Divine Dissatisfaction: Loving Rage and the Imagination of a Better World
James Cone states at the beginning of his paradigm-altering first book, Black Theology and Black Power, that he writes with “the attitude of an angry Black man” but also with “a certain dark joy.”1 Why does he simultaneously name these experiences, anger and joy, that are seemingly in conflict with one another? And what is it that makes his joy dark? I argue that Cone names his joy as dark, not because it is evil or unwholesome, but rather because his joy is found in his darkness, i.e. his Blackness. As Cone recounted many times later in his life, it was only shortly prior to writing Black Theology and Black Power that he came to accept and take joy in his Black identity, or, as he sometimes put it, that he became converted to Blackness. So, his joy is dark because it is found in the beauty of Blackness. The beauty of Blackness, however, is also the source of his anger, for Cone is painfully aware of how, in his words, “white society attempts to make Black being into nonbeing or nothingness.”2 This denial of Being to Black persons is rightfully enraging. The great intellectual James Baldwin saw the active suppression, indeed the torture, of his fellows living in slums and provocatively asked, “what will happen to all that beauty?”3 Cone asks a similar but more pointed question to white America, “what have you done with your Black brother? What will happen to all that Black beauty?”
I open with this discussion of Cone because I argue that in the theology of Martin Luther King Jr., a similar dynamic is at play. As King stated in his final speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a “cultural homicide,” a systematic dehumanization, had been perpetuated against Black Americans in an attempt to deny Blacks their dignity and worth. To counter this denial of humanity, King stated that Black Americans must join him in loudly affirming, “I’m Black… I’m Black and beautiful.”4 In Enfleshing Freedom, M. Shawn Copeland argues that Blacks can “exorcise the ontological curse” by asserting “Beauty is Black,” and here King is doing essentially the same thing.5 He is attempting to remove the demonic denial of Being and beauty to Blacks through a Spirit-filled affirmation of the beauty of Black being.
Later in this same speech, King calls all Americans to what he terms “divine dissatisfaction,” which is a rejection, a refusal, of the current world order and a subsequent insistence on a renewed, redeemed world that King calls the Beloved Community. In the Beloved Community the beauty of Blackness is fully realized, as is the beauty of all other humans in communion with God. In this first of a two article series, I argue that rage is helpful in understanding one half of what King means when he refers to “divine dissatisfaction.” Rage works towards moving us away from those things that stand in the way of the Beloved Community, as well as helping us to picture what the Beloved Community might look like. In the second article in this series, I will argue that joy is the other half of divine dissatisfaction that brings the Beloved Community together in the here and now, to the extent that we can experience the Beloved Community before Jesus returns.
So, what do I mean when I say rage? Princeton philosopher Eddie Glaude describes James Baldwin’s prose as “drip[ping] with rage—not a consuming, destructive anger but a rage that incites us to act to transform our circumstances.”6 The rage in King’s theology is of a similar sort. Within King’s theology, I define rage as a refusal to operate within the status quo bounds of rationality brought on by a spirit-infused vision of the Beloved Community. Rage works to humanize the oppressed by removing what stands in the way of their humanity. It is difficult or impossible for oppressors to understand; however, rage ultimately does work to humanize the oppressor as well, because it ends the oppressive systems the oppressor is caught up in. And, whether or not the oppressor knows it, those oppressive systems are actually damaging the oppressor’s ability to live a fully human life.
Recent feminist scholarship can help us to get a better sense of the rage present in King’s theology. María Lugones, for example, argues that rage is a second order anger, meaning that it transcends the present systems of intelligibility and, rather than attempting to communicate within the bounds of intelligibility, “decries the sense of the world that erases it precisely since that world of sense stands in the way of its possibility. [Rage] recognizes this world’s walls. It pushes against them rather than making claims within them.”7 That is to say, rage seeks to challenge and expand the given “rational” world, stating, “I am to be treated as an equal, not as a subordinate… damn your world of sense which has my subordination at its core.”8
Brittney Cooper’s excellent book Eloquent Rage is also helpful here. She states that “rage is a kind of refusal. To be made a fool of, to be silenced, to be shamed, or to stand for anybody’s bullshit.”9 Similar to Lugones, Cooper points out that rage rejects dehumanization. It works to end the intelligibility of domination—“Rage is great at helping us to destroy things.”10 However, Cooper also sees rage as illuminating, “The clarity that comes from rage should also tell us what kind of world we want to see, not just what kind of things we want to get rid of.”11 Thus, in theological language, rage is redemptive and prophetic.
Now that we have a sense of what constitutes rage, I move to King’s theology. In one of the few places where King names rage explicitly, he states that he seeks to “transmute the inchoate rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative channel.”12 Here King expresses that he wishes to use the rage of those thrust into ghettos to push back against the forces of oppression by channeling their rage into the creation of the Beloved Community. The rage of those in the ghetto is not understood or sanctioned by dominant ways of understanding, yet King sees it as important, perhaps necessary, in moving his theological vision towards completion. Indeed, this rage must be channeled—otherwise it will result in senseless violence and internal destruction rather than progress towards the Beloved Community.
