r. scot miller
In this Age of Trump, two urgent questions have emerged for many Friends and Progressive Christians.
- First, what we ought to do in response to what happened in 2016 and continues to happen.
- And second, how do we address that wide swath of American Christianity (lumped under the terms “Evangelical: or “Religious Right”) that either silently votes for it, or votes and vocally supports it.
Two common responses to our steadily deteriorating plight are, in my view, demonstrably inadequate: One, focusing all our attention and protest on Washington, the White House, Congress, and the political scrum; and two, ignoring or dismissing Trump’s Evangelical supporters (still authoritatively polled as above 70 per cent).
For me, the second response is the more concerning. Whether they are good or not, the people of the Evangelical Christian congregations that voted for Trump at a rate of 81 percent according to Pew Exit Polling are my people, every bit as much as Quakers and Anabaptist Christians who believe the cross and self-sacrifice have a central place in resisting evil or injustice.2
Whether or not I belong to an evangelical church is not my point. I have benefited from the privileges enjoyed by such churches that have also conferred on them more educational, employment, political resources and power at the expense of persons of color or marginalized status.
As the basis for reexamining our approach to these intertwined issues, this essay considers the socio-religious backgrounds of three significant religious thinkers/activists of the 20th Century, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. I’ll focus on how they responded to racism and the Civil Rights Movement. I pay special attention to the impact of rootedness, stability, and faith on them and how this background might affect the ways we as Friends respond to injustice or evil. Then we’ll take on the fact of overwhelming Trumpism in Christian Evangelicalism and our potential obligation to address Evangelicalism every bit as much as, or more than political Trumpism.
Toward this consideration, I will also use three analytic categories the reader can or should expand upon. They are: apocalyptic religious thought (that which reveals God’s intentions), eschatology (the end of or major transitions in history and religious thought), and Niebuhr’s Christian Realism, a major theme of 20th century American Protestant religious thought. I identify these three themes as descriptors of the categories of Imminence (Malcolm X), Rootedness (King), and Realism (Niebuhr).
“Evangelical” is the category used by Pew for a political bloc of voters known as the Religious Right. Just as I have voluntarily joined Quakers as my people, I must admit that those angry white males are my people too, if for no other reason than as an angry white male myself, I still benefit from their privilege and my own. I hope that being rooted and stable in the midst of institutionalized-isms helps me understand what to do about it.
Some of my Evangelical people, by ballot box or bullet, (and they won’t apologize to Brother Malcolm), struggle to maintain racial and nationalist privilege, even as it nevertheless decays from the inside and is being vomited out from within the center of this beast. And this beast is the Christian Church, or at least that bloc of white Evangelicals who vote Republican come hell or high water.
Yet, I believe that my God, our God, insists upon the sacrifice of privilege (favored status and exclusive access to resources and power), which are used to control political outcomes. In practice, this may mean limiting participation in the economy, or in electoral politics – it may mean redirecting our resources toward a politics of relationship building and rejecting security rather than lobbying elected officials for change that is tame enough to allow us to hold tightly to it. Whatever giving up privilege might mean to an individual or congregation, it will certainly be riskier and produce more personal or family instability that limiting resistance to yard signs, tee shirts, or safety pins.
The Trump Evangelicals are trying to uphold the hoary myth of “Christendom.” This is a cultural civic-religious expression that both supports and is buoyed by nationalist myths of American Exceptionalism and white supremacy. Quaker historian and theological thinker Chuck Fager describes these Americans “seeing the U.S. as god’s chosen nation, [charged] to bring the gospel to the world, if necessary, at the point of a bayonet.”3 But biblical justice relies upon a core of textual mandates such as the exhortation to love neighbor and enemy, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the declaration of liberty to those who are oppressed. The ethics of the cross and self-sacrificial love call those who claim Christ to respond to cries for justice with action.
One must look to the variety of actions undertaken in the struggles of some among the Christian community against racist American realities. From the fire and brimstone murders committed by John Brown to the equally risky resistance of the Underground Railroad; from civil disobedience and non-violence to Black Lives Matter actions and Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee – all of which have been falsely called invitations to violence – our actions as Friends and as non-violent witnesses to the justice we believe is represented in the life of Jesus are gauged by our willingness to sacrifice in some fashion to making change, and the justice that emerges from that change.
How is the cross, or the lived-out witness of Jesus, an informant of European-American Christ-followers’ responses to the suffering of those exploited by white American privilege? Calls to it came from W.E.B Du Bois, and such exhortation came from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Individuals such as Michael Dyson, Cornell West, Bell Hooks, Jim Wallace, Jimmy Carter and numerous unnamed and not-so-famous individuals. Many shout aloud for whites to engage in justice for persons of color across the world. Such calls come from voices across the religious and political spectrum. Most Friends and Anabaptists will reject John Brown’s option for inciting armed slave rebellion, but do we understand such calls and actions as a challenge to our own ineffectiveness? Why did Dietrich Bonhoeffer choose the violent option when he attempted to assassinate Hitler? How do we contextualize Malcolm X’s theme of self-defense and justice “by any means necessary?”
For some of us, it is our own friends and family who hear these calls, or must hear them, now. And, as Quakers, we are called to provide alternatives to the options of violence with viable and dedicated non-violent actions that are rooted in faith that a God or history will vindicate, whether we witness the fruits of our labors or not. This paper considers that sentiment, as does the mental image of Moses on a mountaintop, King, Jr. on a motel balcony, and Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom, fully exposed to the violence their past was rooted in and witness to. And there is Niebuhr; fighting the capitalist giant Henry Ford by standing alongside the workers that struggled against economic injustices that were used to foster racist conflict between groups who share many other goals and interests. How did Niebuhr use privilege to make effective change in an increasingly Billy Graham-loving country?
Typically, the first and most abiding manifestation of white supremacist reaction against prophetic challenges to its assumed superiority is not open violence, but the continuing and now often self-justified inactivity of so many Christians to bear their own cross in pursuit of justice for persons of color. The cross to bear for Quakers might be a challenge to let the political policy differences of the left, right, and center follow their course as Friends commit resources to grassroots relationship building and here and now justice activities that effectively lobby for change by living it, rather than just voting for a favored economic policy or contributing financially to political party candidates.
There are remarkable risks in challenging electoral priorities. There is a self-reinforcing loop between congregations that consistently vote overwhelmingly for conservative congressional leaders, who enact policies that inhibit Black voting turnout, decrease access to economic and educational resources for institutions seeking to diversify their student or employee populations. Those white congregations vote that way because they want to.
Perhaps nowhere is the underlying attitude so evident as the lack of ecumenical participation between segregated congregations to do something so simple as feed or house the poor. There is one concern that provides a foundation for my thinking in this paper, and it is that of a public witness to a belief that Jesus and the God of Jesus and Mary Magdalene call on some individuals and groups to commit to publicly sacrificing to exemplify a better society, rather than delegating that work coercively onto others through legal maneuvering and elections. This is not an indictment of law or democracy, but rather the thesis that a religious sect with apocalyptic and eschatological origins might consider returning to these prophetic roots to understand what we are called to do next as the Age of Trump continues to impact American democracy.
Flint: A Personal Example
This lack of cross-bearing togetherness was very evident in the responses of the conservative white churches of Flint, MI and the responses of black and progressive congregations. I had the opportunity to work with two congregations who avoided the binary of conservative-liberal tensions and segregated religious institutions. First Church of the Brethren, an Anabaptist and mostly German ethnic congregation joined with an African American congregation known as N.O.W. Ministries. Along with the already established N.O.W food bank, the two congregations came together to distribute bottled water. The church found a way to stay open five days a week rather than just Sunday. Through an active volunteer base, the two congregations combined to distribute 18 pallets of bottled water daily, food, hygiene items, baby care needs, and was a hub for the distribution of trustworthy information regarding the water crisis.
For these two congregations to work together, with little political power or control over outcomes, it took a remarkable volunteer effort. Many if not most of the volunteers came from the surrounding neighborhood. Some came from Bruderhof Communities in the Northeastern United States. Social work students came for weeks at a time during the summer of 2016. But at First Church of the Brethren – it took the organizing efforts of two unpaid pastors and three full-time volunteer ministers. It also took a lot of faith from neighbors to contribute their time to the church’s outreach, rather than just being served by professional empaths.
I came to Flint from the west side of the state – back to the neighborhood I was born in – to work for less than $200 a month to lend skills, strength, and time to the effort. I gave up gainful employment for a year in order to work in Flint, at the expense of paying mortgages and bills.
Was this a response to the call to bear my cross? There can be no certainty based on measurable outcomes. It was a sacrifice of earning potential, family stability, and health that was necessary to this risk of faith. My reward was six weeks of viral pneumonia. It was also the chance to be a part of a neighborhood rather than an outsider committed to keeping them in my thoughts and prayers.
I was eating lunch with school children and drug dealers, resuscitating overdosed substance users, and wandering through the neighborhood with my son, inviting everyone we met to come share dinner with us and get to know one another. It meant exposing my son to gun violence, being kind and serving bottled water and fresh greens to open-carry Trump supporters who had large firearms at their waist and narrow thinking tendencies in their minds. It meant directing social workers to overcome their concern for children that were not in car seats in vehicles that reeked of marijuana. It meant telling them to go find car seats to give to folks or raise money to buy some from church folks that had money to give instead of worrying about reporting caretakers to Child Protective Services.
It was a collective effort, an effort that never produced a new member or building improvements. It never produced free publicity in the news media. We were never provided with any support from the state or the city other than delivering water and hygiene items when we needed them. We did share a voice with our neighborhood. We did become a trusted place in the community. And, when we had a block party that summer, it was with the full participation of neighbors and neighborhood kids who displayed a kind of togetherness that the City of Flint and Community Mental Health organizations had been looking to build.
They asked us how we did it. One answer was that we had faith and trusted in providence. We found resources where it seemed there might not be any.
The other answer – we shared a common language with the neighborhood, the city, and most every church around; that of the Gospels. We did our best to interpret the Gospel together as congregations and live it out as an ethic for the 21st century in 21st century circumstances of crisis.
We observed other congregations of every kind work to help, but also to establish a benefit for themselves as politically powerful players. Many of the hub churches already had political power and were well anchored in their community as places of service and outreach. They were able to hit the ground running. Our little neighborhood at Ballenger and Corunna lacked such a church or civic organization. Many smaller white churches simply kept their doors shut, including the little Wisconsin Synod Church where I’d been sprinkled as an infant. Every time I tried to visit that church, the doors were locked, and the lot was empty of cars.
Many of the congregants of white churches no longer lived in the city, and they had no connection with the neighborhoods other than driving in to worship. It is in both of these situations that the church begins to accommodate fascism, just as surely and slowly as history and justice seems to come along in due time. Striving for political power creates enemies whom one must then love. Keeping church doors shut during crisis because not a single member lives in the neighborhood anymore is an outright failure to love one’s neighbor.
The fact is that the authoritative texts give credibility to actions that are both prescribed and proscribed as Christian or American responses to injustice, none of them indicating inaction as a means to an end.
Here’s the cross I ask such churches and Quaker families to consider bearing: move back into poverty-level neighborhoods, don’t worry about property values and learn to work with others to address crime and violence.
Racism will never be challenged; indeed, it may not be understood, until European Americans experience it happening first hand, and live within the results that institutionalized racism produces. The outcome – that church continues to serve their neighborhood and be a trusted resource for a community that already knows Jesus.
