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Hope and Resistance

A Stone of Hope:  Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow

by David L Chappell. University of North Carolina Press. 344 pp. $34.95

reviewed by Glenn Tinder

In his “I Have A Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. called on his followers to hew “a stone of hope” from “a mountain of despair.” David Chappell’s A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow is about the faith that enabled this to happen, and his main thesis is simply that the civil rights movement could not have succeeded without the solidarity and self-sacrificial spirit that came from Christian faith. Religion turned out to be not the opiate of the people but the spark of revolution. The author goes so far as to argue that the civil rights movement was not primarily a social and political event with religious overtones. It was, rather, a religious event with significant social and political consequences. Thus civil rights gatherings often had the atmosphere of religious revivals. Moreover, King was widely regarded among his followers as something more than a political and religious leader. He was a messiah. The author sums up the hope that moved King and his followers with the adjective “prophetic.”

The mountain of despair, Chappell argues, was not mere hyperbole. King was strongly influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, and he and his followers were far from being historical optimists. They rejected the liberal faith in progress. Indeed, they saw the general trend of history as downward (which of course is not quite the way Niebuhr saw it). And despite their commitment to political action, they believed that all such action involved the use of power and was in that sense evil. Their fight against Jim Crow, then, was a conscious effort to hew justice out of refractory historical materials and to do this with crude and imperfect tools.

The theme of prophetic hope is not monolithic. The author grants that stock ideals of secular liberalism, such as individual rights, played a part in King’s movement. In an appendix, Chappell presses his qualifications so far as to make one fear he is weakening his main argument. He indicates, for example, that his own method of interpretation is that of historical materialism. He notes accordingly that the civil rights movement was conditioned by the consolidation and mechanization of farms in the South, a development which loosened the party allegiances and controls that had undergirded the regime of Jim Crow. He also analyzes at length the weaknesses of white segregationists in the face of the black challenge. He points out, for example, the reluctance of established and respectable segregationist leaders to associate with the “white trash” who constituted their natural allies. The main theme of the book, however, is the motivating power of religious faith among the black protagonists of racial integration. It was their “prophetic” spirit that enabled King and his associates to defeat Jim Crow.

A Stone of Hope is, on its negative side, a polemic against traditional liberalism, which was disabled by most of its basic attitudes and ideas: an unrealistic understanding of human nature; an optimistic view of history; trust that spontaneous trends like economic growth and scientific discovery would erode segregation gradually; and, overall, excessive reliance on reason. Such views and assumptions were enervating. They drained away the purposeful and self-sacrificial spirit that the civil rights movement drew from its prophetic faith. Liberals were aware of these deficiencies, and in such works as William James’ essay “The Will To Believe” and John Dewey’s short book A Common Faith liberals had sought to inspire, without breaching the boundaries of their worldly and irreligious worldview, a fervor for reform similar to the biblically inspired movement for civil rights.

Most Christians will view with some gratification the part their faith played in moving Americans to try to rectify one of the great injustices of our history. They will feel less gratification, however, when they turn their attention to the part played by Christianity among whites. Most white Christians in the South did not support the civil rights movement, and the white churches were uncertain and divided during the desegregation struggle. Even the Southern white clergy failed on the whole to join the assault on segregation. It must be granted that the picture can be shaded in a way that makes the white churches look less culpable. For one thing, their very confusion and division helped the civil rights struggle. Black leaders did not have to fight the resistance of the white churches, even though they had to get along without their support, and white Christians did display one sort of integrity: rarely if ever did they claim that the Bible supported segregation. (Chappell contrasts this with the Civil War period when the Bible was brought forward in defense of slavery.) And one of the most prominent Southern white Christians of the time did play an honorable, if minor, role in the desegregation movement: Billy Graham refused, after 1954, to allow segregated seating at his crusades. Still, the contrast between black and white Christians is stark. The latter were for the most part confused and silent onlookers as the struggle unfolded.

There is much in Chappell’s account that needs to be sorted out. I say this partly in criticism, but also partly in praise. It is a way of saying that his book provokes thought. Also, it ought to be noted that the issues in need of clarification were apparently unclear in the minds of participants in the civil rights struggle. This is understandable. They were not, after all, philosophers or theologians, and they were absorbed in difficult and dangerous actions. Thus, some obscurities and confusions in Chappell’s account mirror the reality of the civil rights struggle itself. Nonetheless, the issues are important and call for reflection.

A surprisingly prominent issue is that of nonviolence. Black leaders were strongly committed to this tactic. Why? Was there any reason beyond the fact that the other side controlled most of the instruments of violence? Civil rights leaders were fully aware that nonviolence, as Niebuhr had shown, is a form of coercion. It is a way of compelling people to do things they do not wish to do. It is not, then, a way of evading the evils inherent in the use of power—evils of which the civil rights leaders were highly cognizant. Moreover, there seems no good reason for considering nonviolence in any way “prophetic.” It is true that Niebuhr, who so often seemed to represent the meaning of prophetic hope for King and other civil rights leaders, had discussed nonviolence very sympathetically. But it was not a major theme in Niebuhr’s thought, in contrast with the role it played in the thought, for example, of Thomas Merton (who apparently had no influence on any of the leaders of the civil rights movement). Further, the notion of nonviolent resistance never, to my knowledge, occurred to any of the ancient Hebrew prophets. It was not within the horizon of their usual concerns. As for the New Testament, the tactic affirmed by Jesus was nonresistance, a way of refusing all power, and completely different from nonviolent resistance, which is always stained by the moral impurities inherent in the use of power. When Jesus enjoined his followers to “resist not evil,” he commanded a form of political abstinence to which the civil rights leaders could not, in their situations, even aspire.

