Black Power from the Pulpit
Sen. Barack Obama sought in his speech Tuesday to answer critics who have called on the Democratic presidential candidate to account for his former pastor's anti-American sermons. Jeremiah Wright, longtime pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, is a leading proponent of black liberation theology. On the church's website, Wright says that Trinity's vision statement is based on the systematized liberation theology found in James Cone's 1969 book, Black Power and Black Theology. According to Cone, "The concept of liberation is not one among many themes in the biblical tradition; it is rather the essence of God's revelation in history, and other emphases should be interpreted in light of liberation."
CT editor-at-large Collin Hansen interviewed Thabiti Anyabwile, author of The Decline of African American Theology, about the appeal of black liberation theology.
What did you think when you first heard the sermons from Sen. Obama's former pastor. Jeremiah Wright?
Actually, I had two reactions. First, I thought they were fairly typical kinds of comments whenever African American pastors begin to whoop on political issues. One thing the viewer needs to keep in mind is that in terms of sermonic style, Wright appeared to be in the almost-always-dramatic climax of a typical African American sermon. Those parts of the sermon tend to have great emotional effect, as evidenced by the shouting crowd, but are very often not the main point of the sermon. Second, I reacted like most other people, thinking, Ouch. That's gonna leave a bruise for everybody concerned Wright, Obama, Trinity, and most viewers.
Has anything surprised you about the wave of indignation that has followed news of these sermons?
I've been surprised that so much effort has been made to saddle Obama with the views of his pastor, and that not as much attention seems to be given to equally controversial remarks made by white pastors. Rod Parsley's comments about Islam barely received a nod.
I've also been surprised at how deep the ignorance of the African American church and its preaching tradition goes. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the church in either its historical or contemporary form would recognize Wright's preaching in style, and sometimes in content, as essentially what has been preached for at least 100 years in African American churches. There's much to object to in some of the language. But it's essentially what is shared in a lot of churches whenever the comments turn political.
How would you describe the attraction of black liberation theology?
Black liberation theology has its origins in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Its founder, James Cone, was looking for a theological orientation to explain the aims, ethos, and anger of the 1960s revolution. So, not surprisingly, black liberation theology concerns itself with the political aspirations of African Americans from a fairly radical bent by most standards. It's an effort to do theology from the vantage point of the marginalized and the oppressed. Its main benefit is that it does raise questions that aren't often addressed by most theologians. Its main failure is that it either supplants or equates the biblical gospel with a concern for temporal politics, particularly politics viewed from a politically liberal and self-consciously black perspective.
Liberation theology in Latin America is slightly older than that among African Americans. And expressions of black liberation theology are found in South Africa as well.