These folks don’t need their souls saved. Flint residents need salvation from a capitalist democratic machinery that produces crisis in Flint and Detroit, and in Bhopal and Bagdad. It may very well be that Flint, Washington DC, and the rest of the world must be saved from the evangelical Jesus.
Many European Americans tend to prefer the course of voting or promoting and financing favored social and political policies while protecting a standard of living that is not righteous in any biblical sense. They tend to submit to a belief that history brings change through patience or attrition – that the wheels of justice are often as slow as the wheels of history. They believe that those with privilege should act to make things as equal and protect the rights of all Americans while maintaining the stability of the edifice that ensures slow and steady changes in cultural perspectives.
In my view, they do not believe the cross of Christ is necessary to living a life of faithfulness that serves the interests of the marginalized and exploited. Theirs has been a conservative socio-religious approach to the sin of racism.
There are alternatives. John Brown pursued one, a terror attack aimed to spark widespread slave rebellion. The Civil War was another. It was a war in which many Quakers finally laid down their peace testimony and took up arms for the purpose of eradicating slavery. Legal slavery was abolished, replaced by terror and legal repression. The struggle to fight or not to fight as a faithful response to real or perceived evil ebbed during the Civil War. The military victory over slavery opened the Quaker doors to war-making.
There is still another option, that being a rejection of the entire framework of liberal democratic politics and institutions or educational models that I charge have perhaps maintained a consistent procession of successes and failures, death and outrage, safety-pin solutions and amnesiac nostalgia.
By World Wars I and II, Quaker historian Thomas Hamm notes that combatants outnumbered conscientious objectors three to one in Indiana Yearly Meeting. By World War II, American Quakers making a decision to take up arms outnumbered pacifists by an even greater proportion, even as Friends organizations were winning a Nobel Prize for peace by helping rebuild a European continent destroyed by war. Hamm writes “Those who have dealt with this question see it largely as a matter of acculturation. Pastoral Friends… gave up the peace testimony along with other peculiarities.” He continues, “we know less about unprogrammed Friends [of the era], but what evidence we have suggests that they followed a similar path.”4
To survey the landscape of witness and action from different angles, we’ll consider the course of three other prominent Americans. The first two are Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. For both of them, we will examine the importance of rootedness.
Alternative Arcs: Uprooting the lynching trees of Southern blood and soil
For King there was a sense of individual and corporate rootedness, one shared widely across the South. This was a rootedness that in southern culture promoted a love of the region and all it had stood for in the minds of white Americans. Yet the South is also a place called home where roots had been growing and spreading thick and strong for Americans of African ancestry. This was true even though they had long been forced to cultivate the land and build it up to remarkably productive status while held as slaves, and then exploited as sharecroppers and laborers. The southern soil was productive and bore many cultural and intellectual fruits. As the twentieth century proceeded, Blacks became increasingly ready to share in those fruits.
The paradox of the conflict was that the claims of Blacks to southern roots helped to uproot some long-lasting and coercive traditions and laws that had followed the end of slavery, continued through the boll weevil infestation, the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and the labor battles, lynchings, and lashing-out produced by two World Wars. Dreadful and bloody as this regime was, none of it stopped persistent resistance and moves toward American racial integration.
It is the rootedness of the South as home that allowed for the development of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a unique product of a Georgia known just as much for its strange fruits. His rootedness in the Southern soil, in the Southern Black Church, in American theo-political contexts and in the Bible itself, produced a leadership perceived as constructive, effective, and intelligible to almost every American. Even those who disagreed with or opposed King understood clearly what his appeal was. He was deploying his rootedness as the legitimizing authority for claims to a share of Southern soil and its produce, claims made for the very folks who had long tilled and seeded it. It is in King that we find the most potential for Christianity’s role as a moral witness and conscience to the nation-state or common culture in the midst of conflict or injustice.
King found in the narratives of the Exodus and the ethics of Jesus of Nazareth the paradigms through which to give meaning to experiences of Black Americans. The descendants of slaves sought positively to gain fully equal status as citizens protected by law, and as beneficiaries of the privileges connected to living within a liberal democratic society. King’s southern rootedness was reinforced because it had benefited him as it stood, even in the plain view of gross injustices. King was raised by a family that saw a biblical mandate to serve and lift the exploited as an obligation based on the benefits they gleaned as financially and socially secure African Americans.
In his autobiography, as compiled by Carson, King recalls his early Atlanta childhood during the period of the most economically depressed period in the history of the industrialized United States. He remembers, “I questioned my parents about the numerous people standing in breadlines.” King Jr. was a product of segregated Atlanta Public Schools, and shares that his early childhood was lived among neighbors in a “section of town known as Hunter Hills, characterized with a sort of unsophisticated simplicity. No one was in the extremely poor class.”10
This childhood memory that was apparently common to Atlanta’s middle-class Black youth (perhaps not so much for Black youth across many other parts of the United States) is anchored to more humble origins in rural Georgia. King Jr. was the first son of Martin Luther King, Sr. The senior King had left his sharecropping parents’ home in Stockbridge, Georgia and set off to walk to Atlanta “with only a pair of shoes slung over his shoulder.”11 After one day working with the patriarch King, the adolescent made the decision to point out that a plantation boss was cheating his father out of earned wages. Southern power dynamics prompted the eldest King to remind his son that the family was wholly dependent upon this relationship, after the boss threatened to beat the adolescent for speaking up. It is said that King Jr.’s father-to-be claimed “I ain’t gonna plow mule anymore.”12
Walking twenty-plus miles to Atlanta from Stockbridge, Martin Luther King Sr. also had the strength and self-discipline to enter high school at age 18 and continue formal education through his graduation from Morehouse College. King Sr. graduated and married Alberta Williams, the daughter of A.D. Williams, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was a marriage of partners from different sides of the tracks, so to speak. Alberta Williams had been “sent to the best available schools [Spelman Seminary and Hampton Institute] and was protected from the worst blights of discrimination.”13 After the marriage, King Sr. became the pastor of Ebenezer following Williams. That congregation provided solid roots in Christian community for King Jr., and with his father’s experiences of life, the son matured in the presence of a Black man who was commanding in both presence and leadership.
During childhood he saw some Americans of African ancestry secure much social and economic stability in the midst of a segregated nation that tried to strip dignity away. He also witnessed the opportunities for Black men that were found in the church community and an anchoring of Black family identity in the church. Further, he saw another American narrative being played out, one of empowerment and the commanding of dignity from oppressors. King Sr. was rooted in Atlanta’s social and political activism, being not only the pastor of the city’s larger congregations, but president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP. Martin King, Sr. also provided leadership to a successful, integrated strike by public school employees.
While King Jr.’s mother had a more stable start to life than her future husband, she could not escape the shared indignities of the Jim Crow South. She had every bit as much of an impact on the family’s witness to justice as his father. It “was my mother who told me about slavery and how it ended with the Civil War,” he wrote. “She tried to explain… segregated schools, restaurants, theaters and housing… as a social condition rather than as a social order.”
Mother Williams-King also shared with King Jr. what might be imagined as a sort of mid- 20th-Century conversation that African Americans now refer to as “the talk.” Williams-King is memorialized by King writing that “She said the words that almost every Negro hears before he can yet understand the injustices that make them necessary: ‘You are as good as anyone.’” Recalling his childhood and his parents, King Jr. wrote “with this heritage, it is not surprising that I learned to abhor segregation, considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable.”14
In sum, Martin Luther King Jr. was born into circumstances of class privilege along with a worldview that prepared his mind and soul for engaging the conflict over the soul of America that had been building since colonization, erupting in the 1860’s, and feeling aftershocks and quaking conflicts every single day that followed Juneteenth and the emancipation of the last Texas slaves. As mentioned above, King was steeped in the narratives of the biblical Exodus and the American Dream. These are the foundations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle and leadership, and indeed his Moses-like recognition that he would not live to see African Americans be given their portion of America as a promised land of freedom resonates with the story of the Hebrew liberator.
Nevertheless, they informed a movement that was nothing if not the realization of the incongruence that existed between what white Americans believed to be true and what African Americans recognized as reality and unfulfilled promise. It is King who provides us with a glimpse of America as a promised land of democracy and freedom as the American Dream. In those same years, Malcolm Little, who became Malcolm X, had a very different, but contiguous experience of race, religion and America.
American Dream as Racist Nightmare
For Malcolm Little of Lansing, Michigan, the American experience was both a nightmare and Anti-Christ. The proof was in his parents’ lives, and his own experiences that might only be described as fuel for the fiery soul of a child raised in the flames of fire-bombings, murders, and apocalyptic realities that can only be articulated by a prophetic voice. As much as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s experiences were rooted in stability and promise stemming from strong parental influences, Malcolm Little’s experiences originate from a lengthier paternal journey through the African Diaspora of North America, yet similarly prompted by the infringement of white supremacy upon a determined Black man’s intentions.
His father Earl Little was born and raised in Southwest Georgia in circumstances not unlike Martin Luther King Sr. Earl Little [nicknamed Early] was a competent carpenter, undereducated, married father of three children. Home was called Reynolds, which is identified by Marable as “an impressive manufacturing hub with a large cotton milling factory.”15 Little was born in 1890, at the very beginning of an economic downturn in the United States that was followed by the arrival of an unwanted Texas visitor to the Georgian cotton fields, the boll weevil, in 1915.16
Just as Martin Luther King Sr. struggled with the racism of the greater Atlanta region of Georgia, Earl Little, the father of Malcolm X, also resided in Georgia, a state which was the scene of more than 500 grisly lynchings in those years, second only to Mississippi in the number of African Americans murdered by organized white supremacist terror. King Sr. witnessed overt racist power dynamics in the threat of a beating, but certainly the threat of lynching as abiding common knowledge might also have been a motivating factor for the young man’s decision to walk to Atlanta. Yet even Atlanta, the scene of 35 lynchings – the most of any Georgia county – was hardly a “safe space.” Nevertheless, King, Sr. decided to take his chances there, to find alternatives to the family patriarch’s submission to a fate of financial dependence in the face of white terror tactics. Earl Little could see a similar future that led him to a similar decision.
There is no report that Earl Little found himself in regular trouble, but this history shows he might have known it was always possible, that trouble would find him. The fact of lynching and economic motivators contributed to a long-term white supremacist struggle to eliminate competition from skilled African American labor. It also created a long Black exodus north. Malcolm X biographer Marable writes “Earl’s status as a skilled carpenter probably provoked tensions with local whites, and his parents and friends feared for his safety.”17
A cursory bit of research indicates that organized terror and organized segregation of labor was working hand in hand and that this hit close to home for Earl Little. That there were no reported lynchings in Taylor County, Georgia may say less than the fact that 100 miles further south in Early County, there had been more than 11, two of which occurred only two years after Earl Little left his wife and three children behind to move north. One of the two men lynched in Early County in 1919 was a World War I veteran who worked a security detail for a bank in Blakely, Georgia. His name was Wilfred Little (mistakenly reported by a Chicago newspaper and the Georgia Lynching Database as William Little) who refused to remove his military uniform, thus triggering white brutality.18
Martin Luther King Sr. saw a future of trouble if he did not leave rural Georgia for the potential he believed existed in Atlanta. Amidst lynchings and, potentially, hearing of family troubles further south, Earl Little left Georgia for the North, and later, Montreal. 1910 Census reports identify Early Little as a porter. 1920 Census reports from Pennsylvania identify Early Little as a minister.