Another issue raised by A Stone of Hope is that of historical progress. Is there a natural tendency toward the betterment of human life? Chappell seems to presuppose a rather simple dichotomy between the outlook of secular liberalism, with its Enlightenment confidence in the expansive tendencies of human reason, and the prevailing view in the civil rights movement, namely, that history tends naturally downward. In short, liberal optimism is set over against prophetic pessimism. But is there such a thing as prophetic pessimism? Is there pessimism in prophetic hope? Surely it would be questionable to characterize the historical attitude of the ancient prophets of Israel as pessimistic. They were typically angry about existing conditions. But believing in God as the Lord of history, they could not be basically pessimistic. And the thinker who provided the civil rights leadership with its philosophy of history, Niebuhr, was not altogether pessimistic either. History did not tend simply upward or simply downward, in Niebuhr’s view, but in both directions at once. This corresponded with the ambiguity of human nature, at once sinful and marked for redemption.

It is noteworthy that a century earlier than Niebuhr another great Christian thinker who contemplated long stretches of time, Alexis de Tocqueville, interpreted history in roughly the same way: history was ambiguous. Tocqueville saw the coming of democracy as an irresistible historical trend. It was a source, however, both of good and of evil. In its egalitarianism, democracy was just, and it encouraged widespread decency in social relations. But it also brought such phenomena as unthinking conformity and a coarsening of manners. That a sense of historical ambiguity like Niebuhr’s and Tocqueville’s is authentically prophetic is indicated by the fact that it seems implicit in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other Hebrew prophets. Their anguished awareness of the sins of the Israelites reflects a degree of historical pessimism, but their confidence in the sovereignty and justice of God manifestly meant that they did not, in their own minds, face anything like a “mountain of despair.”

A closely related issue concerns the relationship of historical progress and political action. Chappell believes that one factor contributing to the feebleness of secular liberalism is its assumption that, since progress is spontaneous, vigorous action is unnecessary. In contrast, Chappell claims that the civil rights movement was challenged and enlivened by the mountain of despair it faced. At first glance, this may seem plausible. Still, wouldn’t deep historical pessimism be as disabling as one-sided optimism? It is a commonplace in studies of revolution (discovered, perhaps, by Tocqueville in his great work on the French Revolution) that destitution and despair are paralyzing. Activist impulses begin to stir only when conditions are improving. This is not as paradoxical as it may seem to be. If circumstances were not bad, there would be no incentive to act, just as there would be no such incentives if conditions were hopeless. In short, the precondition of political action is a sense of historical ambiguity.

Another issue concerning historical change is that of gradualism as opposed to revolution. Chappell apparently associates gradualism with liberal optimism and revolution with prophetic pessimism. But the linkage is questionable. As Chappell the historical materialist is no doubt well aware, the most famous and influential revolutionary of the modern era, Karl Marx, was anything but an historical pessimist. Revolution can be undertaken only by people who assume that history accords with their designs, or can be made to do so. On the other hand, gradualism seems to presuppose a degree of pessimism. It is a counsel of prudence and is associated with a realization that historical currents can be treacherous. Surely King, in spite of some revolutionary rhetoric, did not aspire to a swift and complete transformation of Southern society. He was not truly a revolutionary. He was a gradualist, and that was because he was historically pessimistic, but not despairing.

A final issue deserves brief consideration. Chappell ignores the fact that there are two profoundly different kinds of prophetic hope. The difference turns on whether the end hoped for is envisioned as worldly or transcendental. The ancient prophets apparently looked toward an historical climax they expected to occur visibly, on this earth (although to my inexpert ear there are also hints of less worldly expectations). On the other hand, the prophetic hope of Christians, aside from aberrations such as Joachim of Fiore, has always been emphatically transcendental, or eschatological. Niebuhr was perfectly clear about the distinction between a progressivist and eschatological outlook, and it was important to him. It allowed for historical ambiguity. There were favorable trends in history, and hence there was room for hope. But hope had to look to an eternal as well as an historical future. The exclusively worldly hope harbored by Marx and other modern revolutionaries was bound to end in disappointment, if not in tragedy. As to what kind of hope King and other civil rights leaders harbored, Chappell does not clearly say. It is probably hard to know. However, as a Christian pursuing a course of action that he knew might lead to his own violent death, King must have thought often about the relationship between his political and his eternal hopes. Readers of A Stone of Hope may wish that the author had devoted some attention to this issue.

If Chappell’s book has a serious deficiency, it lies in its failure to clarify adequately the concept of prophetic hope. It is not clear that the attitudes that contributed to this prophetic hope were either coherent or, in any meaningful sense of the word, prophetic. Did the commitment to nonviolence, for example, have any intrinsic kinship with the egalitarian aims of the civil rights movement, or was it merely a prudent adaptation to the circumstances facing insurgents lacking armed and organized power? And why call such attitudes as historical pessimism and nonviolent resistance “prophetic”? True, the members of the movement were often infused with religious passion, but not always. Not all of the civil rights leaders were religious: one of them, Bob Moses, was devoted to Albert Camus, who was neither religious nor prophetic. And while the civil rights leaders were often moved with religious fervor, their views were not, as I have suggested, always traceable either to the Hebrew prophets or to Jesus

It may be, however, that my comments should not have the critical edge I have given them. The leaders of the civil rights movement were a diverse and spontaneous assemblage, working and living under great pressure. Things must often have been somewhat unclear and incoherent in their own minds. And Chappell, after all, is an historian, not a philosopher or a theologian. Judging from this book, moreover, he is quite an able historian. He has original insights and an eye for things that matter. I have no hesitation in saying that Christians, by and large, will find A Stone of Hope to be of very great interest.

Glenn Tinder is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and author of The Political Meaning of Christianity.