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Hermeneutics of Liberation

On November 24, 2014, I had the sweet privilege of presenting a scholarly paper at the national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in the African-American Biblical Hermeneutics section in San Diego, CA alongside of and in the presence of several accomplished African-American biblical scholars from different theological traditions. My paper compared and contrasted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s liberation hermeneutic (=a way of interpreting and contextualizing the bible in one’s social context) with Professor James H. Cone’s hermeneutic of liberation to see if they had competing African-American hermeneutics of liberation.

In this paper, I also compared and contrasted King and Cone with Paul’s liberation hermeneutic in Gal 3:13 to see the similarities and differences between these two men and Paul. I concluded as a result of my research that both King and Cone had points of continuity and discontinuity with each other and with Paul, but that there are more points of discontinuity between these two men in comparison with Paul since they were fighting against the evil and demonic ideology of white supremacy and since Paul was fighting against Jewish opponents who were seeking to lead the Galatian Christians away from his gospel to the bondage and curse of the law (Gal 3:10-29), which for Paul was equivalent to bondage to pagan idolatry (Gal 4:8-9).

With King fresh on my mind because of this paper and because I traveled through Atlanta to and from San Diego, I’ve asked myself the following question in light of the recent violence in Ferguson: what message would King give to the African-Americans in Ferguson and beyond who are angry, tired, and acting out in rage because of the decision of the grand jury? I think that King would at least say to African-Americans that they should develop a tough mind and a tender heart instead of resorting to violence.

A Tough Mind—A Liberation Hermeneutic of Love

A foundational element of King’s hermeneutic of liberation was love, which exercised itself in a practical way for King by means of non-violence. In a sermon on Matt 10:16, where Jesus exhorts his disciples to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, King urged his congregation in the early stages of the Civil Rights movement not to react to violence with violence but to pursue love (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 1). In his words, “we must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart” (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 2).

According to King, the tough mind in Matt 10:16 is a mind that engages in the rigorous intellectual work of thinking. Thinking enables one to avoid violence and to exercise love. And the weak mind is a mind that embraces information as truth without rigorously interrogating the facts. King argued that a soft mind was one of the basic causes of racial prejudice. He says:

“The tough minded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short he post-judges. The tender-minded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced. Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings. There are those who are sufficiently soft-minded to believe in the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro race in spite of the tough minded research of anthropologists who reveal the falsity of such a notion. There are soft-minded persons who argue that racial segregation should be perpetuated because Negroes lag behind in academic, health, and moral standards. They are not tough-minded enough to realize that lagging standards are the result of segregation and discrimination. They do not recognize that it is rationally unsound and sociologically untenable to use the tragic effects of segregation as an argument for its continuation” (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 4).

King argued from Matt 10:16 that too many politicians in the South possessed the disease of soft-mindedness which engulfs their constituency. “With insidious zeal, they make inflammatory statements and disseminate distortions and half-truths which arouse abnormal fears and morbid antipathies within the minds of uneducated and underprivileged whites, leaving them so confused that they are led to acts of meanness and violence which no normal person commits” (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 4).

King emphasized that there is no hope to break loose from the shackles of racial prejudice, half-truths, and out-right ignorance until we become tough with respect to our minds. These comments suggest that for King, intellectual prowess (or, as he says, tough-mindedness) brings liberation for the Negro.

A Tender Heart

King equally suggested to his parishioners from Matt 10:16 that they could not stop with simply the cultivation of a tough mind, because the gospel (as he says) also demands a tender heart (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 4). To see someone ascend to the heights of developing a tough mind, while simultaneously descending to the passionless depths of hardheartedness, was tragic for King (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 5). The person with a hard heart does not ever truly love. Instead, he simply engages in an improper utilitarianism that values people in so far as they are useful to him. The hard-hearted person lacks compassion, is unmoved by the pains and afflictions of his brothers, and, although he passes unfortunate men everyday, he doesn’t really see them (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 5). “To have serpent like qualities without dovelike qualities is to be a passionless, mean, and selfish person, but to have dovelike qualities without serpent like qualities is to be sentimental, anemic, and aimless. We as Negroes must bring together tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness if we are to move creatively toward the goal of freedom” (=liberation) “and justice” (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 5).

In this same sermon from Matt 10:16, King continued that soft-minded Negro individuals thought that the only way to deal with Negro oppression was to adjust to it. King indicted them for acquiescing and resigning themselves to segregation. King argued that some, during the fight for civil rights, instead of fighting against segregation with a tough mind and a tender heart, preferred to remain oppressed. In a similar way that when Moses led the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land he discovered that “slaves do not always welcome their deliverers, so also many Negroes preferred the pots of Egypt to the ordeals of the emancipation of the Negro” from the oppression of Jim Crow South (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 5-6).