The Montreal experience changed his life. It was in Canada that he met Louise Norton and began to appreciate the teachings and activist leadership of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. Described by all who were close to him as aggressive, justice-minded, and temperamental, Earl married Louise. They then returned to the United States having “decided to dedicate their lives and futures” to the building of the Garveyite movement in the United States.
In 1920 they relocated from Philadelphia to Omaha. Racist violence surged in these years: in 1921, the African American Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned entirely to the ground, destroying the most successful Black-owned business district in the United States. More than 100 individuals were murdered, and over 800 were injured, with more than 600 black citizens arrested.19 In 1923, more than three million white Americans claimed new membership in the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.
The Little family’s home in Omaha was firebombed in the “winter of 1925”20, the year Malcolm was born. That tragedy prompted a move to Milwaukee, and later, to Lansing, MI. Not only was another Little family home burned to the ground, but soon after, in 1931, Earl Little was found dead, very likely murdered for his activism and work for a Black homeland, Black capitalism, and Black self-sufficiency, which were the main Garveyite separatist solutions to white supremacist realities.
Martin Luther King Jr. had an experience of American Blackness that allowed for a well-educated and firmly rooted childhood to develop into a life of leadership. From this base, he could find a way to trust process and American sensibilities. It is evident that Malcolm Little’s family experience was rooted in violence at the hands of white supremacists, the destruction of family by white institutions, and little room for more than anger and oppositional behaviors to guide the maturation of the man who would become Malcolm X.
However, the religious experiences of Minister Malcolm X can be understood far better in light of the way in which the lack of stability impacted the thinking of his parents, and his own transformation. For Christians, even if they be of European origins and beneficiaries of a privileged racist history, they can see in Malcolm the cross that King. Jr. embodied through non-violence, replaced by apocalyptic understandings and responses to white supremacy during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. In the socio-political realm, there is nothing so apocalyptic as the notion of the imminence of God’s readiness to act in history as the experience of life as one of the-hour-is-at-hand and the time is now! Christians can clearly relate to such thought, as it permeates the early Christian gospel texts.
Niebuhr: Rooted in expectations, Challenging their limitations
Most Christians of European ancestry, however, will likely be far more comfortable with the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. A look at his experiences of adolescence and early adulthood make clear how much the interpretive lenses of white Christians can differ from those of the two major African American religious leaders of that time. Niebuhr brings an equally typical experience of Americana to the religious understandings and responses to the Civil Rights movement and Christian responsibility to justice. To become equally typical, however, Niebuhr quickly overcame any difficulties his German-speaking immigrant parents experienced in Missouri. Niebuhr likely experienced the benefits of white privilege established not by his rootedness to the land but solely due to his skin tone.
Undoubtedly, Niebuhr had remarkable intellect and theological giftedness, just as King, Jr. and Malcolm Little did. His privilege does not discredit his sizeable contributions to American religious ethics. Whereas Malcolm called for revolution and separation, and King, Jr. called for civil rights protections and a stronger integrated America, Niebuhr’s ethics responded to sin by identifying justice as a process that will vindicate the faithfulness of sacrifice and he looked to the faithful use of political power and the force of law to prevent further spread of evil and injustice.
However, his contributions to religious ethics regarding the Civil Rights movement and what was often known to be “America’s racial problem” seemed limited in both scope and biblical relevance. Niebuhr seemed determined to produce an American religious ethic from the perspective of manipulating the benefits of privilege and power to produce justice, including protection of the civil rights of American citizens of color.
Like those of King and Malcolm, the following sketch of Niebuhr’s youth illustrates my thinking that his later contributions to theology and ethics were more driven by contingency and privilege than his earlier pastoral views and practice. This shift shows clearly how privilege and access to institutional control support views of Americanism in the middle of a spectrum of ethics and action. In the 1960s, most Euro-American civic religious leaders reacted against both Malcolm X’s and Dr. King’s visions. They rejected Malcolm’s apocalyptic delegitimizing narrative of American liberal democracy, and King’s biblical mandate for justice as the God-ordained outcome of his vision of a fulfilled constitutional and biblical eschatological revelation.
In Niebuhr, we find rootedness in white supremacist notions of the American Dream and civic religious accommodation of national power. He illustrates the notion that the ethical realization of Christian Kingdom moral constructs is possible when democratically authorized political mandates are seen as the right hand of a loving God. Niebuhr’s civic religious construct is known as Christian Realism. The reader will see how Niebuhr’s realism compares with Malcolm X’s apocalyptic vision and the eschatological hope of King’s witness.
Richard Fox’s biography of Niebuhr reads like an early Rockwell painting of Independence Day celebrations or family dinner scenes and chaperoned contra-dances in a township hall. Chapter One presents Niebuhr’s American rootedness as a grafted shoot of white immigrants into the white supremacy of the American Dream. It reads “For prosperous Protestant farmers of Logan County in central Illinois, the summer of 1903 was a time of rejoicing… There had been several banner years in succession. The depression of the nineties – a bleak era of declining prices and receding personal horizons–was fading in memory.”21
Just prior to that economic depression, his father Gustav Niebuhr arrived in the United States as a German immigrant. Known to his cousin as “a wild young man” he experienced religious conversion in 1883 followed by a commitment to study for the ministry in the Prussian Union Church. One year after the depression of the 90’s began, Gustav Niebuhr married 17-year-old Lydia Hosto. With her talent as a musician and church organist, they grew congregations. Niebuhr also preached on a circuit and at revivals before finally settling his family in Lincoln, Illinois. Their son Reinhold was born in 1892.
Similar to both Malcom Little’s parents and King Jr.’s family, religious witness was a family matter and a team effort that was formative of the ways the three men progressed through their religious life. Fox describes Reinhold Niebuhr’s mother as “the pivotal force in developing his imagination”. She made up games and creative endeavors that were turned variously into “circus[es], a World’s Fair, a Chautauqua. They mounted their own theatrical skits with neighborhood children and played assigned roles, modeled church services. Niebuhr was described “by common consent the best actor, was always given the lead. One of his favorite roles was ‘preacher.’ He loved to officiate at weddings and baptisms,” according to his sister Hulda.22
Fox writes that Gustav treated his son Reinhold differently from the other siblings. Niebuhr recalled that his father “constantly flattered me in my adolescence by taking me into his confidence and asking for advice on decisions which he faced.” Fox reports that “compared to his siblings, Reinhold was a favored child. Gustav had caught his own reflection… of his mature identity – in this exuberant son.”
Something of the way in which young Niebuhr was affected by the religious identity and theology he committed to during the era congruent with the civil rights struggles is summed up in a eulogy of his father at a memorial service. “W.N. Tobie of First Methodist stressed Gustav’s patriotism and ecumenical spirit. ‘German though he was,’” stated Tobie, “‘he impressed his brethren with his Americanism in thought and sentiment… He cooperated with his American brethren in all his work.’”
Niebuhr’s publicly expressed ethics during the civil rights movement, regarding war in Southeast Asia, and America’s role in the world as an economic and military power allow for a full understanding of how his religious ethics contrasted sharply with those of Malcolm X and King, Jr. Was it Niebuhr’s aim to make Christian ethics, above all, more relevant to power and authority and the policy making apparatus of the United States?
I propose that if the legacies of King Jr. and Malcolm X produced an American citizenry that elected an African American president some 40 years after their assassinations; the legacy of Niebuhr’s civic religion is found among the cobbled together theo-politics of right-wing white supremacist Christianity. Though Niebuhr consistently challenged the overt anti-communist and nationalistic-style religious rhetoric of characters like Billy Graham, one must still ask whether he produced anything tangibly different from the evangelicalism Graham forged.
If Quakers and Christian progressives are to re-legitimize the realpolitik notions of Niebuhr’s ethics, they must define how the Bible or the life of Jesus memorialized in the Bible are to be applied to justice and peace-making from a seat of power. This is a prospect never considered by the biblical authors outside of God’s own power – a power that instructs faithful persons to sacrifice any power they might otherwise claim. The next question is different. If Niebuhr’s impact is to be more than academically important, not culturally overwhelmed by the anti-communist and pro-militaristic civic religious gospel of Graham played out in his evangelistic Crusades across the world, what power and electoral maneuvering is consistent with both non-violence and maintenance of the American socio-economic superstructure?
Niebuhr’s answers, in my view, track with a venerable jibe: “If one is not a revolutionary at age 18, they have no heart. If one is not a conservative by age 30, they have no brain.” This adage has been confirmed by the trajectories of many once-young radicals who later assimilated to socio-political power mechanisms that ensure relevance to public policy and opinion, and socio-economic stability. Such is my perception of American revolutionaries of my own past. It is echoed by Niebuhr’s career. His Christian ethics allowed him to live a long life and receive accolades for his contributions to the religious conscience of America. On the other hand, Earl Little and Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and his mother Alberta Williams King were all incarcerated, burned out, bombed out, or murdered.
At Yale Divinity School, Reinhold Niebuhr was exposed to a type of critical thinking that might have been anathema to many Midwest conservative German-speaking congregations. There is an incident during his Divinity studies that is telling, however. Niebuhr was struggling with the tensions between European Marxist thought of the pre-WW I era and a pragmatism that has long been part of a historically marginalized stream of American academic and philosophical thought. He was now informing his thinking with the works of William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce. His scholarship circa 1914 provides evidence of the above tensions. Niebuhr produced a Master of the Arts thesis and separate essay for publication first entitled “Patriotism and Altruism”, then retitled, “The Paradox of Patriotism.” At the same time, Niebuhr was exploring and decisively accepting a pacifist Christian ethic as one that should be normative for all religious discussion related to war, and defining combat as “primarily selfish and immoral without excuse.”
Such pacifism was then common among followers of the pre-war Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. It was described by Niebuhr as the framework for a Christian “civilization of peace.” Fox portrays it as “a society in which the individual and the collective would both be committed to the same standard of love and self-sacrifice.” Niebuhr wrote in “The Paradox of Patriotism,” “there is one agency, one special community that ought to be particularly effective in providing adequate moral substitutes for war. That agency is none other than the Christian Church… It is more universal than most agencies and its ideals are more unique and therefore more challenging than are those of any other special community.”23
Not only did the seminarian Niebuhr take seriously the peace witness that many interpreters find in the gospel texts, but his pastorate in Detroit featured social justice preaching and organizing in a working-class neighborhood of laborers and families exploited by the working conditions at Henry Ford’s production plants. He also preached against a Detroit mayoral candidate, Charles Bowles, a Ku Klux Klan member (or sympathizer) with an influential voice in a city experiencing rapid growth of European Catholic immigrants.
Racial hostility in Detroit in the 1920s was increasing rapidly with the influx of African Americans and Catholics. The Klan membership grew from about 3,000 in 1921 to about 22,000 by 1923. Walter White, at the time an assistant secretary of the NAACP, stated that “in the two years prior to 1925, 90 percent of the new recruits to the Detroit police force were southern whites, susceptible to Klan propaganda.”24 When Niebuhr preached, against Bowles, he then gave the text to the press. Titled, “We fair-minded Protestants cannot deny,” it was published on the front pages of both major Detroit newspapers.
