The Context of Jeremiah Wright

Over at Christianity Today there’s an article titled “Black Power from the Pulpit” about Jeremiah Wright which places him and black liberation theology in the context of the black church and the message of Christianity. It is actually an interview with Thabiti Anyabwile who wrote the book: The Decline of African American Theology. Mr. Anyabwile is a critic of both black liberation theology and the state of many black churches, without being one of the many jingoists we’ve heard from lately who think saying, “they’re racist” constitutes a legitimate critique. He is speaking from a position of understanding and respecting the history and tradition of the black church as well as the struggles of African Americans. Wouldn’t it have been nice if more people who were disturbed by Rev. Wright’s ranting would have turned to someone with this perspective for their critiques rather than the craptastic nonsense we’ve been subjected to?

At any rate, I recommend reading the article, but here are some of my favorite take-away points:

On the way the controversy played out in the media:

Q: Has anything surprised you about the wave of indignation that has followed news of these sermons?

A: I’ve been surprised that so much effort has been made to saddle Obama with the views of his pastor . . . I’ve also been surprised at how deep the ignorance of the African American church and its preaching tradition goes.

It is interesting that some of those who were particularly upset over Wright’s remarks didn’t initially see them as being racial. They seemed to them to simply be anti-American. However, people with some knowledge of the black church immediately recognized that race was hugely important in understanding this issue. The reason being is that Rev. Wright really could only exist in a black church. His style of rhetoric comes out of African American preaching traditions and its content is pretty much entirely shaped and informed by the history and experiences of African Americans. The race aspect came from the fact that Rev. Wright was speaking from a uniquely and easily recognisable African American perspective. Those who did not see his words in that context and continue to see them as exclusively anti-American without a racial context, are really revealing their own stubborn ignorance on the subject.

On Black Liberation theology:

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.”

On African American’s opinion of Wright’s views:

Q: Are Wright’s views mainstream among African Americans?

A: 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 think right here Mr. Anyabwile has put his finger on precisely what accounts for the gap in perspective between white Americans and black Americans. White Americans have a tendency to see racism as a minor issue. It happens, but not that often and not that bad. Besides, it takes time for things to change. And it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of deserving divine retribution. African Americans who still experience racism and who are well aware of how their current situation can often be directly traced back to the oppression of the past, obviously feel quite differently about the situation.

But I think that Mr. Anyabwile is correct in saying that few African Americans would want to call divine retribution down on America. After all, they are Americans and desire their piece of the American dream like anyone else. They just have a better view of the fact that even though the obstacles have largely been removed, many African Americans have never been given the tools needed to achieve the American dream. So there is real anger there at having to figure out how to get the tools while climbing over the remaining obstacles while being told to be grateful.

On the failure of black liberation theology and Wright’s church in particular:

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.”

The idea that Wright or his church is racist, aside from being unrealistic, misses the much bigger issue which is nailed here, IMO. I do know that this elevation of black identity and black pride over the centrality of Jesus and the cross was in response to the fact that the centrality of the cross was often used to keep black people quiet about the injustices they were living with. “Don’t you worry about this life, all your suffering will be redeemed in the next.” The message of Christianity was abused to support an oppressive and evil status quo. Black liberation theology was a reaction to that reality. Unfortunately it turned from God as the source of strength to man. That is its cardinal sin.

The difference between Rev. Wright and Rev. King isn’t as some suppose that Wright hates white people and King didn’t. It is that King knew that respect for African Americans was due to them because it was demanded by our creator. Rev. Wright has been trying to make the argument that respect is due to African Americans because it is demanded and earned by African Americans with the approval of our creator. Rev. King changed our world because he knew the real source of human dignity and rights. Rev. Wright’s influence is unlikely to be as profound or positive.

BTW, is it just me or has Christianity Today gotten much more interesting in the last couple of year? I’ve been pleasantly surprised at their offerings lately. Or it could be I just didn’t pay close enough attention in the past. Any how. 🙂

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