A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow | tinder cane (2023)

EUIn his "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King Jr. urged his followers to cut "a stone of hope" into "a mountain of despair". david chappells A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow it is about the faith that made it possible, and its main thesis is simply that the civil rights movement could not have prospered without the solidarity and spirit of sacrifice that came from the Christian faith. Religion turned out not to be the opium of the people, but the spark of revolution. The author even argues that the civil rights movement was not primarily a social and political event with religious overtones. Rather, it was a religious event with important social and political consequences. Therefore, civil rights meetings often had the atmosphere of religious revivals. Furthermore, King was widely seen among his followers as more than just a political and religious leader. He was a messiah. The author uses the adjective "prophetic" to sum up the hope that moved King and his followers.

The Mountain of Despair, argues Chappell, was no mere exaggeration. King was heavily influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, and he and his followers were far from historic optimists. They rejected the liberal belief in progress. In fact, they saw the general downward trend in history (which, of course, was not exactly how Niebuhr saw it). And despite their commitment to political action, they believed that all such action involved the use of power and was wrong in that sense. Therefore, his fight against Jim Crow was a deliberate attempt to extract justice from rebellious historical materials and with crude and imperfect tools.

The theme of prophetic hope is not monolithic. The author acknowledges that the standard ideals of secular liberalism, such as individual rights, played an important role in King's movement. In an addendum, Chappell takes his qualifications so far that it is feared that this invalidates his main argument. For example, he points out that his own method of interpretation is that of historical materialism. Consequently, he points out that the civil rights movement was conditioned by the consolidation and mechanization of southern farms, a development that loosened the partisan ties and controls that sustained the Jim Crow regime. He also extensively discusses the weaknesses of white segregationists in the face of black challenge. For example, he points to the reluctance of established and reputable segregationist leaders to associate with the “white trash” who were their natural allies. The main theme of the book, however, is the motivating power of religious belief among black protagonists of racial integration. It was his spirit of "prophecy" that allowed King and his associates to defeat Jim Crow.

a stone of hopeit is, on its negative side, a polemic against traditional liberalism, which has been undermined by most of its fundamental attitudes and ideas: an unrealistic understanding of human nature; an optimistic view of history; confident that spontaneous trends such as economic growth and scientific discoveries will gradually undermine segregation; and a general overconfidence in reason. Such views and assumptions were intriguing. They stole the resolute, selfless spirit that the civil rights movement drew from its prophetic faith. Liberals were aware of these shortcomings in works such as William James's essay The Will To Believe and John Dewey's Little Book. a shared belief Liberals, without transgressing the confines of their secular and irreligious worldview, tried to inspire a zeal for reform akin to the biblically inspired civil rights movement.

Most Christians will take some satisfaction in the role their faith played in moving Americans to try to right one of the greatest injustices in our history. However, they will find less satisfaction in turning their attention to the role Christianity plays among whites. Most white Christians in the South were not supportive of the civil rights movement, and white churches were insecure and divided during the struggle against segregation. Even the white clergy of the South failed to join in the attack on segregation. True, the picture can be shaded to make white churches look less guilty. On the one hand, its own confusion and division helped the fight for civil rights. Black leaders did not have to fight opposition from white churches, although they did have to survive without their support, and white Christians demonstrated a kind of integrity: they rarely, if ever, claimed that the Bible supported segregation. (Chappell compares this to the Civil War era, when the Bible was presented in defense of slavery.) And one of the most prominent white Southern Christians of the day played an honorable, if minor, role in the abolitionist movement: Billy Graham declined, after 1954, allow separate seating at their crusades. Still, the contrast between black and white Christians is stark. The latter were mostly confused and silent spectators as the fight unfolded.

TThere's a lot in Chappell's report that needs clarification. I say this partly as a criticism, partly as a compliment. It is a way of saying that his book invites reflection. It should also be noted that the issues that needed to be clarified in the minds of participants in the civil rights struggle were apparently not clear. This is understandable. After all, they were not philosophers or theologians and they were involved in difficult and dangerous activities. So some of the ambiguity and confusion in Chappell's account reflects the reality of the civil rights struggle itself. However, the issues are important and require reflection.

A surprisingly prominent theme is that of non-violence. Black leaders strongly defended this tactic. Why? Was there any reason other than the fact that the other side controlled most of the instruments of violence? Civil rights activists were fully aware that, as Niebuhr had shown, nonviolence is a form of coercion. It's a way of getting people to do things they don't want to do. So there is no escaping the evils inherent in the use of power, evils that civil rights activists are well aware of. Furthermore, there doesn't seem to be any good reason to view nonviolence as "prophecy" at all. It is true that Niebuhr, who so often seemed to represent the importance of prophetic hope to King and other civil rights activists, had spoken very benevolently about nonviolence. But it was not an important issue in Niebuhr's thinking, unlike the role it played in the thinking of, for example, Thomas Merton (who apparently had no influence on any of the leaders of the civil rights movement). Furthermore, to my knowledge, the concept of nonviolent resistance never occurred to any of the ancient Hebrew prophets. It wasn't within the scope of his usual concerns. As for the New Testament, this was the tactic confirmed by Jesus.lack of resistance, a way of denying all power, and totally differentnon-violent resistance, always tainted by the moral corruptions inherent in the use of power. When Jesus commanded his followers to "resist not evil," he commanded a form of political abstinence that civil rights activists in his situation could not even aspire to.

