So, Rev. Jeremiah Wright is back in the news. That is not a surprise. What is surprising is that the controversy over Barack Obama’s former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago has missed an important issue. The focus has been primarily on Mr. Obama’s relationship with his pastor and the pastor’s inflammatory, divisive statements. The lens needs to be widened.
Those who defend Mr. Obama make the point that Mr. Wright has retired and no longer serves on the former’s advisory committee. They say that this ends the matter. (i.e. Let’s move on, there are more important things to talk about.) After all, Mr. Obama has disassociated himself from Mr. Wright’s “out of context” statements and continues to put distance between them — even if he has not chosen to separate himself from Mr. Wright.
Mr. Obama’s controversial relationship with Mr. Wright is a convenient, understandable, made-for-television news story. However, television may not the best forum for a complex, difficult-to-ask question which yet remains unasked and unanswered: Why does Barack Obama belong to a church known to be a leader in a seemingly radical, black-centric, movement known as black liberation theology? And the follow-up question is this: How will Mr. Obama’s association with this movement influence his beliefs, ideas, and actions as president of the United States?
Mr. Obama has said that he has not heard many of the statements made by Mr. Wright. But it is likely that Mr. Obama knows about the philosophy, principles, values and teachings of black liberation theology, which is the foundation of his church — the wellspring from which Mr. Wright’s divisive rhetoric flows. Mr. Obama’s veracity and integrity, or at least his judgment, will be subject to question if he denies having detailed knowledge of black liberation theology. And if he knows about the movement, why would he align himself and his family with such a theology for some 20 years?
Black liberation theology has its roots in the racial turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. Although Mr. Wright wants us to think that black liberation theology is the typical message of black churches, many black pastors view it as a misguided if not an aberrant form of Christianity. The main theme is not freedom from man’s sin by salvation in Christ, but the black struggle for freedom from the oppression of whites.
Historical, orthodox Christian beliefs are redefined in black liberation theology. For example, the words “Christ,” “salvation” and “gospel” are all the same, but the emphasis is the black experience of deliverance from slavery and ongoing deliverance from political, economic and social oppression by whites. Whites are often portrayed as the real demonic forces of this age. Traditional biblical Christianity is dismissed as an irrelevant, oppressive white man’s religion.
Mr. Obama is to be commended for condemning the statements Mr. Wright made because they “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country, a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” However, Mr. Wright’s statements are typical of deeply held views of many black liberation theologicians: He points to and says he agrees with James Cone, one of the founders of the black liberation theology movement.
Mr. Wright claims Mr. Cone to be a spiritual mentor and a modern-day prophet upon whom the teachings of Mr. Wright and Mr. Obama’s church are based. Mr. Cone wrote: “It is important to make a further distinction here among black hatred, black racism, and black Power. Black hatred is the black man’s strong aversion to white society. No black man living in white America can escape it. … But the charge of black racism cannot be reconciled with the facts. While it is true that blacks do hate whites, black hatred is not racism.” (“Black Theology and Black Power,” pp. 14-16).
Black liberation theology does not seek unity among the races — especially with whites. In seeking equal standing for blacks, black liberation theology sets blacks against whites and so inflames black resentment against whites that unity is all but out of reach. Technically, it is not racist in that it does not claim blacks are superior. But in practice, when black liberation theology’s pastors speak truth to power, that “truth” is filled with the same arrogance, hate, vengeance, and divisiveness used by some whites to wrongly target blacks. It puts a new twist on “separate, but equal.” Mr. Cone says that all whites are “white oppressors” responsible for black oppression and white racism.
On the positive side, black liberation theology also teaches self-reliance and responsibility of blacks as individuals, families, communities and churches. Churches like Trinity, which hold the doctrines of black liberation theology, are energetic in providing programs to improve education and the economic standing of their members. But, on the whole, such a theology ultimately fails. The fate of blacks and whites and all others in America, at least in the nation’s political and civic arena, is bound up in our commitment to common ideals, beliefs, values and aspirations — and our willingness to work and live together.
If Mr. Obama wants to be the leader of all Americans, he must clearly and decisively separate himself not just from Mr. Wright, but from black liberation theology and those churches and pastors that preach it as truth. Why he hasn’t done so is a question that still has been neither asked nor answered.
Ed Sherwood currently works as a senior risk management consultant in homeland security. He is a retired military officer and former pastor with a master of divinity in biblical studies.