In it, Niebuhr called on Protestants to support the Catholic challenger in the 1925 race as a means of challenging the type of theology that produced congregations of Klan members and other exclusive nationalist groups. He said:
“It was Protestantism that gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan, one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride and prejudice of peoples has ever developed… I do not deny that all religions are periodically corrupted by bigotry. But I hit Protestant bigotry the hardest at this time because it happens to be our sin, and there is no use repenting for other people’s sins.”25
Schlesinger Jr. wrote “He combined his pastoral duties with eager attention to the intellectual challenges and controversies of the day. The wretchedness of life on the industrial frontier quickened an already live interest in social problems. Niebuhr was, in a real sense, a child of the Social Gospel.”26 And by the way, Charles Bowles lost the election. Three years later, in 1928, he left Detroit for New York City and Union Seminary, where he spent the rest of his working life.
He was, Schlesinger added, also a “child of the pragmatic revolt. Nature had made him an instinctive empiricist; he had sharp political intuitions… and an instinct for realism; and his first response to situations requiring decisions was typically as a pragmatist, not as a moralist or a perfectionist.”27 It was this political pragmatism that won over the mind of Niebuhr in the struggle between liberal social gospel and peace-witness foundations of his early praxis. Schlesinger claims that the Detroit pastorate fueled an energetic rendering of the Sermon on the Mount as Christian pragmatism. Even non-violence as a response to the need for social change was pragmatic, “purely an expedient choice.”28 From a fairly deep and committed understanding related to his experiences with Henry Ford and the autoworkers [and an admiration of Marx], Niebuhr once believed that capitalism would lead to fascism as it had in Europe, and that socialism or Marxist social dynamics would produce just social changes over and against the claims of liberal religious Christianity.
However, along with Rauschenbusch, I believe Niebuhr is the beginning of a faith-based Americanism which produces a worldview that constitutional democratic agencies can or should act as the right hand of God. But the fact of depending upon liberal democracies to produce morally just outcomes leaves the constituency of God without any cross to bear, but assigned instead to patiently wait for the right court battles and right public policy to produce justice and equality.
Christendom is left as the example of what patient waiting and public accommodation of the status quo can do for both one’s bank account and, or, post-mortem bliss and reward for any suffering that may happen. It also coerces justice upon a citizenry, which is certainly a task reserved for government; but is it what the Christian faith calls for as a witness to faithfulness?
By 1940, things had changed. Niebuhr now saw a deeply flawed Marxism under Stalin, a deeply shattered liberal religious social program in Europe, and an American social gospel movement marginalized by anti-communist sentiment. He new regarded religious liberalism as an enemy of Kingdom ethics, and also concluded at this time that non-violence or Christian pacifism was immoral.
Schlesinger writes that “He attacked the versions of Christian and secular perfectionism that placed a premium on non-participation in conflicts.” In contrast to other Christian critics of capitalist ethics, Niebuhr found in the competitive nature of democratic participation, the way for Christian ethics to contribute or manipulate political outcomes toward positive social change.
Mainstream politics was now both consequence and antidote to the abuse of power to suppress social progress. “The effort to reduce the Kingdom of God to a simple historical possibility… inevitably invited surrender to evil as the price of avoidance of conflict. We need the realism of the Christian faith to save us from sentimentality. In America at least, the dangers of a perverse sentimentality have been greater than the perils of cynicism.”
It is here that Schlesinger marks the pragmatic turn by Niebuhr (circa 1935, when he was 43, a bit late for the 18-30 shift) from “Christian Radicalism” to “Christian Realism.” Niebuhr understood “All life is an expression of power.” Yet, he rejected the idea that human beings could be counted upon to voluntarily eschew the use of power for the improvement of the social order. Therefore, in light of the moral failures of World War I and his witness of the realities of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, Niebuhr wrote that “the necessity of reducing power to a minimum, of bringing the remainder under the strongest measure of social control; and of destroying such types of it as are least amenable to social control. For there is no ethical force strong enough to place inner checks upon the use of power if the quantity is inordinate.”
When Niebuhr identifies the tension between the facts he interprets concerning power and monopolies over violence to referee social conflict and the use of power and control, he identifies a tremendous inconsistency between the ability to mandate non-violence as the Christian witness and the potential of coercive force used on behalf of Christian ideals of justice. Quoting James Madison, he stated, “The truth is that all men having power ought to be distrusted.” On the other hand, he finally believes that “an uneasy balance of power would seem to become the highest goal to which a society could aspire.”
I interpret this conclusion as producing an ethic that calls upon constitutional government to be the referee and monopoly holder of violence and coercive force as the primary means of social change and the interpretive mechanism for what justice is. Even if Niebuhr wants his moral vision and ethic to be founded in the Kingdom of God narrative, the Kingdom is ruled by democratic means rather than faith to textual interpretations, or, interpretations of the cross and self-sacrifice. 29
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Summa Sanctus Est Or Becoming a Saint
King Jr. remembers reading Niebuhr in the final year of his studies at Crozer Seminary. Niebuhr’s concerns for sin as existing “at every level of man’s existence” was a corrective or synthesis for King’s understanding of the non-violence of Gandhi, and liberal Christianity. His autobiography shares that King Jr. “became so enamored of his social ethics that I almost fell into the trap of accepting uncritically everything he wrote.”30
When introduced to Niebuhr, King’s understanding of pacifism as the moral means of producing socially healthy change was heavily influenced by the work of Gandhi. Then King was introduced to Nietzsche, who brought him near to despair regarding “the power of love in solving social problems.” He found Nietzsche to be an individualistic antithesis to his understanding of Marx, who was an informant of King’s social ethic of community [and rootedness, perhaps] in his understandings of both Marx and Nietzsche.
King found the Christian love ethic to be one of individual relationships, and war or violence to be potentially a “negative good in the sense of preventing the spread or growth of an evil force… I thought the only way we could solve our problem of segregation was an armed revolt.”30
In the Gandhian antithesis, he found the love ethic of individual relationships applied to social ethics and politically favorable outcomes. “It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and non-violence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.”31
King remembers “At first, Niebuhr’s critique of pacifism left me in a state of confusion.” His time at Crozer had brought about a deep exploration and self-critique, the basis for intellectual self-awareness and growth. It served for King to lay a solid foundation of non-violence that had been tested not only by Niebuhr’s arguments for using coercion against the spread of evil, but by Niebuhr’s intellectual conversion as a fellow Marx-influenced ethicist with no sympathy for the sentimental patience of non-violence when evil was overwhelming the potential progress that good could make against social evil. It may be that King’s working through Niebuhr’s criticisms of non-violence offered the very dialectic King then used to counter both radical and conservative arguments against his actions.32
After thinking through Niebuhr’s theology and ethics, King found that Gandhi produced a more Christ-centered ethic of love that was based not in a realist pragmatism, but in non-violent resistance to evil through “the courageous confrontation of evil with the power of love, in faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence rather 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.”33
Nevertheless, Niebuhr remained an important contributor to the sum of King’s theology and praxis. “Niebuhr is keenly aware of human motives and the relations between morality and power… a persistent reminder of the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence. These elements in Niebuhr’s thinking helped me to recognize the illusions of a superficial optimism concerning human nature and the ideas of false idealism.”34
Terrell describes the love dialectic that comes from readings of Niebuhr. I contend that it can successfully describe the dialectic that underlies this project, namely the concern for Christian religious struggle against white supremacy in the church.
One of Niebuhr’s criticisms of pacifism is that its supposed selflessness ultimately is self-centered as it lacks a concern for justice. He suggests that agape [sacrifice of self-interests] love must be connected to the disinterested love of eros [maintaining some of one’s own interests] to reduce the component of justice driven by the protection of, or provision for, one’s own favored outcomes of conflict or desire (porneia?). Niebuhr’s dialectic is that the Christian ethic of agape, or selfless love, must be held in tension with the antithesis of maintaining justice with some concern for one’s own care (eros). Eros is justice defined as the preservations of mutual self-interests at the same time it shares or prioritizes the interests of an Other.35
Niebuhr’s criticism of agape-love caught King’s attention in his struggle to overcome tensions between Niebuhr and Gandhian ethics. Justice is that relative embodiment of sacrificial agape in the public or political sphere which is regulated, mandated, and coercively applied through legal codes, with consequences for violation. Its norms are developed through an application of mutual self-interests of those served by democratic regimes of power and control.36
Terrell argues that the so-called norms of agape in Niebuhr’s thinking have negatively impacted the powerless by preventing them from self-assertion of worth and deservedness of justice or equal status under constitutional law. If the Christian teaching of justice is agape, it is actually the mechanism by which oppressed Christians or other marginalized peoples are consistently denied justice – they consistently sacrifice themselves and commit to suffering while never realizing an end to the continuing spread of evil. One may “love their enemies,” but that will rarely produce justice in the courtroom, classroom, market place, or on the battlefield.
King, Jr identifies Jesus as the embodiment of agape. King’s commitment to a love ethic is rooted in his experience of the southern Black Church and his own experiences of family and congregational rootedness. It is not a negative selflessness that promotes the cross as an acceptance of injustice. Rather, it identifies Love as eros, which can make for a Christian dialectic, in which the thesis is social relationships, with justice being an antithesis or negation of love. This produces a tension which can be transcended in conflict between interested parties into a synthesis of disinterested transcendent solutions to conflict.
I suggest that King embodies the synthesis of Niebuhr’s tensions between love and practical use of power by sacrificing his own (King’s) potential for happiness, financial security, or safer venues of resistance while aggressively but non-violently maintaining his stake and the stake African American communities claim to equal protection under the law. The non-violent civil disobedience of Black activists disrupts and judges white supremacy and the economic and social framework that supports it. Another prime example of self-sacrifice in tension with maintenance of self-interests producing a synthesis is exemplified by the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and the Freedom Rider action.
By contrast, as Niebuhr sees it, the synthesis of the dialectical tensions between love and justice is not the use of coercive force or violence to establish justice through the defeat of evil, but rather a synthesis of agape that blends the Love embodied by the Jesus myth and the search for justice with fulfillment of Christian promise. Agape is the perfectly sacrificial goodness that completes the incomplete nature of the tensions between love and justice – the disavowal of power – Christianity as the perpetuation and ultimate furthering expansion of messianic themes of liberation.
Niebuhr’s Christology sees Jesus as redeemer of human history, and human historical agency as the necessary component of God’s determining of just outcomes. In King’s concern for racial equality and social change, we find justice not as a point of future redemption of humanity through God’s perfecting love, but rather a here and now eschatological event. Justice is rooted in the Christian narrative and the Exodus event that is embodied through the self-sacrificial love that promotes kenosis, the self-emptying of self-concern and self-preservation on behalf of those who do not have a voice or access to power.37
There are significant differences between King Jr. and Niebuhr, and the impact the two Christian ministers have had on America are significantly different as well. However, both are founded in Christian concepts of the cross and an understanding that kenosis in one context or another is a core of social change, including the pursuit of a lasting justice defined in terms intelligible both in the promises of a God of Love and an American Dream of equal status under the law.
However, the rootedness of King and Niebuhr in these contexts should never be understood as motivated by, or in pursuit of, similar outcomes or understandings of God’s love or justice. The difference between them cannot be overcome, even within the context of unmasking “the systematic order of white injustice.” James Cone, a theologian and Christian ethicist who has written and taught extensively on all three of our subjects, identifies Niebuhr’s Christian realism and lack of immediacy, or demand for more radical actions to end racist institutions, as an error not related to cultural realities but due to a “theological blindness.”38
What are we looking for? What works? And is it faithful?
