Monday, December 29, 2008

Reverend Wright's Black Liberation Theology

Reverend Wright's Black Liberation Theology

"We Latin Americans were very interested in Black Liberation theology," said the Chilean theologian, Martin Garate, "but now we know it is more about 'black' than about 'liberation.' " This was the critique delivered long ago in 1975 at the Theology in the Americas' meeting held in Detroit's Catholic seminary. I was there opposite Dr. James Cone, the originator of Black Liberation Theology, who was the target for Garate's evaluation. Garate might just as well have targeted the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Senator Obama's former pastor in Chicago.

At that 1975 meeting, Liberation Theology and Black Power Theology crossed paths. While Garate had protested Cone's expressed desire to have African-Americans sit on corporate boards, take power at the upper levels of Washington and the like, Cone -- at that time - considered that an African American on the Supreme Court would represent black liberation. The mostly Catholic Latin American theologians in 1975 were wary of class attachments and predicted that an upper-class African-American would likely have the same values as an upper-class Euro-American, and thus bring no liberation.

Professor James Cone understood that the United States differed profoundly from Latin America. In the United States, race was a strong if imperfect predictor of class interest. While Karl Marx significantly influenced the Latin Americans, the largest shadow cast on Black Liberation Theology was by Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), whose Universal Negro Improvement Association grew spectacularly until brought down by J. Edgar Hoover in 1923. It was from prison that he wrote his now famous lines: "Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God's grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life."

This was an instance where the movement was greater than the man. Garveyism rose as quickly as any populist movement of its times. Although scorned by black liberals like W. B. DuBois and the NAACP, it instilled pride and self-worth among America's blacks and created capital and enterprise for a population segregated at that time into economic, social and political inferiority within the United States. From Garveyism came Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and also the Reverend Wright's Christian brand of Black Liberation Theology.

These are radically conservative movements when compared to Latin American Liberation Theology, which runs to the left. Garvey wanted to preserve a cultural and racial identity rather than fomenting class struggle. He wanted his followers to "out-work ethic" the American system and become upwardly mobile. There were complaints about the unfairness of Capitalism, but usually because this economic system has also been racist.

The Christian version of Black Liberation refutes a basic element of Garveyism when it holds out hope that whites may also come to fight against racism. The Promised Land image from scripture develops the contours of this Christian hope, which is admittedly "audacious." Like Jesus condemning Jerusalem while bringing about its salvation (Matthew 23:37-39, 24:1-4; Luke 19:41-44), Black Liberation Theology and the Rev. Wright condemn America to save it. Ironically, far from promoting a radical and anti-American theology, the Rev. Wright falls within the grand tradition of American reformists who seek gradual changes towards the ideal of "liberty and justice for all." It is Garveyism Lite. Ironically, purged of its Black Nationalist tendency, this conservative theology rings true to the quintessential American theology that says: "God helps those who help themselves."

If you were a segregationist redneck who wanted African Americans to stay in their own churches and develop their own institutions separated from yours, Wright would be one of your favorite Black pastors. His message of self-help, suspicion of white liberals, and lack of confidence in the U.S. government would be themes familiar to the right-wing conservatives. Ironically, the visceral horror Rev. Wright provokes from today's unperceptive white-wing conservatives proves he was correct to say with Malcolm X, "The chickens have come home to roost."


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