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.
Are Wright's views mainstream among African Americans?
It depends on what you mean by "Wright's views." Do most African Americans feel like they've gotten a fair shake in the American experience? Certainly not. Do most African Americans think that racism is alive and well? Yes. Do most African Americans feel that there will be some judgment against America for its hypocrisy and duplicity along racial lines? I think so. But in that sense, most African Americans aren't much different from their white counterparts who decry abortion as a scourge deserving judgment.
But do most African Americans call down damnation on America? No, I don't think so. I don't think Wright's flourish represents even most of the people in his own church. If you keep in mind that historically black preaching aims at emotional effect, it's entirely possible to resonate with the emotion of a point while not at all holding to the particulars of the point. I don't think this is healthy. But it is typical and it may help to explain why 8,000 people could attend that church, hear such things, and continue to love their pastor, serve together, and go about their everyday lives without expressing that kind of sentiment. The preaching moment is primarily affective, not cognitive.
You write, "In the African American experience, the persons most likely 'doing' theology were preachers and civic leaders as opposed to the academically trained theologians of the 'white church.'" How does this distinction shape the resulting theology?
You get a grittier, earthier theology done in the vernacular. There is far less concern for the hypostatic union, for example, than there is for the application of justice in this or that concrete social or political situation. African American preachers look out on people with real hurts, and they are primarily concerned with bringing theology to bear on those hurts, not with precision in a particular doctrine. So, African American theology really tends toward social ethics, not theology proper. At least that's the trajectory it's taken over the last 150 years or so.
Earlier generations of African Americans held in tension both concern for biblical soundness and concern for social justice. In earlier generations the cause of freedom was fought with sound theological ammunition. The irony of African American theology is that as African Americans have gained wider freedoms they've lost biblical soundness. And I think that's part of what you see in Wright's comments.
You conclude in The Decline of African American Theology, "As a consequence of theological drift and erosion, the black church now stands in danger of losing its relevance and power to effectively address both the spiritual needs of its communicants and the social and political aspirations of its community." Does this current incident with Wright fit that conclusion?
I think so. In his effort to perhaps address American injustice from a black perspective, the clips make it appear as though he's left behind anything resembling biblical soundness. Trinity United boasts a statement of values and faith that make it clear that they intend to be "unashamedly black." Well, who would begrudge them that if what is meant is security in who God has made you to be? But if what that statement means, as black theology puts it, we're black before we're Christian, then it's easy to see that culture and ethnic identity have eclipsed the Cross and our identity in Christ.
It's easy to see how the thing most needed the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is neglected, and in neglecting the gospel other important but secondary needs also go unmet, or are temporarily met in the most superficial and impermanent ways. If you lose the gospel, you lose everything. But if you have the gospel, even if everything else seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, you still gain everything. As Jesus says, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" I fear that many have sanded off the sharp points of the Lord's questions by assuming that gaining the world in an economic or political sense is the same as keeping your soul. And it's that basic confusion that ends up making the church irrelevant spiritually and temporally.
What gives you hope for reversing "the decline of African American theology"?
The Lord does. He promised to build his church and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. We are steadily being made to conform to the image of Christ, renewed in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The Spirit will complete that project and he will use his word in the hands of faithful men to do it.
As I look out on the African American church scene, as the Jeremiah Wrights are retiring, I'm finding more and more young men who are committing themselves to sound biblical theology and to carefully working that theology out in African American communities. They are self-consciously aware of the reforms that are needed. They understand that we're in a post-Civil Rights context where we need to think biblically and prayerfully about who we are and about our stewardship of the gospel. Wherever the gospel is recovered and unleashed there is great cause for rejoicing.
Verses for the Fortnight
"And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, '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.'"
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more