May 4, 2008

A Fiery Theology Under Fire

Michael Powell
New York Times

May 4, 2008

BLACK liberation theology was a radical movement born of a competitive time.

Language, too, has defined the black church from slavery to liberation theology. Pastors, whether prophetic or fundamentalist, drew unambiguous inspiration from the diamond-hard words of the Old Testament, in which little store was placed in talk of man’s innate goodness. God might love, but He was a deity of forbidding judgments and punishments.

By the mid-1960s, the horns of Jericho seemed about to sound for the traditional black church in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. was yielding to Malcolm X. Young black preachers embraced the Nation of Islam and black intellectuals sought warmth in the secular and Marxist-tinged fire of the black power movement.

As a young, black and decidedly liberal theologian, James H. Cone saw his faith imperiled.

“Christianity was seen as the white man’s religion,” he said. “I wanted to say: ‘No! The Christian Gospel is not the white man’s religion. It is a religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free.’ But I realized that for black people to be free, they must first love their blackness.”

Dr. Cone, a founding father of black liberation theology, allowed himself a chuckle. “You might say we took our Christianity from Martin and our emphasis on blackness from Malcolm,” he said.

Black liberation theology was, in a sense, a brilliant flanking maneuver. For a black audience, its theology spoke to the centrality of the slave and segregation experience, arguing that God had a special place in his heart for the black oppressed. These theologians held that liberation should come on earth rather than in the hereafter, and demanded that black pastors speak as prophetic militants, critiquing the nation’s white-run social structures.

Black liberation theology “gives special privilege to the oppressed,” said Gary Dorrien, a professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “God is seen as a partisan, liberating force who gives special privilege to the poorest.”

The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Senator Barack Obama’s former minister, is one of the foremost adherents of this theology. A man of capacious learning and ego, Mr. Wright stands condemned of late as a incendiary radical for his views that the American government may have created AIDS and that the Sept. 11 terror attacks were payback for the sins of American foreign policy.

But many black theologians (even those who take strong exception to Mr. Wright’s views and argue that black liberation theology is a politicized artifact of an earlier era) defend him and say that the news media and Obama’s foes have caricatured him and misunderstood the intentionally provocative role of a liberationist pastor. “Deep down in all of us is that Malcolm X who cries out in such strong language,” said Dr. Cone, who is a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary.

Perhaps so, but probably no more than a quarter of black pastors today describe their theology as liberationist, say many theologians who have studied the movement.

Bishop Harry Jackson, a Pentecostal who presides over a 3,000-member church in suburban Washington, D.C., stands at the far pole from Mr. Wright. He defines himself as ultraconservative on matters of theology and politics and allies himself with conservative Republicans. He preaches a Prosperity Gospel, which holds that God wants black Americans to experience material success without guilt.

Most black liberation theologians revile this philosophy. Still Mr. Jackson would not deny the powerful currents of liberation theology; even his congregants put their toes in those waters from time to time.

“Most black church members want to see their ministers involved in defending the race and improving civil rights,” Mr. Jackson said. “The anger and bitterness that bleeds through in Reverend Wright’s comments are something that many blacks can sympathize with, even if they don’t want to hear it in the pulpit.” Black liberation theology may have taken modern flower in the 1960s, but its roots (no less than those of more conservative black theologies) extend deep into America’s historical cellar and its legacy of slavery.

In that context, the revolutionary message of the Bible seems inescapable, most notably in the story of the Exodus. “If you read that God told the pharaoh to release the slaves, you’d have to be pretty dense not to see the connection,” said James A. Noel, a professor at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Slave masters kept a wary rein on worship, fearful blacks might find inspiration in the Bible’s insurrectionary content. Black worshipers sought refuge in ravines and woods, building the “invisible church” that became the modern black church in all of its manifestations.

“The black church has always existed along a continuum, from a focus on healing to a focus on liberation,” noted Dwight N. Hopkins, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. “The liberationists emphasize this earth and the more fundamentalist emphasize the resurrection and the life after.”

Language, too, has defined the black church from slavery to liberation theology. Pastors, whether prophetic or fundamentalist, drew unambiguous inspiration from the diamond-hard words of the Old Testament, in which little store was placed in talk of man’s innate goodness. God might love, but He was a deity of forbidding judgments and punishments.

“The Old Testament God is a God who addresses nations, and judges nations and holds them to account,” Professor Noel said. “The prophets are concerned about social sin and God judges nations for their unrighteousness.”

Nor can black liberation theology be divorced from its historical moment. Throughout the 1950s, black church leaders like Dr. King, often steeped in white liberal Protestantism, led the fight for civil rights. But as the struggle turned violent, as black leaders perished and riots swept American cities and revolutions upended third world nations, black religious leaders sought new answers.

Even as Dr. Cone and others such as the Rev. William A. Jones at Bethany Baptist in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, crafted a theology of black liberation, Catholic theologians in Central and South America crafted their own liberation theology, arguing that God placed the impoverished peasants closest to his heart.

There is little evidence that one liberationist talked to another; rather, these were cornstalks rising in a fertile and revolutionary field. “These were remarkable similar arguments, that oppressed people have their own way of hearing the Gospel,” said Dr. Dorrien of the Union Theological Seminary.

Each of these forms of liberation theology engendered a stern counterattack. Prominent Vatican theologians attacked the liberationists for flirting with Marxist doctrine, just as black critics have argued that a black liberation theology tends to be a political rather than theological construct.

Still, Mr. Wright heard the liberation gospel loud and clear.

He has confounded much of white America, not to mention his own congregant, Mr. Obama, these past few weeks. The Chicago pastor with the gleam in his eye and the multiple denunciations of America has stood for many as the very symbol of an outdated black militant.

His image has been fixed in large measure by remarks that replay in a seemingly endless loop on YouTube and on cable television. Those videotaped snippets have focused on his most provocative moments in long sermons, in particular, one in which he said: “The government gives them drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America’. No, no, no. God damn America.”

BUT one can hear strains of such language nearly every Sunday in black liberation churches, not to mention some more centrist congregations. There are few sins greater for a black pastor than to forget the suffering of the less fortunate. Dr. Hopkins, who is a member of Mr. Wright’s church, frames his pastor’s statements within this context. As Moses “damned” his own followers for worshiping the Golden Calf, Dr. Hopkins said, so Mr. Wright, in the language of the prophets, damned his own country.

“The judgment damnation is to turn the country back to love; it’s not to blow it up,” Dr. Hopkins said. “That’s what the Bible is about, people struggling, and growing weary, and prophets forcing them back to the path of righteousness.”

Dr. Cone, the black liberation theology theorist, has known Mr. Wright for decades and says he much admires his provocations. But when Mr. Wright opined recently that the United States government may have used AIDS as a form of biological warfare against black people (Mr. Wright notes, correctly, that the United States has tried biological warfare on foreign nations), Dr. Cone winced.

“I don’t believe that,” Dr. Cone says. “But I will say that when blacks look at what government has done to black people, the eugenics and the syphilis, it’s easy to get angry.”

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