, January 9, 2012 at 8:08 am Link to this comment

Hedges is self deluded about his Christian religion.  He writers as if the racism and white supremecy of Christianity is really actually apart from the religion. As with his arguments with the atheists, he wants to convienently tell us that religion is not part and parcel of the wicked soul. He wants to ignore the history and theological foundations which Paul, not Jesus, created. 

His pushes an apologia for Christianity as religion polluted by outside forces when in fact as in the case of the is article, Christianity, his Christian religion, was the religion of the oppressers whether it involved American slavery, oppresed French peasants, or Russian serfs. 

Hedges wants his Christianity to be revolutionary when in fact its practice since Constantine has been anything but revolutionary.  In a sense, the oppression that Christianity has endorsed and supported would not be overcome until Western secular anti-religion movements were born out of the Enlightenment. 

It is no wonder that a figure such as Lenin pronounced religion the opiate of the people.  This wasn’t some uniquely Marxist revelation, but the truth about Chirstianity which Hedges cannot handle and wants to soften by claiming something uniquely postive about it expressed by those opppressed by it.

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By pragmatic_realist, January 9, 2012 at 8:06 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It needs to be said that President Obama is a great admirer of Neibuhr and his “Christian Realism”.

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By balkas, January 9, 2012 at 7:51 am Link to this comment

correction: ...and galileo’s science does not divide us as does christian
[and this time i add also as judaic and islamic] faith does.
in fact, the science of what can be seen, reunifies or helps us think the
same way about most aspects of daily living.
religions are sciences about unseen and unseeable phenomena.
in, short, these sciences are voodoo and witch crafts. tnx

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By balkas, January 9, 2012 at 7:42 am Link to this comment

bears repeating: blacks were better off as slaves than as ‘free’. tnx

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By Ambill94, January 9, 2012 at 7:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Excellent!!!! Many of us have struggled with the failure of Christianity to be a truly revolutionary faith. How, in light of the gospel that we all claim brings the good news, can we listen to the ignorance and heresy that is preched in our churches and practiced in our institutions.

I can remember when Catholic priests in Central and South America were condemened for preaching “revolution theology”, that according to some was the main cause for political upheaval in many countries, and was therefore by definintion un-American and somehow evil.

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By gringo45, January 9, 2012 at 7:36 am Link to this comment

Thank you for clarifying an issue that you mentioned on BookTV.

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By sallysense, January 9, 2012 at 7:33 am Link to this comment

(should it seem like something’s missing as if no one is around…
or the counter’s unattended at a nearby lost and found…
don’t fret about time hiding souls or silencing their sound…
you’ll find them still within you on that common-bonded ground!)...

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By balkas, January 9, 2012 at 7:32 am Link to this comment

christian faith of which hedges speaks is best understood as a science,
but with a peculiar and particular mode of research and evaluation of
that probe, search.
for one thing christian science or ideology splits people into soul and
body and galileo’s science does not.
and galileo science does not divides as does the church science. divided
we suffer tragedies of all kinds. if united, we would have behaved much
better towards one another. tnx

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, January 9, 2012 at 7:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

James Baldwin, 1963

Quite an education.  Now try to imagine seeing something like this today on public televison(which was called educational tv back then)and imagine the current crop of republican presidential candidates responding to it.  And this film was made for school children!

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By GradyLeeHoward, January 9, 2012 at 7:11 am Link to this comment

False Christianity is the delusional embrace of
death and suffering for pleasurable purposes. And
that is why it would be impossible to turn
Thanatoptic Christainity around. Psychologically,
most Christianity is selfish and utilitarian. It
can embrace any needed contradiction for purposes
of gaining power or wealth. The co-optation of
Reinhold Niebuhr is an excellent subject for
discussion of how American Christians are born
sell-outs. They seek Elite approval. These people are so delusional they can
sit through a sermon by James Come or even Jeremiah
Wright and feel superior like Dana Carvey’s Church

Chris talks about the suffering body on the tree
but the mind is also routinely crucified by
powerful misbelief groups. When the desperate
dissenter enters a Mission or a Salvation Army it
is a re-education camp where he is cleansed of all
outrage and comes away with “Pie in the sky after
you die.” If not, he doesn’t eat. I have a friend who thinks Ten Thousand
Villages can never be exploitative of the powerless
because it is done in Christ’s name. That’s stupid.

Hedges quotes Cone: “I like to write about the good
faith. I like to write about faith that resists. I
like to write about faith that empowers. I like to
write about faith that enables people to look
another in the eye and tell ’em what you think.” I
have done these things empowered by a faith in
human rights not handed down by some sky Potentate.
As far as a religion Christianity is just one slice
of bread out of a long bag; one serving of juice
from a gigantic grape press that is the human
spirit. If we can cry over and speak for crushed
bodies then why can’t we “manifest and represent”
over all the belief and faith that has been crushed
by selfish power; all the breakthrough ideas of
cooperation and organizing that have been aborted
by big business and the state? Many times solutions
were in our face, in our grasp; and hierarchical,
deferential, polite to power Christianity, or some
other Voodoo, was thrown over our heads like a bag
and our hands clasped in praise of cruelty with an
electrical tie.

Chris has a right to be Christian. He seems
authentic and tries to walk the walk. But he has to
remember there are others like me in the movement
who have a broader view of Creation, don’t need the
accoutrements of Immortal Royalty for attraction,
and are ready to lay our bodily burden down when
the circumstances demand it. People of any color
can be lynched, and the innocent are being murdered
over resources and access all around the world even
as I write. In fact, the Planet is being crucified
over energy. This is Monday: Sunday school was
yesterday: Most church goers are back to their
bloodthirsty ways again. What good is a one day a
week ally ready to backstab as soon as the fried chicken and cake are consumed? As Tommy Smothers observed in 1970:“He
sees his shadow- he goes back in- and we have six
more weeks (years? lifetimes? millenia?) of Winter
(injustice? concentrated power? death embrace?)Herman Cain and Clarence Thomas probably think they are pleasing God. What kind of God finds their walk pleasing?

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By Gordon Matthews, January 9, 2012 at 6:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Many, many thanks for this essay, Chris.  In Whirlpool controlled Berrien County, Michigan an African-American man’s body has just turned up floating in the river in St. Joseph.  More on this unspeakable event:

As many know, Whirlpool stole land deeded in perpetuity to Benton Harbor for a golf course.  We hope thousands can Occupy the PGA in May.  More on this:

Also, there’s a lot of info regarding the stolen land

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By 3am mystic, January 9, 2012 at 6:14 am Link to this comment

While growing up in the southern white church during the 50’s and 60’s I often heard family, friends and church leaders say in regard to the Civil Rights Movement, and I quote, “Good colored Christians don’t go for that mess”; and I believed them.  Since then I have asked God many times to forgive me. I was forgiven the first time; each time since is to help me never forget.

Over the years I came to see that the white dominated conservative church demands obedience from their African American members, in essence they tell them “be good”; and part of that obedience is to “never bring up the past”, which actually makes the present as oppressive. 

I am thankful that I finally came to see that the Gospel does not make Children of God; it recognizes children of God, and that includes all who have taken a breath in this world.  And whether they were hanged upon a cross, from a hanging tree, or feeling the fear of being severed from Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, I must see them each morning in my mind’s eye as I eat and enjoy my breakfast and safely go to my job; or my Christianity is nothing.

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