Liberation Theology and the Future of Black Religion in America
By Reed Benson
The Presidential candidacy of Barak Hussein Obama introduced mainstream America to an intellectual and emotional philosophy hitherto confined to relatively narrow elements of Black America: Liberation Theology. The agent who delivered this striking worldview was Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a sparkplug who was the longtime pastor of Barak and Michelle Obama at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois. Wright’s now familiar oratory shocked millions of Caucasian Americans who could hardly believe that such harsh and unpatriotic denunciations of the United States could come from the lips of any native born American, of any race, and still receive such a welcome from multitudes in his audience. Reverend Wright’s sweeping condemnation of America nearly unhinged Obama’s candidacy, and only Obama’s tardy and somewhat unconvincing renunciation of Wright salvaged his White House bid.
Obama’s Presidential victory reveals his chameleon-like ability to hide the most outrageous of his personal associations, at least from most Americans. He will probably continue to downplay his lengthy association with the anti-Americanisms of Black Liberation Theology. But setting Obama aside, deeper questions remain that will outlast his presidency. What is Black Liberation Theology? Where did these ideas come from? Why are many American Blacks comfortable with such hateful rhetoric? What does it mean for America’s future?
The Origin of Liberation Theology
Liberation theology is a product of Latin America during the Cold War Era. It began as a Marxist interpretation of Scripture, emphasizing the plight of the poor and arguing for a more equitable redistribution of wealth. Biblical exhortations to remember the poor and oppressed became touchstones of truth to provide a theological and moral basis for the movement. Although officially condemned by Pope Paul and Pope John Paul, renegade bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in South America bestowed upon Liberation Theology a measure of official religious endorsement, culminating in the 1968 Second Latin American Bishops Conference in Medellin, Columbia. At that time, Latin American countries were dominated by the descendants of the old Spanish colonial elite. Wealth and political power was aggregated in their hands. As a general rule, this modern aristocracy was "whiter" in complexion than the mixed Indian mestizo masses throughout Latin America. As the movement gained strength in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Mexico it incorporated a distinctive racial aspect. Displacing the "White" upper class with swarthier counterparts became an integral part of this effort for social and economic justice.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s discredited Russian style Marxism as a viable political and economic system. Despite the continued use of the Bible as a theological and moral basis for the movement, the lack of a political model by which a nation could be reshaped irreparably damaged the movement in Latin America. However, its decline in Latin America paralleled its rise in the United States.
Transmitted to many seminaries in the United States via the Roman Catholic Church, Liberation Theology crossed paths with the Negro religious experience in the United States. Since the United States, unlike Latin America, has had very little genuine poverty, even in Black communities, it has taken several decades to percolate into a mature American style worldview. The rise of Liberation Theology in America’s Black community has been shaped by the distinctive Negro religious experience in the United States.
Negro Religion in America
Until 1865, most Negroes in the United States were, or had recently been, slaves. For two hundred years Whites had been debating if or how religious instruction should be made available to Negro slaves. In the end, there was sufficient missionary activity among the Negro slave population to gradually eliminate most overt aspects of their former African religious instincts and learn the stories of the Bible and basic Christian traditions. The aspects of biblical instruction that resonated most strongly among Negro slaves were themes like the Israelites being delivered from slavery under the Egyptians and Jesus as a sufferer of injustice at the hands of the Romans. Heaven was regarded as a state of liberation from servitude. A distinct "Slave Theology" developed complete with Negro spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," that emphasized an idealized future in heaven.
However, not all Negro slaves equated "Slave Theology" with patient waiting for liberation through death and heaven. Many found inspiration in heroes of the Bible such as Ehud, who slew an oppressive tyrant. The most notorious of the Negro slave preachers to exhort his followers to violent action was Nat Turner. He and his followers murdered nearly sixty Whites in a failed effort to win their liberation by armed force.
Following emancipation after the American Civil War, religion among the Black population lost its sharp liberationist edge. Not until the 1920s did Marcus Garvey begin to revive the idea that religion for the Blacks was connected to their station in life, a status with which they were again growing dissatisfied. In 1949, the Black author Howard Thurman published Jesus and the Disinherited, in which he saw life in America for the Blacks as parallel to Jesus because His poverty identified him with the poor masses under the thumb of the Romans.