Non-Violent Resistance

In King’s view, Matt 10:16 demonstrates to Negroes, who lived during the oppressive and racist Jim Crow South, that they would not win the respect of white people in the South if they were willing to trade the future of the children for their own personal safety and comfort, because to passively accept the unjust system of segregation was to co-operate with the system and to become a participant in its evil (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 6). According to King, to have a tough mind and a tender heart means that Matt 10:16 instructs African-Americans to avoid physical violence as a method of combatting hatred. Violence, says King, brings only temporary victories. Violence never brings permanent peace, because it creates many more social problems than it solves . Regarding non-violence, King says: “I am convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of chaos. A Voice, echoing through the corridors of time, says to every intemperate Peter, ‘put up thy sword.’ History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that failed to follow Christ’s command” (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 6).

In the conclusion of his sermon on Matt 10:16, King overtly speaks of the role of non-violence as a means by which African-Americans exercise a tough mind and a tender heart in obedience to Jesus’ words. Through non-violent resistance, King proclaimed “we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as citizens, but may it never be said, my friends, that to gain it we used the inferior methods of falsehood, malice, hate, and violence” (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, 6). He further reminds his congregation from Matt 10:16 that God is tough-minded (=exercises justice when necessary) and tenderhearted (=exercises mercy, love, and compassion) when necessary.

Application of King’s Sermon for African-Americans in Ferguson

Many African-Americans in Ferguson and beyond are deeply hurt and saddened by the decision of the court, because they believe that once again (as many times before) the courts have dramatically failed African-Americans by not upholding justice. A lingering question in the minds of many African-Americans is simply: do the lives of African-Americans matter? Many (not all) Anglos are flabbergasted by such a question because they have never been an African-American in a country that has exercised an extraordinary amount of racism toward African-Americans. Consequently, many (not all) Anglos simply shake their heads in bewilderment at what’s happening in Ferguson without seeking to understand the systemic racism in this country that has led to the vitriolic eruption of violence from African Americans there and beyond over the shooting of this African-American man and over the court’s decision not to indict the cop who shot him.

However, although severe injustice ruled and reigned like an evil tyrant over King and his multi-racial, non-violent integration movement in the 1960s and although King and his followers were angered by racism, they again and again resisted succumbing to the wicked weapon of violence to fight against this injustice. They stood toe to toe and face-to-face before the racist system of Jim Crow South and before the KKK, and they boldly proclaimed and employed a message of love as the foundational means by which they sought to fight and eventually overturn the legalization of the evil ideology of white supremacy. And the response of King and his followers to exercise civilized love proved that their racist opponents and the racist ideology of white supremacy were the real problem with America and not African-Americans.

To all of my African-American kinsman according to the flesh in Ferguson: please heed Dr. King’s sermon from Matt 10:16 that he preached during the fight for civil rights during the age of legalized white supremacy. Recognize that violence against the system and society, which you believe have failed you, will not liberate you from your current struggle with oppression within that society and system. Instead, only faith in Jesus Christ will ultimately provide you the liberation that you need both from this present evil age and from the dominating power of sin that rules over the system that you believe has failed to bring justice for the Brown family (Gal 1:4; 2:11-3:29; 6:15). As King says, while you live in this present evil age, you need to develop a tough-mind and a tender-heart. Yes, practice responsible freedom of speech. Yes, verbally express your disappointment with careful and responsible oratorical skill and with the pen via responsible and precise literary persuasion. Yes, preach the gospel boldly and call sinners to repent, believe, and act out the gospel in the face of a system that you believe has failed you. But, please, do NOT resort to violence!

Violence in Ferguson will only lead to more violence, especially more violence against African-Americans , in Ferguson and beyond. Furthermore, if you act out in violence, these violent actions will only reinforce the racist caricatures against African-Americans that you are seeking to challenge by your protests. Consequently, life will become more difficult for future African-Americans in Ferguson and beyond. Finally, give your hearts to Jesus Christ by faith, live out your African-American identity in a fresh and new way in Christ by taking on a Christian identity and by means of living out that Christian identity in compliance with the claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ, responsibly and wisely press the claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ onto the system and society that you believe have failed you, and resist the rhetoric of evil preached by those African-American leaders who want to convert you to their own selfish agendas as opposed to leading you to follow Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. As King says, develop a tough mind and a tender heart. Pray, look to Jesus, and think before you act!

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