Another topic addressed bya stone of hopeIt is historical progress. Is there a natural tendency towards the betterment of human life? Chappell seems to posit a rather simple dichotomy between the view of secular liberalism, with its Enlightenment reliance on the expansive tendencies of human reason, and the dominant view in the civil rights movement, namely, that history is inherently top-down. In short, liberal optimism is contrasted with prophetic pessimism. But is there a prophetic pessimism? Is there pessimism in prophetic hope? It would certainly be questionable to characterize the historical attitude of Israel's ancient prophets as pessimistic. Usually they were angry about existing conditions. But since they believed in God as Lord of history, they could not be fundamentally pessimistic. And the thinker who provided civil rights leaders with their philosophy of history, Niebuhr, was not entirely pessimistic either. For Niebuhr, history is not simply an uptrend or simply a downtrend, but both directions at the same time. This corresponded to the ambiguity of human nature, at once sinful and destined for salvation.

EUIt is noteworthy that Alexis de Tocqueville, a century before Niebuhr, another great Christian thinker who studied long periods of time, interpreted history in the same way: history was ambiguous. Tocqueville saw the rise of democracy as a compelling historical trend. However, it was a source of both good and evil. Democracy was just in its egalitarianism and promoted general decency in social relations. But it also brought with it phenomena such as irrational conformity and the vulgarization of customs. That a sense of historical ambiguity like that of Niebuhr and Tocqueville is genuinely prophetic is shown by the fact that it seems to be contained in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other Hebrew prophets. Their tortured awareness of the Israelites' sins reflects a degree of historical pessimism, but their confidence in God's sovereignty and justice evidently meant that they felt they faced nothing like a "mountain of despair."

A closely related issue concerns the relationship between historical progress and political action. Chappell believes that a contributing factor to the weakness of secular liberalism is its assumption that, since progress is spontaneous, vigorous action is unnecessary. In contrast, Chappell argues that the civil rights movement was both challenged and emboldened by the mountain of despair it faced. At first glance, this might seem plausible. But isn't deep historical pessimism just as harmful as one-sided optimism? It is commonplace in revolutionary studies (perhaps discovered by Tocqueville in his great work on the French Revolution) that anguish and despair are paralyzing. Activist impulses only start to move when conditions improve. This is not as paradoxical as it might seem. If circumstances weren't bad, there would be no incentive to act, just as there would be no incentive if conditions were desperate. In short, the prerequisite for political action is a sense of historical ambiguity.

Another problem related to historical change is that of gradualism versus revolution. Chappell seems to link gradualism with liberal optimism and revolution with prescient pessimism. But the connection is questionable. As the historical materialist Chappell no doubt knows, the most famous and influential revolutionary of modern times, Karl Marx, was anything but a historical pessimist. A revolution can only be launched by people who believe that history will follow their plans, or that it can be made to go along with them. On the other hand, gradualism seems to imply a certain pessimism. It's a cautionary tale, along with an acknowledgment that historical trends can be treacherous. Certainly, despite some revolutionary rhetoric, King was not striving for a rapid and complete transformation of Southern society. He wasn't really a revolutionary. He was a gradualist and that's because historically he was pessimistic but not desperate.

One last issue deserves brief consideration. Chappell ignores the fact that there are two fundamentally different types of prophetic hope. The difference revolves around whether the expected end is considered mundane or transcendental. The ancient prophets seemed to be anticipating a climax of history that they visibly expected on this earth (although, to my untrained ear, there are also hints of less worldly expectations). On the other hand, apart from aberrations like that of Joaquín de Fiore, the prophetic hope of Christians has always been emphatically transcendental or eschatological. The distinction between a progressive and an eschatological perspective was perfectly clear to Niebuhr and important to him. It allowed historical ambiguity. There were favorable trends in history, and so there was room for hope. But hope had to look as much to an eternal future as it did to a historical future. The exclusively secular hope nurtured by Marx and other modern revolutionaries was bound to end in disappointment, if not tragedy. Chappell is unclear about the hopes of King and other civil rights activists. It's probably hard to say. However, as a Christian following a course of action he knew could lead to his own violent death, King must have often pondered the relationship between his policy and his eternal hopes. readers ofa stone of hopeMaybe you wish the author had paid attention to this topic.

If Chappell's book has a serious flaw, it is that it has not adequately clarified the concept of prophetic hope. It is unclear whether the attitudes that contributed to this prophetic hope were coherent or prophetic in the true sense of the word. For example, did the commitment to nonviolence have an intrinsic kinship with the egalitarian goals of the civil rights movement, or was it simply a judicious adaptation to the circumstances faced by powerless armed and organized insurgents? And why call attitudes such as historical pessimism and nonviolent resistance “prophetic”? While members of the movement were often imbued with religious fervor, this was not always the case. Not all civil rights leaders were religious: one, Bob Moses, was a devotee of Albert Camus, who was neither religious nor prophetic. And while civil rights activists were often motivated by religious zeal, their views were not always, as I have suggested, attributable to the Hebrew prophets or Jesus.

However, it may be that my comments were not intended to deliver the critical shock I gave them. The leaders of the civil rights movement were a diverse and spontaneous congregation that worked and lived under great pressure. Things must often have been a bit confusing and inconsistent in their own minds. And Chappell is, after all, a historian, not a philosopher or theologian. He's also a pretty capable historian, judging by this book. You have original ideas and an eye for things that matter. I have no hesitation in saying that, in general, Christians will finda stone of hopebe of great interest.

sugar caneis Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author ofThe political significance of Christianity.


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