I argue that this idea of channeling rage constructively is also found in King’s talk of Black people being awakened to a new sense of somebodiness by the new spirit moving among them. In multiple sermons and speeches King argued that a new spirit was leading revolutions all across Asia and Africa, which resulted in the oppressed throwing off the bonds of colonial tyranny.13 King saw this same liberating spirit at work in the civil rights movement, leading the oppressed to a renewed sense of their somebodiness, that is, their dignity and worth. This new spirit and the resulting sense of somebodiness led the oppressed to a rejection of oppressive systems and the imagination of a new world. I would argue that this can best be described as rage. As Black persons and oppressed people across the world expressed their somebodiness, their rage demanded that they be recognized as human. The oppressed were shattering previous models of understanding that sanctioned domination and colonization, and attempting to create a new world where these systems of oppression no longer were in place or even possible. The poet and Black Studies scholar Fred Moten describes the goal of abolition as, “not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons.”14 King sees the goal of this spirit led movement similarly, namely the creation of the Beloved Community wherein oppression no longer exists and indeed is no longer deemed rational. In order to live into the Beloved community, one must be, in King’s words, maladjusted to the world we currently inhabit. And, as I have described it above, rage is an integral part of this maladjustment, this divine dissatisfaction.
King also expresses rage in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he describes what life is like for Black persons in America. This is a difficult passage, but it is worth reading to understand what King was up against and why:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.15
What King names in this passage is the fact that white Americans have been blind to the suffering and humanity of Black persons because in the white world Black suffering is reasonable, to be expected. King’s white critics would not have said that the best solution was to wait if it was them and their families that needed to live in the kind of world described by King. King rages against this reasonableness, this expectation, as well as the suggestion that we should wait to create new ways of being in the world. This, then, is rage as I have defined it—a rejection of the status quo and a spirit-induced vision of a better world.
To understand rage in King’s theology, however, one can never separate it from love. The rage we find in King is loving because it works to create a new situation where the bodies and spirits of the oppressed are no longer subjected to the forces of domination, and the souls of oppressors are no longer maimed through their endorsement of oppression. Thus, even in the worst of circumstances, love can never be separated from rage, because this would lead to the absurdity of hate. King clearly renounces hate, because he agrees with Howard Thurman that hate ultimately leads to death of the spirit, even though hate can attempt to mimic rage.16 Both hate and rage can lead to a felt sense of righteousness and a seeming moral permission to engage in the rejection and destruction of the status quo. Yet, despite these superficial similarities, rage and hate are qualitatively different. Rage opens up the possibility for community, but hate destroys it. Rage is targeted at injustice, but hate is wantonly, blindly destructive. Rage keeps eyes on the Beloved Community, but hate destroys our ability to see altogether. The difference between rage and hate is the difference between shearing off sections of a plant that are sapping its life, in order to encourage new growth, and poisoning it such that root and stem are destroyed.
So, I argue that King promotes this loving rage because it opens the possibility for a new world that is ultimately better for everyone involved. In order to do this, we need to start thinking in the way that Jesus taught us to pray, namely, we need to imagine that it is possible for God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. King saw that we have a real possibility of destroying each other—whether through war, climate change, class conflict, etc.—and that the solution to these real problems is love. This is why King called Jesus a “practical realist” for saying that we need to love, even going so far as to love our enemies. King always tried to operate out of love towards individuals, but grasped that rage was appropriate when trying to break down systems and structures that keep us from living fully human lives. In the next article we’ll continue this conversation, focusing on the constructive half of divine dissatisfaction, joy.
(1) James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, Kindle Edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), Location 165.
(2) Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, Location 227.
(3) James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (London: Michael Joseph, 1963), 111.
(4) Martin Luther King Jr., “‘Where Do We Go From Here?,’ Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention,” King Institute, accessed 3/5/2020, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-address-delivered-eleventh-annual-sclc-convention.
(5) M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 24.
(6) Eddie S. Glaude, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 12-13.
(7) María Lugones, “Hard to Handle Anger,” in Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), 109.
(8) Lugones, “Hard to Handle Anger,” 110.
(9) Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 151.
(10) Cooper, Eloquent Rage, 273.
(11) Cooper, Eloquent Rage, 273.
(12) Martin Luther King, Jr., “Showdown for Nonviolence,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: Harper One, 1986), 69.
(13) See, for example, Martin Luther King Jr., “‘The Birth of a New Nation,’ Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” King Institute, accessed 3/5/2020, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/birth-new-nation-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church.
(14) Fred Moten, “The University and the Undercommons” in The Undercommons (New York: Minor Compositions, 2014), 42.
(15) Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” The Atlantic, accessed 3/5/2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/letter-from-a-birmingham-jail/552461/.
(16) Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (New York: Beacon Press, 1996).