Malcolm X, Democracy and the Church

Malcolm X was a radically subversive figure in American cultural history. It is not surprising that our public discourse (especially public education) centers around MLK rather than Malcolm X as the archetypal figure in African-American history. King serves particularly well to convince us as a nation that whites have done their job, so to speak, in integrating blacks and extending equality to them.
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But the work of Malcolm X challenges not only that claim, but the terms in which we understand that claim. For Malcolm X, the language of “civil rights” distorts the issue, which led him to challenge the U.S. government’s presumption (likewise MLK’s) that “black oppression could be subordinated to an internal United States issue.” The construal of black oppression as an internal political matter was problematic, Malcolm X argued, because the liberalism underlying U.S. politics was incapable of adequately addressing the problem. Terms like equality and inclusivity, the bedrock concepts of modern liberalism, assume a norm (whiteness) against which they can work. The terms cannot be used without such a norm in place.

So for Malcolm X, the very terms of liberalism assume white supremacy. White America can (or must, or should, or has) extend equality to other races, because it is empowered to do so. The way for any race to “become equal” (even assuming that is possible, a separate issue) is to affirm this liberal account of things; in this way, liberalism is a form of tyranny over the oppressed, and only obedience to the tyrant can bring about “freedom.”

What Malcolm X advocated instead was for African-Americans to privilege their own history and culture; not to seek inclusion but to create a space for a different norm within the dominant culture that makes whiteness normative. This would constitute an alternative politics to the liberal politics that underwrites American democracy. Creating this space was what Malcolm X dedicated virtually all of his public career to.

Now, I’m not wholly on board with Malcolm X’s thought, and there was definitely a conversion of thought shortly before he was assassinated. The whole world was robbed when he was killed, much as when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed, and I would imagine that Malcolm X’s influence would overshadow King’s today if things had conspired differently. Malcolm X, near the end, urged United Nation involvement, comparing the American situation with the South African one. I think this falls short of Malcolm X’s own analysis, but it was the best he could envision. I believe a Christian account of sin is necessary to make sense of America’s race history; Malcolm X saw the problem but lacked the theological resources to articulate it, even after his conversion to Islam.

But what Malcolm X does for the church is articulate a third way of negotiating American politics. Fundamentalists would establish a biblical theocracy, attempting to legislate morality, while liberals would turn religion into an inward, spiritual thing while externally embracing the norms of liberalism (which is to say, Christianity is officially untrue). Following this third way, the church would create alternative spaces for faithful Christian practice.

By so doing, the church would create a new norm of which liberalism might then have to take account; the church would by its catholicity reveal the masquerade that is the global market, by its peace unmask the tyrannical peace of the nation-state, and by its love and beauty reveal to the world what a terrible thing it is to be the world, and not the church.

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