Malcolm X, with the searing memory of oppression driving his theology of immediately realized vindication, foresees what the apocalyptic biblical texts refers to as “the great and terrible day of the LORD.”39 Whereas Niebuhr, and in Malcolm X’s mind, King as well tended to be mired in a religion and democracy that itself was not only rooted in, but provided the fertile soil of slavery that produced institutionalized white supremacy as the law of the land. “More than any other images,” writes Cone, “‘dream’ and ‘nightmare’ best summarize the differences between Martin King’s and Malcolm X’s perspective on America.”40
“America’s problem is us,” stated Malcom X, “she doesn’t want us here… once you face this as a fact, you can start plotting a course that will make you appear intelligent instead of unintelligent.” Intelligent Americans of African Ancestry should identify white Americans not as neighbors but “their common enemy.” Malcolm X did not subscribe to a Christian “love of neighbor and enemy ethic.” His apocalyptic nature was to tell the truth of an American culture rooted in racism and as such, rooted in evil from its very inception. “You sure don’t catch hell because you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you don’t catch hell because you’re a Mason or an Elk, and you sure don’t catch hell if you’re an American; because if you were an American, you wouldn’t catch hell. You catch hell because you’re black… You catch hell, all of us catch hell for the same reason.”41
Malcolm X mocked the love-of-neighbor theology of the Christian church.
“The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the negro revolution. It’s the only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated public toilet. Imagine that… You’ll have a chance to go to the toilet with white folks – why, you’re out of your mind! Only way I want to go to the toilet with him is if I can flush him down with the rest of that stuff.”
Yet, Malcolm X was far more than a peddler of sarcastic and aggressive rhetoric. He was intellectually equal to both Niebuhr and King and like both of them, spent time lecturing at universities across the nation.
Malcom X once attended a lecture given by Arthur Schlesinger Jr, at Atlanta University. He listened to Schlesinger state that “Nothing can obstruct… recognition of the brotherhood of the human community more than the racist doctrines preached by the White Citizens Councils, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Black Muslims,” and then “applauded Martin Luther King Jr. for promoting non-violence as ‘the best way to attack prejudice.’”42
At a later question and answer session, Malcolm X “Identifying himself only as ‘a Muslim’… demanded to know on ‘what do you base your charge that the Black Muslims are racist and Black Supremacists?” The two discussed [or debated] Schlesinger’s evidence appropriated from a recent article “The Angriest Negroes” written by William Worthy, which Schlesinger used as ground of support for his claim.43
Furthermore, Minister Malcolm X was proving intellectually inspiring at universities, and his debates with the Black Quaker Bayard Rustin provided evidence, win or lose, that Black Americans and Black thinking were different from the Schlesingers and Neibuhrs of the world. Unlike Rustin and King, Malcolm X understood and rejected black scholarship and ethics that were in his mind rooted in the institutions of white supremacy and its intelligentsia on display in the thought of Niebuhr and Schlesinger, Ramsey and Gustafson. The following excerpts come from the first debate between Rustin, a pacifist who worked alongside integrationists and promoted the premise that Africans built America and could rightly claim a place in both its history and its destiny as full participants.44
In response To Minister Malcolm X’s separatist argument, Rustin speaks to the positive notions of integration before chiding X about where exactly he is leading Black Americans to if they are to enjoy the benefits of a separate homeland. Rustin stated:
“I believe the great majority of the Negro people, black people, are not seeking anything from anyone. They are seeking to become full-fledged citizens. Their ancestors have toiled in this country, contributing greatly to it.” He continues, “The logic of your position is to say to black people in this country: ‘We have to migrate and set up some state in Africa.’ It seems to me that this is where you have to come out.”
Malcolm X responded:
“Well, Mr. Rustin, let me say this about “full-fledged” or as they say “first-class” citizenship. Most of the so-called Negro leaders have got the Negro masses used to thinking in terms of second-class citizenship, of which there is no such thing.” He continued: “We who follow the Honorable Elijah Muhammad believe that a man is either a citizen or he is not a citizen. He is not a citizen by degree. If the black man in America is not recognized as a first-class citizen, we don’t feel that he is a citizen at all. People come here from Hungary and are integrated into the American way of life overnight, they are not put into any fourth-class or third-class or any kind of class. The only one who is put in this category is the so-called Negro who is forced to beg the white man to accept him.”45
There was also the issue of violence for self-defense or the assertion of human rights, against the use of non-violence to achieve goals in the face of police dogs, fire hoses, and fire bombings. Malcolm:
“… let me say this: we feel the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is a modern Moses! Some people say Adam Clayton Powell is a modern Moses and some say Martin Luther King is a modern Moses, but no one can claim to be a modern Moses until he finds out what the first Moses did. And Moses never advocated integration. He advocated complete separation. And he didn’t advocate passive resistance, he advocated an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. ‘Love your enemy’: As long as you teach a man that kind of philosophy, he’ll remain a slave.”
Rustin responded to the matter of non-violence later in the debate, saying:
I can see no way for the Negro to struggle except through non-violence and a dedication to a strategic non-violence as a matter of principle. Now therefore if you are going to struggle with non-violence to a certain extent you are going to have a certain affection for the people who are mistreating you. Now affection for the other fellow is not possible without a great sense of dignity of oneself and therefore the dignity of the Negro for me is not something that is an aside. It is an essential of the struggle. The people in Montgomery were able to struggle and get integration on their buses for a simple reason: ten years before they could not have done it because they did not believe in themselves. When they believed in themselves they could be socially affectionate to the opposition while at the same time they could be extremely militant and walking and being prepared to sacrifice, I think this is most important and I would therefore agree with Malcolm X that doing away with the ugliness resulting from poverty and their position in society is very necessary and important.46
If King’s witness to a God of Love and the American Dream can best be summed up in the words of his best known speech, Niebuhr’s legacy is likely summed in this line taken from his New York Times obituary: “Mr. Niebuhr was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a group of 50 distinguished Americans. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.”47
As For remembering Malcom X, this paper memorializes his apocalyptic message as delivered by Denzel Washington according the script of Spike Lee’s movie “X.” An excerpt may help us get to concluding lessons from these three religious thinkers and apply them to contemporary problems in the United States during the Era of Trump.
One application: does the way Malcolm X challenges the identity of African Americans as citizens – as constituents of any legitimate organization – help us recognize that apocalyptic thought similarly challenges the church to invest itself in peculiarly Christian ethics and practices rather than working for a more unified and tolerant America? Is there a place for such separateness of the church – intentional otherness as both critique and identity?
[MALCOLM X:] “I’m not here this afternoon as a Republican, nor as a Democrat; not as a Mason, nor as an Elk; not as a Protestant, nor a Catholic; not as a Christian, nor a Jew; not as a Baptist, nor a Methodist. In fact, not even as an American, because if I was an American, the problem that confronts our people today wouldn’t even exist. So I have to stand here today as what I was when I was born: a black man. Before there was any such thing as a Republican or a Democrat, we were black. Before there was any such thing as a Mason or an Elk, we were black. Before there was any such thing as a Jew or a Christian, we were black people! In fact, before there was any such place as America, we were black! And after America has long passed from the scene, there will still be black people.
I’m gonna tell you like it really is. Every election year these politicians are sent up here to pacify us! They’re sent here and setup here by the White Man! This is what they do! They send drugs in Harlem down here to pacify us! They send alcohol down here to pacify us! They sendprostitution down here to pacify us! Why you can’t even get drugs in Harlem without the White Man’s permission! You can’t get prostitution in Harlem without the White Man’s permission! You can’t get gambling in Harlem without the White Man’s permission! Every time you break the seal on that liquor bottle, that’s a Government seal that you’re breaking! Oh, I say and I say it again, ya been had! Ya been took! Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!
This is what He does.”48
We need not look to such Black apocalyptic thought to make Christian claims to a God of love credible to African Americans. There is no credibility. Yet we do have our own apocalyptic tradition, that gives us the ears necessary to hear what Malcom X is saying. And when we have heard, we can use that opportunity to self-reflect and insist on honest self-appraisal of racism in the church and cultural institutions. We can tell the truth about them in a manner that calls Americans to witness both to themselves, and to those who claim Christ and promote the maintenance of white supremacist institutions such as Niebuhr did (intentionally or otherwise).
Pauline Scholar Douglas Harink provides an example of postmodern apocalyptic thought and language that allows European Americans to see the rhetoric and intellect of Malcolm X as being necessary to the concern for the emancipation of Americans from the stocks of whiteness. Malcolm’s witness is historically necessary to understanding how power and control mechanisms must be judged and resisted. That is because turning such power and control upside down is the revealed truth of God. For Christians of every background, Jesus as Christ, the cross, and the resurrection are apocalyptic.
Harink draws his example from Christian ethicist and pacifist Stanley Hauerwas, who has been a loud voice from the periphery of religious ethics. Harink suggests “moderation is missing from most of Hauerwas’s work, which is not to say that he is not careful, even patient, reasoning about matters theological… But Hauerwas understands that even patience, respectful listening, and a certain playfulness in theological reasoning can only serve his primary aim, ‘to remind Christians that we are in a life and death struggle with the world.”49
While Malcolm X used the phrase “By any means necessary” and found that white Americans could do no more than steal its meaning and regurgitate the phrase as proof-text evidence that the Nation of Islam or X was promoting violence against whites, Stanley Hauerwas goes further in telling his own apocalyptic truth about the aims of Christ as the apocalypse of God. Harink notes that life and death struggle, or warfare, is always engaged with specific awareness that real enemies pose real threats, in relation to which the theologian may, playfully but rightfully – be labeled as a “non-violent terrorist.”50 He writes that “for Hauerwas, theology is a thoroughly apocalyptic activity… a way of coming to terms with liberalism, or liberal democracy, or ‘America.’”
For Christian apocalyptic thought, democracy, Christian institutions, or even the defense of liberty can be an obstacle to the primacy of Christ as the full revelation of what Niebuhr can only deny is possible, but is fully embodied by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. “It is first and foremost a strong emphasis on God’s action in history of Jesus Christ, rather than human action or response.”
Harink then states that God’s action is “characterized by conflict with enslaving powers… that oppose God’s good purpose for all creation.” Harink notes additional Christian apocalyptic criteria for faithful persons to be able to reflect God’s will rather than the institutional will of white supremacy. “The goal is liberation of humanity and the creation.” The means are “terroristic” by posing a threat to the stability of national narratives that maintain or defend white supremacy. Judgment will occur with “Jesus as the normative and critical measure of faithfulness to God.” Such judgment seems terroristic when the judgment of God is a concept that empowers and liberates those judged marginal or enslaved by the nations.
Not finally, but importantly, Harink suggests that an apocalyptic truth of Christ is a truth that names Christ as the “unsurpassed and unsurpassable; there is no reality, no history… no system, framework, idea or anything else that transcends the reality of Jesus Christ.” 51 As Malcom X indicated to the world, judgment of white supremacy is imminent, as is a change that reinstitutes a natural order that places Africans in their ordained place in history and creation – exposing the evil and violence of European racism, paternalism, and genocide.
