Obama’s Theology?

18 03 2008

How much do you know about the Black Liberation Theology of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and presidential candidate Barack Obama?  

Barack Obama’s religious convictions continue to be the focus in this year’s political race. The brash preaching of long time friend and pastor Jeremiah Wright is described by the majority of people as both anti-American and un-Christian. Listen to his statements and decide for yourself. 

The real question is whether what he preaches is consistent with the teachings of Black Liberation Theology Sadly, it seems that Reverend Wright’s words are perfectly consistent with the writings of James Cone and modern Black Liberation Theology

  James Cone grew up in Arkansas during the bitter years of segregation. He saw white Christians mistreat black people in ways that were horribly incompatible with Christianity. He heard white Christians preach love and compassion but saw only hatred and racism in their conduct. Ultimately, Cone decided that white churches and white theologians had all failed to rightly understand, teach, and practice true Christianity. Rejecting the “white” interpretations of scripture Cone developed a new “black theology” that focused on black empowerment.  

James Cone writes in his book, Black Theology and Black Power:       

 “A moral or theological appeal based on a white definition of morality or theology will serve as a detriment to our attainment of black freedom. The only option we blacks have is to fight in every way possible, so that we can create a definition of freedom based on our own history and culture. We must not expect white people to give us freedom. Freedom is not a gift, but a responsibility, and thus must be taken against the will of those who hold us in bondage.”

 It is no secret that Trinity United Church of Christ (Obama’s home church for 20 years) believes and promotes Black Liberation Theology.  In fact, Jason Byassee, of The Christian Century Magazine, wrote the following about Cone and Trinity church in May, 2007:

“There is no denying, however, that a strand of radical black political theology influences Trinity [UCC]. James Cone, the pioneer of black liberation theology, is a much-admired figure at Trinity. Cone told me that when he’s asked where his theology is institutionally embodied, he always mentions Trinity. Cone’s groundbreaking 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power announced: “The time has come for white America to be silent and listen to black people. . . . All white men are responsible for white oppression. . . . Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.’. . . Any advice from whites to blacks on how to deal with white oppression is automatically under suspicion as a clever device to further enslavement.” Contending that the structures of a still-racist society need to be dismantled, Cone is impatient with claims that the race situation in America has improved. In a 2004 essay he wrote, “Black suffering is getting worse, not better. . . . White supremacy is so clever and evasive that we can hardly name it. It claims not to exist, even though black people are dying daily from its poison” (in Living Stones in the Household of God).”

It’s difficult to predict how exposure to twenty years of Black Liberation Theology might affect one’s world view. Perhaps Michelle Obama gave us a hint back in February when she said that for the first time in her adult life she was proud of America.  



2 responses

22 03 2008
Maynard S. Clark

I recall reading Black Theology and Black Power while I was studying at Harvard Divinity School. I think that Cone operates with a Marxist intellectual framework.

Earlier this week I heard Tavis Smiley interviewing Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (aka “Skip Gates”, as his friends know him) of Harvard, where I current work (bioethics/social medicine/population ethics), but he was talking about his book and about Obama’s “theology”, but with all this talk about “prophetic religion” (calling down “The Power” to eliminate the bad ways), it seems that (a) only SOME bad ways are being condemned, while the favorite secret sins and delicious vices are being retained, and this is a (faux) “Christianity” without God, Jesus, Christ, or salvation, but with lots of preaching (the denominations have the preaching stations, and the ecumenical academic divinity schools have the “mainstream denominations” that have the preaching stations, as ISKCON refers to them).

Of course, a sensitive person who is phenomenologically “brackets” one sort or another of eidetic claims can easily see (through systematic, disengaged, detached observation) the pompous callus voices on radio and TV, and in print advertising and theater, and see that the “powers” that grip human imagination aren’t merely those that Gates, Wright, et al rail against, but those that, as Francis Schaefer told us, seek to destroy the very foundations of decency and even the “live and let live” mentality that the disengaged see to harmlessly live by. In other words, much of what is “at hand” in the West is what so irks our Muslim contemporaries, the degradation that IS The West. Other societies have other sins; we have our own. And “preachers” often engage in simple-minded dualisms, which too often excuse the worst attitudes and misbehaviors, while condemning their enemies in polarizing rhetoric.

To me, the sins that must be most offensive to a truly HOLY God not ONLY are the inner declarations of war against all that is stable and sustainable. But that would include not only self-destruction and self-degradation, but ecological wrongs, as well as the various forms of speciesism: animal agriculture, animal abuse and exploitation, meat production, failure to speak out against the atrocities of animal-based research while no systematic effort is made to even abide by the 3 Rs (reducing the use of animal research models wherever possible, refining research models to move towards better results while using fewer animals, and replacing animal research models with non-animal research models wherever possible, while working vigorously to develop and validate the epistemological legitimacy of non-animal research models).

Hinduism reached a nice moral synthesis when it taught the searching faithful to pursue an inner harmony with “ahimsa” – dynamic harmlessness, which (of course) would flower in vegetarianism and then veganism, which (curiously) is the “original plan” that the Genesis narrative describes, where our species is at peace with all others, and which the vision of Isaiah suggests as a harmonious restoration of a moral order of nonviolence (and all other right and good).

22 03 2008

I appreciate your post but I must confess I’m at a loss as to the point you are making.

Indirectly you illustrate the way one’s core beliefs inexorably affect the way one sees, thinks, and engages the world at large.

Understanding someone’s theology (or rejection there of) helps us anticipate how that person is likely to view the world, its problems and (especially for a president) possible solutions.

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