Reverend Wright in Perspective

It’s not entirely clear to me why there is a great stir about Reverend Wright’s statements in the context of the Democratic nomination but it appears that some of it is not terribly well informed. This seems to be characteristic of discussions that bridge politics and religion and I’m not convinced that information has a tempering influence on the fury of this discussion but for what it’s worth here’s some perspective on the matter.

I suspect that people who are influenced by this “YouTube moment” (if there really are any such people), are not among other things terribly conversant with American theological traditions and their interplay with American history. For some it may come as a surprise that the people who had been held in slavery here, long after the institution was condemned in Europe, were not universally overcome with the glee of eternal gratitude for being recognized as human beings.

There seem to be two main currents in African American thought about the role of blacks in America. (I am reluctant to express this generalization because there are countless variations on these themes.) There is the anti-segregation/assimilationist approach which is most famously represented by Reverend Martin Luther King. This view calls attention to social injustice and strongly identifies with oppressed people everywhere. Faith provides the strength and hope necessary to overcome such things as institutionalized racism.

Marcus Garvey articulated another view: black separatism or black nationalism. This approach in varying degrees renounces white society and maintains that blacks have the best chance of succeeding outside of white society. Garvey advocated going to Liberia. Garvey was shocking in his day and now has parks, streets and monuments named after him. Malcolm X, until he went to Mecca and found peace in Islam, was associated with this way of thinking, particularly the part about renunciation of white society. In white society — and not so much in black — Malcolm X was regarded as off-the-charts radical, a dreadful figure as he was portrayed by the media. He was widely feared and loathed but has since been the hero in a popular movie and is now mentioned in polite society. His autobiography is no longer scandalous and seems to be generally read.

There has long been a Christian tradition called liberation theology, which places emphasis on Jesus as the savior of the oppressed. Christianity is seen as a vehicle for personal salvation and social reform. Most recently this this was featured in the media in the context of the Catholic Church’s involvement with the peasants of Central America, resulting in the slaughter of clergy and the Church’s abandonment (at least in Rome) of the cause.

In the 1960’s the mix of the civil rights movement and Liberation Theology gave root to a theological school known generally as Black Liberation Theology. This view took root predictably enough in some black churches and emphasized — unlike Reverend Martin Luther King — the moral quality of institutional action, including governmental action, which harmed the poor and oppressed or which favored the wealthy. I’m sure this is a terrible simplification but I see Black Liberation Theology as Liberation Theology in America. Instead of looking at Central America, Black Liberation Theology held the mirror up to this country. Government action was examined under the light of Christian principles and the words of Jesus. This was done with a verve that is characteristic of black churches.

This moral examination of government is of course a long-standing American tradition, invoked when it is politically expedient. God was invoked to declare independence. When slavery was condemned by other countries around the world, the Bible — or rather certain passages of it — were invoked in America to sustain the institution. The Bible was also invoked to end slavery. The only justification for the invasion of Iraq that has not been irrefutably disproved is Bush’s contention that God told him to do it. (Later of course because of this and other policies Bush’s church disclaimed him.) Black Liberation Theology though is a lot more than an attempt to justify something morally. It is a systematic evaluation of policies by a set of well established criteria, done in church with exuberance.

The person usually identified as a founder of Black Liberation Theology is Dr. James H. Cone, a faculty member of the Union Theological Seminary, and a highly respected theologian. This school has been around long enough that it is now a very much accepted part of American culture.

Calling for the damnation of countries is old hat. Remember the general who lectured in churches that America was launched on a holy war against the 1.3 billion Muslims? He was a high ranking member of the military but Bush’s association with him didn’t cause the comments to be attributed to anyone else. During the cold war it was routine for conservative Christian leaders to call for, or refer to, God’s damnation of communist countries. There is certainly nothing inconsistent with this about calling on God to judge our country negatively (to “damn”) with respect to policies violative of Christian belief, as viewed by a church pastor. Some Christians — not Christian theologians — have, however, conflated God and USA. In doing this they endorse the notion of evaluating countries morally. But in confusing God and country these people succumb to to idolatry, decidedly un-Christian.

A good thing about Black Liberation Theology and Liberation Theology is that Jesus the Redeemer is not sacrificed for Jesus the Reformer. Those who have sinned can be redeemed. In the case of countries this would be through good acts.


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