If Malcolm X could be deemed terroristic or as promoting violence, then the gospels of Jesus Christ and the Apocalypse to John cannot but be interpreted as terroristic in some sense. This is especially the case when they are historically understood to be written and read aloud in a context of Christian opposition to the racism and terror inherent in the Roman Empire and the Judean elites who benefited from Roman militarism and protected status.
What Malcolm X said about the American Dream and the Christendom of Niebuhr is just what an apocalyptic Christian worldview sees through the eyes and promise of Christ. While discussion must be reasonable, apocalyptic discourse puts white supremacist rationality on edge. “The rationalist response to apocalyptic” writes Christian Theologian and contemporary of the Civil Rights movement, Walter Lowe, “is to treat it, or belief in it, as a historical phenomenon. In doing so, the historian asserts a priori the very continuity of history which apocalyptic would question – into the dustbin of history goes the notion that history is headed for the dustbin.”
Lowe knows that to discuss apocalyptic claims about the truths of evil in terms that allow for white supremacist evil to thrive is to frame the will of God and the truth of racism as a rather unfortunate evil reality to be tolerated until change can occur in its own due time – as though change can only be trusted to happen when all involved are comfortable with it.
As Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out prior to their assassinations (racist terror in which evil is maintained and murder reframed as martyrdom), the fact that change is being allowed to occur in “due time” only means that the consequences of racist terror continue to be the embodiment of democracy until the tides of history turn.
We leave Hauerwas behind here, as like many other white theologians, he rarely even takes up discussion of racism as institutionalized church culture and focuses like Niebuhr (although otherwise, Hauerwas is a remarkably harsh and accurate critic of Niebuhr) on the global realities of sin and the need for non-violence at the expense of credible witness against white supremacy. Of course, white supremacy is wrong, it might be said, but sin is ever-present in many ways. Like many, Hauerwas calls for praxis and embodiment, or the acting on theory and living one’s life as a means of making any claim about truth credible, but rarely imposes a guideline for faithfulness upon his readers outside of nonviolence and the biblical texts as necessary to a Christian means of achieving justice.
However, this focus on sin at the expense of speaking prophetically against capitalism, racism, and sexism fails to call racism, exploitation, and violence to accountability. Malcom X calls his people away from established violence and exploitation, indeed calls them to separate themselves from the white devil. Martin Luther King sees change as imminent as well but does not see the destruction of the framework of American democracy as a necessary component of change. For King, Christ and the beloved kingdom represents the end of an era, and a new beginning.
Eschatology is another Christian theological reality that is often misunderstood or appropriated for the aims of both white supremacy and political policymaking. Though the Greek eschatos is used definitively as an end, the end, last or final, the Greek New Testament only uses the word in terms of the final end one time, when a little girl dies in the Gospel of Mark. Interestingly, this one-time use of the word as the final end is part of a story related to resurrection.
More commonly, eschatos and its variants are used to identify points of transition, the end of a particular reign or project, and it then assumes something new takes its place. Nowhere is the theme of such change more evident than in the eschatological witness found in King’s “I have a Dream” speech. He describes the end of an era of racist realities in the United States and then projects a new era of multi-racial children playing together and benefitting from the promises of equal status identified in American legal and political texts.
However, there is a more important eschatological witness in King’s corpus that speaks of the imminency of change and how a call has been trumpeted that demands immediate response from all who speak about change as necessary to make the American Dream myth credible. This eschatological theme is found in King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. After being arrested for acts of civil disobedience in Birmingham, King was frustrated to find that prominent local white pastors were more concerned to urge King and African Americans to be more patient and cautious about their actions than they were about promoting an end to segregation.52
King wrote a famous response to those pastors.
“WHILE confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities ‘unwise and untimely,’” he penned. “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here… You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”
King insists the need for change is evident, that he is an American who is bound to pursue justice, and that his intention is to non-violently initiate the necessary change. As indicated above, King has a commitment to change in mind and is accountable to this change as a matter of his Christian faith and obligation to the American Dream. King deems the framework worthwhile, and sturdy enough to support the change. His call is not for a decisive action of God to judge and condemn America, but rather its racist institutions and practices.
He then states clearly why the struggle cannot wait or be domesticated.
“My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.”53
While referring to Niebuhr, King only mentions his ethics in passing, a sort of a cultural pointer that King shares with the others. He points out that the power some individuals want to maintain or negotiate must not be part of the conversation of change, as King is looking to eliminate it from the realm of what is possible within the changes he is promoting.54
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’”
King then offers a glimpse of the condition of the church resulting from its complicity with white supremacy.
“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
Yet, unlike Malcom X. King cannot judge the church, or the American Dream in finality, but rather calls it to repentance during this eschatological (transitional) event represented by the Civil Rights movement.
“I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”
What did the apocalyptic nature of Malcolm X’s thinking suggest about what King was doing in Birmingham, Selma, and Washington D.C.? Minister Malcolm X could not express any hope for an eschatological change, only for a final judgment of God that tore down the edifices of the temples of white supremacy.
In fact, he told an apocalyptic tale in speeches and interviews that indicated his thinking about integration as an eschatological act of transition toward hope, and Black separatism as an act of God’s justice and will:
“So you have two types of Negro. The old type and the new type. Most of you know the old type. When you read about him in history during slavery he was called ‘Uncle Tom.’ He was the house Negro. And during slavery you had two Negroes. You had the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master’s house– probably in the basement or the attic– but he still lived in the master’s house.
So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, ‘We have good food,’ the house Negro would say, ‘Yes, we have plenty of good food.’ ‘We’ have plenty of good food. When the master said that ‘we have a fine home here,’ the house Negro said, ‘Yes, we have a fine home here.’ When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he’d say, ‘What’s the matter boss, we sick?’ His master’s pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master’s house out than the master himself would.
But then you had another Negro out in the field. The house Negro was in the minority. The masses–the field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he’d die. [Laughter] If his house caught on fire, they’d pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze. If someone came to the house Negro and said, ‘Let’s go, let’s separate,’ naturally that Uncle Tom would say, ‘Go where? What could I do without boss? Where would I live? How would I dress? Who would look out for me?’ That’s the house Negro. But if you went to the field Negro and said, ‘Let’s go, let’s separate,’ he wouldn’t even ask you where or how. He’d say, ‘Yes, let’s go.’ And that one ended right there.
So now you have a twentieth-century-type of house Negro. A twentieth-century Uncle Tom. He’s just as much an Uncle Tom today as Uncle Tom was 100 and 200 years ago. Only he’s a modern Uncle Tom. That Uncle Tom wore a handkerchief around his head. This Uncle Tom wears a top hat. He’s sharp. He dresses just like you do. He speaks the same phraseology, the same language. He tries to speak it better than you do. He speaks with the same accents, same diction. And when you say, ‘your army,’ he says, ‘our army.’ He hasn’t got anybody to defend him, but anytime you say ‘we’ he says ‘we.’ ‘Our president,’ ‘our government,’ ‘our Senate,’ ‘our congressmen,’ ‘our this and our that.’ And he hasn’t even got a seat in that ‘our’ even at the end of the line.
So this is the twentieth-century Negro. Whenever you say ‘you,’ the personal pronoun in the singular or in the plural, he uses it right along with you. When you say you’re in trouble, he says, ‘Yes, we’re in trouble.’
But there’s another kind of Black man on the scene. If you say you’re in trouble, he says, ‘Yes, you’re in trouble.’ [Laughter] He doesn’t identify himself with your plight whatsoever.”55
For Christians, white Christians and white congregations, it is not only Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s rootedness in Christ, the church, and the American Dream, or Malcolm X’s apocalyptic judgment of truth and God’s victory over evil that speak to us and call us to embody justice. King calls upon us to do justice now. Malcolm X does not call us to do anything but speaks the truth that provides us with a moment of decision about the primacy of Christ in our lives. Malcolm X also allows for Christians to understand the concept of justification, sanctification, and perfecting grace. As he continued toward what might have been considered his destiny; firebombings, alienation from Black institutions and liberal American agents of change, and murder; just as his father’s life played out, he engaged in a life of utter faithfulness. As Augustine might have found to be true, Malcolm X never allowed for his gaze to turn from Allah, and at the end, he found peace before terror took his life.
Martin Luther King Jr. embodied agape – in seeking civil rights he became more faithful to a God who had chosen him to bear a remarkable cross. King’s assassination was evidence that he took up his cross, but also that he took it up with the knowledge that, like Moses, he would not reach his promised land. King gave all of himself without ultimate regard for his family or his own life. He sacrificed his privilege, the privilege of election, of security of self and self-identity, and of the potential to earn millions as a theologian, ethicist, or speaker without suffering the pain of death.
It was Niebuhr who ultimately proved to himself that agape was an unrealistic or individual love ethic, one that did not show a realistic understanding of sin, evil, or power. Niebuhr in retrospect seems not to have been secure in his revolt against Henry Ford, or as the pastor of poor autoworkers. He seemed not content to struggle with the racism of Detroit and the rest of the integrated North. He found his call rather to be in academia and writing to academia and being relevant to the power structures of both democracy and church as a sort of calming conscience that allowed for evil to run its course like a river, following the path of least government or theological resistance. Indeed, Niebuhr’s theology lacked apocalyptic and eschatological components that indicate a biblical worldview of the supremacy of Christ and the cross. Niebuhr wholly believed in the cross, he simply seemed unwilling to bear it, or demand such action of white Christians after the important and morally productive ethics of his Detroit pastorate.
To state that any individual is unwilling to “bear their own cross,” is not an accusation to be made with wiggle room. To suggest, as I have, that the Christian Realism or realpolitik of Niebuhr is directly related to the kind of democratic outcomes that produce authoritarian populist administrations such as the Trump administration may have wiggle room but is likely a stretch of the differences between correlation and any real causation.
I’ll take the chance. I’ll easily admit the first charge against Niebuhr, that he was unwilling to bear the cross, is arguable. The more debatable second charge against his practical theology, that it is part of the basis of the Evangelical Trump church, is actually, in my mind, easier to defend. That’s especially true if one considers the apocalyptic point of view that disregards democracy as the pragmatic spiritual extension of Christian ethical thought.
This article reflects my distrust of Niebuhr’s realism, and this distrust permeates my conclusions. It is not enough to admit bias and simply leave Niebuhr exposed to it. This essay is intended, however, to promote an awareness of how life experiences, socio-economic status, and ethical dogmatism impact my theological interpretations, and also the interpretative and spiritual/social/economic actions made by Friends and others according to their faith in the divine. If we are called to live out our core beliefs about human and animal life, natural and political life, peace and violence, equality and economics, and most of all, integrity, we must increase our self-awareness – beginning with an understanding of how our origins not only impacts our beliefs, but our willingness to sacrifice for either justice, or the sacrificial agape-like love that we see in many of the actions of King and Minister Malcolm X.
I state above that Niebuhr was a consistent contributor to the still publishing Christian Century. He had much more to say, and published his own periodical entitled Christianity and Crisis. The latter provides some insight as to how Niebuhr regards Christian ethics and the role Christians must play in the Civil Rights movement discussed above.