Martin Luther King, Jr. cannot be called a formal participant in the Black Liberation Theology movement, because he did not really use the Bible as his basis for social change, despite his status as a reverend. He advocated, officially, a nonviolent style of resistance, somewhat akin to Ghandi. However, the temperament of the times was ripe for violence and King’s political oratory was sufficient to foster riots in many American cities. His assassination in 1968 at a relatively young age accomplished two things. First, it enshrined him as a martyr in the civil rights movement. Second, it became the prima facie evidence that nonviolence as a means of liberation had failed and that a more revolutionary theological framework was needed. Such a theology was becoming available.
James Cone and Black Liberation Theology
The formal beginning of Black Liberation Theology might have been July 31, 1966 when fifty-one Black ministers, calling themselves the National Committee of Negro Churchmen, published their "Black Power" statement in the New York Times. They proposed that the Bible should be used as a more aggressive approach to combat racism. The liberation they sought involved empowerment and the right of "self-definition, self-affirmation, and self-determination." Casual observers might see the word "self" and conclude that this was a very individualistic movement, but that would be wrong; identification with the liberation of the group was the path to salvation.
Beginning in the 1960s, several Black writers were suggesting that Jesus was not a White man, and the real gospel that Jesus taught was not the message of repentance, belief, and justification by faith, but was a gospel of social action. Albert Cleage was one such author, who published his ideas in 1968 in The Black Messiah. He argued that the apostle Paul " . . . never knew Jesus and modified his teaching to conform to the pagan philosophies of the white gentiles. We as Black Christians suffering oppression in a white man’s land, do not need the individualistic and other-worldly doctrines of Paul and the white man" (page 4).
In 1969 James Cone published Black Theology and Black Power. This seminal work vaulted Cone into position as the leading articulator of a new theological interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. He followed this with A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), God of the Oppressed (1975), and Black Theology in American Religion (1986). To understand Cone is to understand Black Liberation Theology and all of it proponents since the 1970s, Jeremiah Wright and Barak Obama included.
Cone defines "Blackness" in two ways: physiological and ontological. The first sense is genetic, simply possessing black skin and the other physical traits of the Black race. The second sense "does not relate to skin pigmentation but to one’s attitude and action toward the liberation of the oppressed black people from white racism" (A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 32). Thus, a genetically white man who works toward empowerment of the Black race is ontologically Black. Likewise, a genetic Negro who stifles Black empowerment is ontologically White. "Whiteness," to Cone, symbolizes any ethnocentric activity of "madmen sick with their own self-concept" leading to oppression.
In the ontological sense, Cone argues that God is Black: "The Black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples . . . The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition . . . by becoming the oppressed in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering . . . Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity" (ibid., p. 63-64).
But Cone goes further with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ, Cone asserts, was not just ontologically Black, but physiologically: "The ‘raceless’ American Christ has a light skin, wavy brown hair, and—wonder of wonders—blue eyes. For whites to find him with big lips and kinky hair is as offensive as it was for Pharisees to find him partying with tax-collectors. But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so detestable to white society" (Cone, "The White Church and Black Power," Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1969, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 116-117).
Sin is defined as "a condition of human existence in which man denies the essence of God’s liberating activity" (A Black Theology of Liberation, 190). Thus, to Cone, sin is anything that impedes the progress of Black empowerment.
How does one achieve salvation according to Black Liberation Theology? Cone rejects the idea that Christianity is primarily concerned with life in the next world. He calls this a "white lie," to keep Blacks in an oppressed subservient condition. In the sense that eschatology is dealing with life in the next world, Cone insists that, " . . . black theology is not eschatological. Black theology has hope for this life" (Black Theology and Black Power, 123).
The traditional (and correct) understanding of salvation is that the individual has a responsibility to believe and confess a faith in Christ as a personal substitutionary sacrifice for sin (sin being the transgression of God’s Law). But Cone, like Cleage, rejects such a definition of salvation, and the writings of Paul that make this doctrine of salvation so clear. Cone and Cleage teach that salvation is achieved in this life as one empowers the oppressed, who are Black, and rejects all Whiteness. Salvation is not an individualistic belief system, but a collective group condition. The individualism of White Christianity is alien to African-American spirituality. Blacks are saved as they define themselves as Black, identify themselves with other Blacks, and overthrow their oppressors, empowering their future. This is Black Liberation Theology’s pathway of salvation.
It is in the context of this redefined Christianity that Cone has made a number of inflammatory remarks. They include:
"All white men are responsible for white oppression."
"While it is true that blacks do hate whites, black hatred is not racism."
"Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him."
"We have had too much of white love, the love that tells blacks to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. What we need is the divine love as expressed in black power, which is the power of blacks to destroy their oppressors, here and now, by any means at their disposal."
"Theologically, Malcomb X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil’" (Kurtz, Stanley. "Context You Say?" The National Review, 05/19/2008).
The Nation of Islam
One of the most flamboyant of Black religious leaders in America today is Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam since 1978. Founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad, it is a heretical sect of Islam that has split several times but remains a strong voice advocating the empowerment of Blacks. It was led for three decades by Elijah Muhammad, who, by the time of his mysterious death in 1975, had establish seventy-five worship centers in the United States. Adherents toady number near 100,000.
The Nation of Islam teaches the five pillars of Islam just like mainstream Sunni and Shia around the world. They accept the Koran as the revelation of Allah and believe in the authority of Muhammad as the final prophet. They avoid pork and expect their women to be modest. In these respects they find common purpose and communion with mainstream branches of Islam.
However, they have additional unusual teachings that set them apart. First, they believe their founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad, was the incarnation of Allah. Second, they assert that Elijah Muhammad did not die, but recovered from a grave illness and was taken up into a "Mother Wheel" described in the Bible in the book of Ezekiel (1:15-18) that is, according to Farrakhan, "even now flying over our heads." Third, they argue that the Black race was the original race in God’s creation and that Whites were created long ago by an evil scientist named Yakub. According to Farrakhan, the fact that Black traits are genetically dominant and White are recessive is evidence that Blacks were the historic predecessors. Fourth, they believe that Black slavery in America was the fulfillment of Bible prophecy when Abraham was told that his seed would be strangers and afflicted four hundred years (Genesis 15:13-14). From this they derive the teaching that American Blacks are the genetic offspring of Abraham.
Above all, however, the Nation of Islam provides for Blacks in America a sense of identity and a path of salvation. Islam is a religion of works and one’s destiny in the next world is dependent entirely on performance in this life. The emphasis of the teachings of the Nation of Islam is almost exclusively on the perceived wrongs of the White man inflicted on the Black and the means by which American Blacks can develop their own power and influence in the United States. Shortly after the election of Obama, Farrakhan described the central importance of Black empowerment: "He [Elijah Muhammad] kept warning America that her mistreatment of the poor pitiful Black man and woman was a cause for God’s displeasure; and that unjust policies of the government of the United States made people across the earth hurt, to America’s benefit, is what is causing of course the judgment of God—but also the anger of the people of the earth" (finalcall.com/artman, Nov. 9, 2008). Although slightly confusing, from this statement it can be seen that Farrakhan believes that the United States remains an institutionally racist nation and for that reason God and the rest of the world are angry with the United States. This sort of commentary is the bread and butter of Farrakhan and Nation of Islam. A collective sense of victimhood is the bond that holds his believers together and their efforts to empower the Black race is the way to please God (Allah) and earn eternal life.
The Nation of Islam is a bridge that connects American Blacks to mainstream Islam. Many members have left the organization and converted to mainstream Islam, usually to the Sunni philosophy. These include Malcomb X, a former top leader in the Nation of Islam and Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion. Such transitions to mainstream Islam are not unusual because American Islam also emphasizes Black victimhood and the empowerment of Blacks in America.
The New Black Religious Union
During Obama’s campaign for President many were shocked to discover that Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan once visited Libya’s anti-American Muslim dictator Muanmar al-Khadaffi. What would a minister from Trinity United Church of Christ have in common with Muslims? Thanks to Black Liberation Theology, quite a bit.
One of the more familiar remarks of Jeremiah Wright was when he stated that because of America’s sins against Blacks "that America’s chickens are now coming home to roost" in the form of anti-American terror attacks such as 9-11. Wright was not the first to make this connection; he was simply quoting Malcomb X. In 1963, when asked to comment about the assassination of President Kennedy, Malcomb X said it was a case of "chickens coming home to roost." Jeremiah Wright has been an outspoken advocate of the Liberation Theology as articulated by its leading apostle, James Cone. Yet he has also been comfortable with the Nation of Islam. What makes this possible? Is there something happening among American Blacks that allows this unusual union between Black Christianity and Black Islam? Indeed, there is. Jeremiah Wright typifies this theological flexibility. Barak Obama is the political standard bearer of this new theological worldview. It is why Oprah Winfrey now famously referred to him as "the one," and why such a messianic aura seems to follow in his wake among Blacks.
