Yesterday Presidential candidate U.S. Senator Barack Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia, PA in response to his controversial former pastor. The Dr. Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. recently retired from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL.
You can watch the full speech here.
His speech were in response to these comments by Rev. Wright (warning – some offensive language)
History will judge whether or not Senator Obama’s speech will be effective in addressing concerns about his ties with Rev. Wright. One might argue that one speech will not alleviate concerns about sitting under this pastor for 20 years.
But where did this rhetoric originate? These words stem from Wright’s theological position, Wright is a proponent of what is called Black Liberation Theology. I will be quick to note that not all Black churches teach or preach this, and even those that do are usually not as extreme as Rev. Wright.
Black Liberation Theology is an offshoot of Liberation Theology that has its roots in 1950s South America when Marxism was making great gains among the poor because of its emphasis on the redistribution of wealth. It is in essence an attempt to reinterpret scripture through the plight of the poor.
“Liberation Theology was bolstered in 1968 at the Second Latin American Bishops Conference which met in Medellin, Colombia. The idea was to study the Bible and to fight for social justice in Christian (Catholic) communities. Since the only governmental model for the redistribution of the wealth in a South American country was a Marxist model (gained in the turbulent 1950’s), the redistribution of wealth to raise the economic standards of the poor in South America took on a definite Marxist flavor. Since those who had money were very reluctant to part with it in any wealth redistribution model, the use of a populist (read poor) revolt was encouraged by those who worked most closely with the poor. As a result, the Liberation Theology model was mired in Marxist dogma and revolutionary causes.”
Black Liberation Theology also gained ground in the 1960’s as the need arose for black people “to define the scope and meaning of black existence in a white racist society,” (James H. Cone, “Black Theology and Black Liberation” in Black Theology: The South African Voice, pg. 48).
Black Liberation Theology begins with the person of Jesus Christ. For instance in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his earthly ministry with this proclamation:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” (Luke 4:18-19, ESV).
Dr. James H. Cone, the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, NY is considered to be one of the architects of American Black Liberation Theology explains.
From this text, Cone draws a fundamental lesson about Jesus: his “work is essentially one of liberation.” Jesus inaugurates “an age of liberation in which ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.'” (Luke 7:22) “In Christ,” Cone argues, “God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed. Their suffering becomes his; their despair, divine despair.”
Cone continues his line of argument with a force that cuts to the marrow of contemporary American Christianity: “Jesus had little toleration for the middle- or upper-class religious snob whose attitude attempted to usurp the sovereignty of God and destroy the dignity of the poor,” Cone writes, “The Kingdom is not for the poor and not the rich because the former has nothing to expect from the world while the latter’s entire existence is grounded in his commitment to worldly things. The poor man may expect everything from God, while the rich man may expect nothing because he refuses to free himself from his own pride. It is not that poverty is a pre-condition for entrance into the Kingdom. But those who recognize their utter dependence on God, and wait on him despite the miserable absurdity of life are typically the poor, according to Jesus.”
When black people hear this message, Cone insists, they discover a message that resonates with their experience of life. Their experience of struggling for liberation is the same as the struggle of Christ himself. And if Jesus was resurrected, and is now alive, then he is now fighting for the very same things, working against the structures of injustice.
Source: A Black Theology of Liberation
There have been numerous positive contributions by Black Liberation Theology of which Ron Rhodes of the Christian Research Institute highlights four.
- It has served as a reminder that our theology must find practical expression in society if Christians are going to meet 21st century needs.
- It reminds us that God is involved with His people in real life situations.
- Focuses our attention on the need to reach out to others in the body of Christ who are suffering.
- It has served as an indictment on racist views that have been all-too-present (but not always) among white people.
I have some major concerns with this theological position, and I want to highlight three of those here.
Interpreting scripture through the lens of the black experience.
It’s starting point seems to be interpreting the Gospel through the lens of historical and contemporary racism. This does not follow proper biblical hermenutics which insists on looking at the passage from the context of the original audience, as well as, nuances in the original language and then also interpreting scripture with scripture. Then bridging to our context today. Is it legitimate to make the black experience the fundamental criterion for interpreting scripture? Imposing the black experience (or any other experience for that matter) onto Scripture effectively robs Scripture of its intrinsic authority and distorts its intended meaning.
ho make black experience all-determinative have, in a way, made the same mistake some white racists did during the days of slavery – only in reverse. Just as some whites imposed their “experience” as slavemasters on Scripture in order to justify slavery, so some blacks have imposed the “black experience” onto Scripture to justify their radical views on liberation. Both positions have erred. For blacks to use such an experience-oriented methodology is to condone the very kind of method used by those who enslaved them. In my thinking, this is self-defeating at best.
Black theologian Anthony Evans directly challenges Cone’s methodology by arguing that the black experience must be seen as “real but not revelatory, important but inspired.” Black writer Tom Skinner agrees and argues that “like any theology, black theology must have a frame of reference… There are some black theologians who seek to make their frame of reference purely the black experience, but this assumes the black experience is absolutely moral and absolutely just, and this is not the case. There must be a moral frame of reference through which the black experience can be judged.” That frame of reference must be Scripture.
(Source: Christian Research Institute)
Through interpreting Scripture through the lens of the black experience, black liberation theologians like Cone have advanced the following doctrines.
- The role of Jesus as God-Incarnate was to liberate the oppressed, in that it was His sole purpose.
- The importance for black people to view Jesus as being black (not that I think he was lily white either. I guess this is one reason why we should not ignore the 2nd Commandment and make images of Christ).
- The resurrection of Christ is a real event that symbolizes universal freedom for all those who are bound. It is a hope that focuses on the future in such a way that it prevents blacks from tolerating present iniquities.
- Sin is a “condition of human existence in which man denies the essence of God’s liberating activity as revealed in Jesus Christ,” (Cone in Liberation)
- Salvation primarily has to do with earthly reality, not heavenly hopes.
- Christianity that is primarily concerned with life after death is a “white lie.”
A biblical liberation theology must have Scripture, not the “black experience” as its supreme authority in matters of faith and life.
Black Liberation Theology fails to transcend culture.
- Jesus in John 4 challenged the Samaritan woman’s experience regarding worship to understand that the truth of worship transcended her culture when she tried to impose her experience on sacred places.
“Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.’ The white structure of this American society, personified in every racist, must be at least part of what the New Testament meant by demonic forces…Ironically, the man who enslaves another enslaves himself…To be free to do what I will in relation to another is to be in bondage to the law of least resistance. This is the bondage of racism. Racism is that bondage in which whites are free to beat, rape, or kill blacks. About thirty years ago it was acceptable to lynch a black man by hanging him from a tree; but today whites destroy him by crowding him into a ghetto and letting filth and despair put the final touches on death.” (Cone)
Source: A Black Theology of Liberation
- There seems to be a particular disdain with those who are wealthy. Scripture challenges the love of money as the love of money is idolatry. Mere possession of it is not sin, nor does it make one any more blessed (as the prosperity gospel would put it) or evil (as black liberation theology would suggest).
- While racism is evil, the demonization of whites is not biblical, just as the dehumanizing of blacks by racists is unbiblical and sin. Which leads me to my last concern.
A biblical theology of liberation must include an emphasis on reconciliation among men.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit, (Ephesians 2:14-22, ESV).
Without reconciliation, liberation theology ceases to be Christian.
To understand Rev. Wright’s controversial statements that may (or may not) have influenced Senator Obama it is important to understand the context of the theological position from which it has been derived… with it’s strengths and weaknesses.