“One can only hope that the Church will be more effective in restraining and transmuting these vague and recalcitrant passions of man than it has in the past,” he wrote in 1963. “We Protestants might be the new chapter in our national life by contritely confessing that evangelical Christianity has failed to contribute significantly to the solution of the gravest social issue and evil that our nation has confronted since slavery.”56
Reviewing Niebuhr’s childhood and young adulthood, and his decision to teach and write to the apparent exclusion of continuing political action, one can only notice that “America’s most respected theologian” is strikingly unaware of the impact of racism, and somehow fails to see the overwhelming evil in his own backyard in the same vein as the evil he sees across Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe during the World Wars and the Cold War.
Sometimes Niebuhr is claimed to blame the victims of racism, and it can be suggested that his lack of real willingness to engage African American communities was both a matter of political astuteness as well as a simple tendency to disassociate himself from the non-European standards of philosophical thought or American pragmatism. Niebuhr was a participant and beneficiary of white supremacy, acting paternally at best.
James Cone had taught courses on the theology at Union Theological Seminary for decades, and has even recommended that George W. Bush read Niebuhr to get a different perspective on Christian ethics. Cone also identifies the flaws in Niebuhr’s thinking process.
“The conspicuous absence of lynching in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching… Between 1880 and 1940, white Christians lynched nearly 5000 black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these white Christians did not see irony and contradiction in their actions.”
Cone states that Niebuhr “was… pleased by the Supreme Court’s added phrase, ‘with all deliberate speed,’ which ‘wisely’ gave the white South ‘time to adjust’ (while also opening a loophole to delay integration). ‘The Negroes,’ Niebuhr said, ‘will have to exercise patience and be sustained by a robust faith that history will gradually fulfill the logic of justice’. Niebuhr’s calls for gradualism, patience, and prudence came during the decade when Willie McGee (1951), Emmett Till (1955), M.C. Parker (1959), and other blacks were lynched sounds like that of a Southern moderate more concerned about not challenging the cultural traditions of the white South than achieving justice.”57
If one believes that Niebuhr simply was not cognizant of the reality and role of lynching in the racial dynamics of the United States, one has only justified the argument that Niebuhr’s biographical past was one that negatively impacted his view of, or willingness to, identify and take up the cross of sacrifice. That’s because he refused to see the cross of Christ in the lynchings that occurred during his childhood and young adulthood less than 50 miles from his home.
lynching occurred in St Charles County, MO during Niebuhr’s childhood. And around 1903 in Lincoln, IL – that year of celebration in Logan County– two black males were lynched in Illinois; Hughes Woodford and Edward Brown (1902). In Springfield, one county south of Logan, George Donigan and Scott Burton were lynched in 1908. One county East of Logan, in Decatur, a lynching occurred.58
Whether or not Niebuhr’s family was present for these spectacles is not a question, for both in silence and in writing, Niebuhr somehow understands such evil. Yet he never mentions the evil of lynching and its threat to black communities during the Civil Rights movement, while calling for patience among Blacks. He also defends slaveholding by founders of the United States as little more than the reality of the time. He often writes in a manner than defends the tenets of white supremacy and European imperialism as a source of providence throughout the world.
Does Niebuhr’s apparent blind-spot for white supremacy lead to a politics of authoritarianism? That simply cannot be said and supported beyond emotivist arguments. However, his willingness to engage in realpolitik, pragmatism, and political relevancy and democratically achieved power automatically legitimizes the religious counter-arguments of the racist right of American religionists in the realm of political struggle, when they win elections and wield political power. As such, the same hesitancy to overwhelm Southern whites with a radical call to end Jim Crow, lynching, and other forms of segregation fits hand in glove with white ministers throughout the South waiting for history to turn on its own while turning the focus away from American “race-problems” and toward foreign threats such as Communism, arguments which Niebuhr wholly embraced during this time.
One can suggest that it is Niebuhr’s concern for power and political relevance that guides the church away from an ethic of Christ and the cross and towards cooptation into an ethically authoritarian but democratically elected empire. While it may seem important to publicly support pragmatic plans of action regarding justice as long as justice is achieved, it opens room for support of racist continuity and the defense of white supremacist institutions. At the same time it fails to identify the biblical command of Christ to take up one’s cross and follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ agape love.
The failure to sacrifice for justice, rights, or peace, is a moral failure to invest one’s self in just outcomes as more important than one’s own privilege. After his pastorate in Detroit, there is scant evidence that Niebuhr really allowed the stability his life, and his rise to leadership in the public realm, to be challenged. Yet it also served to legitimize white supremacist and red-scare arguments against change so long as conservatives like Niebuhr would actually debate their legitimacy. Having not sacrificed the benefits of privilege during his youth or young adulthood, he seemed unprepared to do so later on behalf of racial justice, rather writing and teaching from the perspective that indeed, racism was an unfortunate sin.
As we consider the age of Trump and white supremacy in America, we must take note of the statistic that 81 percent of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, which, if one wishes, can be interpreted through each of the three responses portrayed here to the fact of institutionalized racism in the United States. The very candidacy of Donald Trump legitimizes the claims made by the candidate, as much as the office and power of the presidency itself makes such racism, terror economics, and fascist tendencies immediately legitimate policy informants.
For those remaining committed to Christ-centered expressions of faith, there remains a question of the type of interpretive lenses we apply not only to the problem of racism in the church, but how we might read the Bible to remain faithful to the biblical text and a Quaker ethic. I believe that each of the three theologians examined in this project provides lenses consistent with Quaker hermeneutics of the past; apocalyptic, eschatological, and politically realistic.
Malcolm X provides us with the lenses of an African American man who was crucified for his rejection of the idolatrous claims of the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr. Displays rootedness in both the biblical story, the cross of Christ, and the selfless love of God that can allow America to be a beacon of democratic hope and underline the credibility of our claims regarding Jesus as Christ. Niebuhr calls us to challenge that powerful segment of white evangelical America which includes those who call talented Christian Black men “sons of bitches” for rejecting the idolatrous bending of knee to the gods and guardians of white supremacy.
Niebuhr may have asked the Quarterback to take a knee in church, but not on the field of worship. The questions regarding Niebuhr may rather be some that many Quakers might not be able to stomach. But they should seriously consider when wringing their hands about the Age of Trump and the thunderclouds of Civil War, recalling the imminence of John Brown’s own impatience: If we are unable to march, sit down, or strike, how is it that we use our privilege to stop the spread of evil?
It is one thing to let soldiers sacrifice four tours of combat. It is quite another to leave Black Lives Matter hanging from a precipice without even a net to jump into. Would any of our three theologians trust your hands to hang tight?
And how are you – how are we – preparing ourselves to challenge and exorcize the fascistic “Christian” nationalism that has the soul of American Evangelicalism so firmly in its grip? What have we produced recently between election cycles? What if, as I believe, this Evangelical bloc will not yield to the maneuvers of conventional politics? Are we rooted firmly enough in Quakerism’s spiritual soil for risky truth-telling and fruitful spiritual struggle?
1 Valeriya Safronova. “Safety Pins Show Support for the Vulnerable.” New York Times.com Nov. 14, 2016. retrieved on 1/3/2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/14/fashion/safety-pin-ally-activism.html
2 Gregory A. Smith and Jessica Martínez. “How the faithful voted: A preliminary 2016 analysis.” Pew Research Center Fact Tank: By the Numbers at Pewresearch.org. 11/9/2016. Retrieved on 1/3/2019 at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/
3 Chuck Fager. Retrieved from private communication via email. Dec. 30, 2018.
4 Thomas Hamm. The Quakers in America. New York; Columbia University, 2003. 162
5 Martin Luther King, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson, New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1998. 171.
6 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. 35
7 Ralph Abernathy, “The Report of the Committee on the Recent Supreme Court Ruling on Segregation in Public Education,” in Baptist Leader 9/2/1954 cited by The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson et.al. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994. 35. Abernathy is recorded as stating, segregation “destroys brotherhood. Jesus is against it and he wants us to fight it. Our business as Christians is to get rid of [the] system… until black men of Alabama are privileged to enjoy every God-given opportunity as any other man.” 35.
8 Gary Selby, “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rhetoric of Freedom,” in Studies in Rhetoric and Religion Series edited by Martin Medhurst, et al. Waco, TX; Baylor University Press, 2008. 2
9 JoAnne Terrell, Augustine, Niebuhr, & Malcolm X course lecture. Chicago; Chicago Theological Seminary, 10/10/2018. Terrell shares the necessity of using religious, though not specifically Christian narratives as change agents for African-American communities. She states the existence of a “requisite religious basis” that understands the fact of a consistent and continual African acknowledgment of the sacred as a necessary part of life. Concerning the black church and its struggle to end segregation, Terrell interprets those along the spectrum of Black Christian Church concerns as one of civil rights. Thus, the dynamic is one of biblical texts dovetailing with American legal texts to produce a legal and moral persuasive argument for an end to segregation as the corporate public acceptance that segregation is both sinful and unlawful. It is also a violation of unique aspects of the myths of the Christian gospel, the American Dream, and western liberal democracy. In keeping with Christian themes of self-sacrifice or agape love, even for enemies, civil rights movement actions interpreted gospel and American traditions of civil disobedience and non-violence as primary vehicles for change.
10 King, Autobiography. 1-2. Regarding class privilege of King, Jr., Chuck Fager adds “In fact– his family was middle-upper class in his world; college at Morehouse & grad school in the north are conclusive evidence.” Fager, Chuck. Retrieved from private communication via email. Dec. 27, 2018.
11 King Sr., Martin Luther, Daddy King: An Autobiography, with Clayton Riley. (New York; William Morrow, 1980), cited by Cone, James H. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare. (Maryknoll, NY; Orbis, 1991), 22.
12 King Jr., Autobiography. 4.
13 Ibid. 5.
14 King Jr. Autobiography. 4.
15 Marable, Manning. Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention. (New York; Viking, 2011).
15. Marable writes that Reynolds, GA had a population of 1200 in 1910.
16 Ibid. Manning reports that the 1890 depression “hit Georgia particularly hard, unleashing a wave of business failures twice the rate of that in the rest of the United States.” 15. The boll weevil blight that occurred only 25 years later.
17 Ibid. See also Georgia State University, Southern Labor Archives: Work n’ Progress – Lessons and Stories: Part III: The Southern Textile Industry. University Library Research Guides. Retrieved 12/20/2018 from https://research.library.gsu.edu/c.php?g=115684&p=751981. “Textile mills could easily exploit the abundant supply of relatively low-wage labor as workers shifted from agriculture to industry. The merchants tightened credit in the 1880s and 1890s, and the economic distress on small farmers increased. Businessmen couched their ideas in philanthropic terms, but they clearly benefited from the economic problems they created… The South’s mill owners not only benefited from cheap labor, they also entered the textile industry at a time of unprecedented technological advancement. The mill owners incorporated the most modern machines into their factories which allowed them to increase production and cut labor costs… The Southern textile industry became a “white domain.” Laws in some states prevented blacks and whites from working in the same factory rooms. Black men, however, did perform some of the most important jobs in the textile factories. They worked in the mill yards, moving bales of cotton and loading finished goods on to boxcars. They also worked in the opening and picking rooms of mills. Black women were almost completely shut out of the industry in the South.”
18 The Mary Turner Project, Known Georgia Lynching Victims. Retrieved 12/20/2018 at http://www.maryturner.org/database.htm. Gilbert, Tony “The Meanest Little Town…” in the Early County News, Blakely, GA www.earlycounty news.com. Retrieved 12/20/2018 at http://www.earlycountynews.com/news/2015- 03-25/Other_News/The_meanest_little_town.html.