Barak Obama is the personal vehicle by which Blacks can externalize the most important theological tenet in Liberation Theology, namely the empowerment of the Black race. It is through the empowerment of their race that many Blacks today find their salvation. By identifying with their people and laboring to achieve this lofty goal, one’s position is secure in the next life. This is true for multitudes of Black Christians who have embraced Liberation Theology as well as growing numbers of Black Muslims, both in the Nation of Islam and those who have moved into the mainstream of Islam. This spiritual union among American Blacks of widely different religious labels was observed by Farrakhan the evening Obama was elected: "What I saw in the faces of all those who were present at Grant Park here in Chicago, and in other places around the nation and the world, was a oneness of spirit . . . this meant to me that the Spirit of God was present on that night in Grant Park. And wherever people of all races and ethnicities, religions, political affiliations were present, there was that oneness of spirit" (finalcall.com/artman, Nov. 9, 2008).
What is equally frightening, however, is the reaction of White liberals to Obama. After decades of inculcating White guilt into the minds of Americans over a series of alleged historic grievances, not only has it resulted in a sense of Black victimhood and entitlement, but it has left millions of Whites with a powerful sense that they must act to expiate these sins. The election and success of an Obama presidency is the means by which White liberals, laden with guilt, can atone for the presumed sins of their forefathers. The empowerment of all non-whites, but especially Blacks, becomes the penance due. A suave Obama, without the odd theologies of Louis Farrahkan, the embarassingly poor grammar of Al Sharpton, or the colorful pettiness of a stale Jesse Jackson, is the perfect vehicle to deliver the White man from his guilty conscience.
The Future of Black Religion in America
Where will religion among American Blacks go from here? It is not likely that atheism, an intellectual framework that rejects deity and the supernatural, will ever gain traction among Blacks. Traditional theologies regarding sin, the atoning work of Christ, and a future reward in heaven based on repentance have had a limited appeal in the past, but these have usually been interpreted in the context of a group relationship. The worship styles that capture the attention of Blacks involve connection to the group in emotional ways. The bonding of the individual to the group has always been of paramount importance among Blacks and their distinctive musical and preaching styles emphasize this.
White Christianity emphasizes individual salvation based on a systematic theology. It is a somewhat intellectual effort to reach the soul. In keeping with the strong emphasis of the value of the individual that runs deep in Western thought, even pagan Greece and Rome, White Christianity stresses the need for every individual to learn basic theological facts, reflect, evaluate one’s self, and then make a decision.
Blacks prefer to form a powerful association with the larger group before any personal accountability is considered. Indeed, meditative reflection as individuals is not part of typical African-American spirituality. They generally do not intellectually compartmentalize sacred and secular, political and spiritual. Their approach to life’s challenges is wholistic and salvation of the individual is connected to salvation of the group.
The idea that slaveholders imposed Christianity is a rapidly growing idea among Blacks. Islam is offered as the natural and historic alternative. Since there is some truth in this argument, especially for those with a connection to East Africa or the Guinea coast, many American Blacks are eagerly exploring Islam. Furthermore, Islam attracts many Blacks because it stresses the importance of following the rules of the faith. The outward religious forms are the evidence of a proper relationship to Allah. In contrast, Christianity teaches that a true inner belief is the key to have a right relationship to God.
Liberation theology provides a new interpretation of the Bible that redefines the path of salvation. Rather than being a matter of belief, it is a question of works. Sin is not transgression of God’s unchanging law code, but transgression against the group, in this case, the Blacks. Atonement is not appropriated on the basis of individual repentance, but on group action. Salvation is not realized in a future existence after death, but here and now in this concrete world when the Black race is empowered.
Black Christianity, armed with Liberation Theology, allows a social and political union with Islam that was hitherto not possible. Both now define the White man as the enemy since his position in society impedes the empowerment of non-Whites. Both consider the culture of the White race as a collection of tools to keep the Black race impoverished and enfeebled. Thus, the religion, literature, art, music, government, and even the technology of the White man are suspect.
James Cone, Louis Farrakhan, and Jeremiah Wright are not simply aberrations among American Blacks. They are harbingers of the future. As long as there is wealth to be redistributed, White liberals will wallow in guilt and encourage such legalized looting to continue. In the political realm those two facts combined mean that Barak Obama is only the first among many Black politicians that will achieve high office in our American republic.