There is no evidence that Wilbert or William Little are related to Earl(y) Little in any way. While my use of the murder of Wilbert Little may be apocryphal, it illustrates the tensions apparent during the time in Georgia and across the United States, and I found it relevant that Earl’s nickname Early was used on census reports, and that the other Little was a resident of Early County. At times, Apocryphal narratives serve to identify apocalyptic interpretations of coincidences and other ominous events. In his autobiography, Malcolm X recalls that his father had “seen four of his six brothers die by violence, three of them killed by white men, one of them by lynching.” There is no other mention of evidence of a Little family member being lynched in my limited research, but it does suggest circumstances that support the Early County murder’s connected-ness to Earl Little’s circumstances in 1917 Georgia.
19 Equal Justice Initiative, “Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Riots” at EJI.org retrieved 12/20/2018 at https://eji.org/tulsa- riots-oklahoma. “Over 10,000 black people were displaced from their community. Several hundred black people were likely killed, but there is no reliable account of the casualties because public officials did not keep a record of black people who had been hospitalized, wounded, or killed.”
20 Marable, 22-23.
21 Fox, Richard, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. (San Francisco; Harper and Row, 1985). 1. Fox goes on to describe a community event in Logan County as “an annual… social and recreational high point of the midwestern Protestant calendar: communal camping, picnicking, ball games, study groups, lectures, music, theater, capped by the impassioned addressed of renowned orators. Fellowship, lofty ideals, the purifying waters of a lake or river: the Chautauqua was a dignified, secularized camp meeting. It was still Protestant, but not revivalist or sectarian. A sober, interdenomi-national celebration of the temperate way of life.” 1. In contrast to Georgia, whether in Atlanta or Reynolds, Fox describes that new structures were erected for the 1903 event at a cost of $10,000 that included an auditorium, wood and stone cottages built upon the shore of an artificially made lake that was filled by the water of a nearby creek, and the entire city shut down in celebration of what called evidence of Logan Township as a stop on the “circuit of Enlightenment.” At this event a nine-year-old Reinhold Niebuhr sat in the shadow of his German immigrant father, who pastored the local German Evangelical Church, one of many important but final stops of his father’s religious sojourn of pastoring congregations from San Francisco to St. Louis. Fager notes that Fox is not uncritical of Niebuhr throughout the biography. He writes: “My reading of Fox and about RN’s later life indicates that he felt the Vietnam war made a mockery of much of his earlier stances – and produced moral/ethical crisis– he was active against the war in religious circles, despite serious physical limitations. His “realism” was shown to be largely folly, and he recognized this – too late maybe – but he did.” Fager. Retrieved from private communication via email. Dec. 27, 2018.
22 Fox. 10-11.
23 Fox. 35-36. Fox attributes the following thought to Niebuhr: “If people would always preserve a residual identification with and devotion to ‘their own particular race and nation, ’the only way to ground a ‘militant altruism’ was by creating a voluntary, intentional body independent of races and nations.” 36. It seems that Niebuhr is acutely aware of the racial realities of the United States. It also shows that pacifism as a response to injustice or evil was common enough to find supportive audiences in established Christian institutions of ministry and theology. That Niebuhr was a staunch union activist at the church he pastored in Detroit, including being a public witness against the power and control tactics of avowed white supremacist Henry Ford, indicates that the young pastor was every bit aware of American social and economic injustices that individuals like Earl Little and Martin King Sr. experienced firsthand. Like the King family, Niebuhr saw the Christian church as a social ethic and faithful response to economic and racial injustice.
25 Kenneth T. Jackson. The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915–1930. (Oxford; Oxford Press, 1967) p. 142. See also: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Niebuhr
26 Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Role in Political Thought” in Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought. Edited by Charles Kegley and Robert Bretall. (New York; Macmillan, 1956). In Detroit, Niebuhr was known to have grown a congregation from 70 persons to more than 700 and was a significant contributor to the politics of a city that was bursting at the seams with southerners who had come north to work for Ford and other corporate giants of the automotive industry. Schlesinger writes that “he was serving on the Mayor’s Commission on Inter-Racial Relations, and on the Detroit Council of Churches’ Industrial Relations Commission. He became a member of the Fellowship for Christian Social Order and of the Fellowship of Reconciliation… a circuit rider to the colleges and universities; and he was a frequent contributor to The World Tomorrow and The Christian Century. 131.
28 Ibid. 136-137
29 Ibid. 144-145.
30 King Jr. Autobiography. 24-25. King wrote “that Niebuhr himself was once a member of the pacifist ranks… His break with pacifism came in the early 30’s, and the first full statement of his criticism of pacifism… argued that there was no intrinsic moral difference between violent and non-violent resistance. The social consequences of the two methods were different, he contended, but the differences were in degree rather than kind.” 26.
31 Ibid. 22-23.
32 Ibid. 24.
33 King Jr., Autobiography. 25-26. Niebuhr argued that non-violence such as Gandhi’s methods could only be productive in conflict with an agency or institution that “had some degree of moral conscience,” as with the British. Yet King recognized that “Niebuhr’s ultimate rejection of pacifism was based primarily on the doctrine of man. He argued that pacifism failed to do justice to the reformation doctrine of justification by faith, substituting for it a sectarian perfectionism which believes that divine grace actually lifts man out of the sinful contradictions of history and establishes him above the sins of the world.’”
34 Ibid. 26.
35 Ibid. 27. 25-26. Niebuhr argued that non-violence such as Gandhi’s methods could only be productive in conflict with an agency or institution that “had some degree of moral conscience,” as with the British. Yet King recognized that “Niebuhr’s ultimate rejection of pacifism was based primarily on the doctrine of man. He argued that pacifism failed to do justice to the reformation doctrine of justification by faith, substituting for it a sectarian perfectionism which believes that divine grace actually lifts man out of the sinful contradictions of history and establishes him above the sins of the world.’”
36 Terrell, Joanne. “Augustine, Niebuhr, & Malcolm X” course lecture. Chicago; Chicago Theological Seminary, 9/26/2018.
38 Terrell. Augustine, “Niebuhr, & Malcolm X,” class notes from 9/26/2018.
39 Cone, James. God of the Oppressed. Maryknoll, NY; Orbis, 1975). 184. Cone discusses the errors inherent to contingencies in any theological or ethical project. Building upon theological error’s identified in the theology of reformers in the 17th Century, he writes that Calvin’s easiness with American slavery, and Luther’s conspiracy with landowners against peasants were “wrong ethically because they were wrong theologically. They were wrong theologically because they failed to listen to the Bible – with sufficient openness and through the eyes of victims of political oppression.” 183. Cone applies this critical approach to Niebuhr, who did see himself aligned with the oppressed in Detroit, and in fact was active in overcoming racial tensions. Like Wesley and Luther, however, Cone shows through his understanding of Herbert Edwards’ essay “Racism and Christian Ethics in America” that “white ethicists, from Reinhold Niebuhr to James Gustafson, reflect the racism current in society as a whole… racism appears in the form of invisibility. White theologians and ethicists simply ignore black people by suggesting that the problem of racism and oppression is only one social expression of a larger ethical concern.” Cone uses many of Niebuhr’s statements concerning race to provide examples of the insufficiency of white theology as biblical or theological, but rather “an ethics of the status quo, primarily derived from an identity with white oppressors than with the biblical theme of God’s liberation of the oppressed.” 184.
40 Joel 2:32b KJV
41 Cone. God of the Oppressed. 185.
42 Cone. Martin and Malcolm. 111. Cone suggests that Malcolm X’s nightmare imagery is in fact a reaction to King’s American Dream imagery. “His use of the nightmare image did not appear prominently in his speeches until he responded to Martin’s well-known ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the March on Washington event.”
43 Cone. Martin and Malcolm. 115. In his theology of liberation of Africans throughout the world, Malcom X presented a revolutionary theme of Blackness as the only potential realization of a justice that Allah has made. imminent. Integration was, in Malcom X’s concern for imminence a counter-revolutionary expression of a refusal to compromise. Allah acting in history was rather a “revolution” that “knows no compromise… [and] overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way.”
44 Marable. 184. See also William Worthy. “The Angriest Negroes.” Esquire, February 1, 1961. https://classic.esquire.com/article/1961/2/1/the-angriest-negroes
45 Marable. 186-187. Marable writes that the second debate between Rustin and Malcolm X at Howard University was a turning point that had tremendous impact upon the thinking of students at that university. Malcolm was a “divisive” presence “in the Black community” and that fact was “more prominently on display at Howard… when the NAACP invited Malcolm to speak… as part of Negro History Week. The invitation rattled the school’s administrators, almost all of whom were staunch integrationists” and were worried of having the school’s federal funding revoked.
46 Malcolm X. “Bayard Rustin Debate (November, 1960).” Malcolm X: Collected Speeches, Debates and Interviews (1960-1965). Edited by Sandeep S. Atwal. PDF downloaded from http://malcolmxfiles.blogspot.com/2018/02/malcolm-x-collected-speeches-in.html.
48 Whitman, Alden. “Reinhold Niebuhr Is Dead; Protestant Theologian, 78.” New York Times, June, 2 1971. Retrieved 12/22/2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/1971/06/02/archives/reinhold-niebuhr-is-dead-protestant- theologian-78-reinhold-niebuhr.html.
49 Lee, Spike. Malcolm X. Produced by Marvin Worth and Spike Lee. Distributed by Warner Brothers (11/18/1992).
50 Harink, Douglas. Paul Among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity. (Grand Rapids, MI; Brazos Press, 2003). 67.
51 Hauerwas, Stanley. “The Non-Violent terrorist: In Defense of Christian Fanaticism.” 177-200. In Sanctify them in Truth: Holiness Exemplified. (Nashville, TN; Abingdon, 1998). Cited by Harink, Paul Among the Postliberals. 67.
52 Harink. 68.
53 King, Jr. Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Retrieved 12/22/2018 at https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf
54 Chuck Fager wrote in private communication to r. scot miller “It turns out that while in the early years of MLK’s rise, RN was among those who were all about ‘unwise and untimely’ [but] he got over that, and he defended King, particularly when King spoke out against the Vietnam War.” Fager also wrote “King asked Niebuhr to join the final leg of the Selma Montgomery March: Niebuhr said a ‘severe stroke’ prevented him from going. The stroke happened in 1952” the same year which Niebuhr published The Irony of American History, which announced his growing doubts about whether U.S. arrogance was leading it to great folly, doubts that became later certainties with regard to Vietnam, which he was public about – but which he found a much smaller public paying attention.” For more on Fager’s experiences of the Civil Rights Movement, read Chuck Fager. Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South. (New York; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974, Kimo Press, 2005) and Eating Dr. King’s Dinner: A Memoir of the Movement. Kimo Press, 2005.
55 Lee, Spike. Malcolm X.
56 Niebuhr, Reinhold. “The Mounting Racial Crisis.” Christianity and Crisis: A Journal of Christian Opinion. July 8. 1963. Vol 23. No. 12. 121-22. In another essay, Niebuhr praises Americanism for producing a restrained racism. “We may all be racists at heart, but we have some limits of humane concern that distinguish us from the Nazis.” “Civil Rights Climax in Alabama.” Christianity and Crisis. April 5, 1965. Vol. 15 No. 5. 61.