By Clete Hux –
With the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, Liberation Theology has come to the forefront of public attention. This attention is mainly due to Obama’s outspoken pastor, Jeremiah Wright, of the Trinity United Church of Christ (UCOC) in Chicago, Illinois. The controversy caused by Wright raises questions that many people would like answered such as: (1) What is Liberation Theology? (2) What do Reverend Wright and the UCOC teach in regard to this? (3) Does Barack Obama hold to Liberation Theology? (4) Is Liberation Theology biblical? And (5) What should be our Christian response? I will seek to briefly answer these questions in this column.
What is Liberation Theology?
Basically, Liberation Theology (LT) is a theological perspective that interprets the Christian message as being mostly about the social, political, and economic deliverance of the poor and oppressed. It has its roots in South America from over a half-century ago when Marxism began making great strides with the poor because of its emphasis on the redistribution of wealth, allowing poor peasants to improve their economic status. The LT movement teaches that God is the liberator of those oppressed by the ruling classes. In South America during the turbulent 1950s, this theology became the basis for a revolutionary agenda. The emphasis in LT is not on an individual’s salvation from sin, but the salvation of a community by overcoming oppression.
More recently, the influence of LT has moved from South America to the poor African-American community in North America where it has come to be called Black Liberation Theology (BLT). Many scholars point to James Cone, professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, as having imported LT to the United States. Cone himself credits the movement’s roots to the 1960s’ civil rights activism and draws inspiration from both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, calling LT “mainly a theology that sees God as concerned with the poor and the weak.” He explains that at the core of BLT is an effort to make the gospel relevant to the plight of American blacks in a white-dominated society where black has been defined as evil. It also seeks to help black people learn to love themselves. He says it is an attempt to teach people how to be both unapologetically black and Christian at the same time.
Wright and Obama
There is no voice in America today trumpeting the BLT message louder than Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s pastor, who recently stepped down from his pulpit at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Some have seen his pastoral resignation as an indication that Wright intends to address a much larger audience with his message.
According to Trinity’s website, Rev. Wright has four earned degrees and eight honorary doctorates. He became the pastor of Trinity in 1972 and was committed to the church’s motto: “Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian.” A quick review of Trinity’s statements of faith and mission, including Rev. Wright’s talking points, shows an explicit commitment to BLT. The church’s promotion of its 12-point “Black Value System” asks members to measure the worth of all activity in terms of “positive contributions to the general welfare of the black community and the advancement of all black leadership who espouse and embrace the Black Value System.”
Such emphasis on the “black” condition certainly is consistent with BLT, for it interprets all life issues through ethnocentric lenses, focused upon the black race in America and their liberation from the oppressive white culture. The focus is to affirm black humanity while at the same time emancipating black people from white racism.
BLT is no friend to American patriotism. It is essentially a revolutionary ideology that is African-centered and in opposition to American culture. BLT theologians have demonstrated this through their writings and public addresses. Rev. Wright is no exception. When he stepped down as Trinity’s pastor he began devoting himself full time to promoting his message through his publication, Trumpet News Magazine. A recent news article tells how Wright is using his Trumpet to advance criticism of the United States among African Americans, who are more often referred to by Wright as “Africans living in the Western Diaspora.” It seems that he thinks of blacks as in, but not of, America. In the same article, Wright makes a case for viewing the United States as a criminal nation, speaking of blacks as “songbirds” locked in “this cage called America.”
Wright’s most vocal attack on America came from one of his 2003 sermons in which he pinned black people’s troubles on the racism that still exists in the U.S., crying out, “No, no, no, not God bless America! God damn America—that’s in the Bible—for killing innocent people.” To Wright, white supremacy undergirds the thought, the ideology, the theology, the sociology, the legal structure, the educational system, the health care system, and the entire reality of the United States of America.
To those who echo Wright’s sentiments, the right politician would be very useful in furthering the cause of BLT. Enter Barack Obama. He has both applauded and repudiated some of Wright’s inflammatory sermons. The question should be asked—does Obama approve or disapprove of Wright’s theology and racism?
His relationship to his church, Trinity UCOC, and his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is very significant and should not be overlooked. Just because Obama called a press conference to denounce Wright’s speech at the National Press Club last month does not mean that he was ignorant of his pastor’s political radicalism. It should be pointed out that Obama has been a member for twenty years of a church that subscribes to BLT, which has its roots in Marxism, racism, and anti-American sentiment.
As mentioned earlier, Wright’s Trumpet publication is being used to further the BLT movement. Having been in existence since 1982, it is inconceivable that Obama would never have seen a copy of Trumpet since he himself has been on the cover of the magazine in the past. One should be concerned about such a connection when it is reported that Obama refers to his Caucasian grandmother as “a typical white person,” is unwilling to wear an America flag lapel pin, and his wife says (regarding her husband’s political success) that for the first time in her adult life, she is proud of her country! Plus, it would be very understandable that Obama would endorse at least part of Wright’s BLT seeing that his liberal voting record on social issues is consistent with the UCOC’s stand on such issues. If the accusations are true that Obama is the most liberal person in the U.S. Senate, then he is only being consistent with his own denomination which is arguably the most liberal of all denominations.
Space does not allow for a thorough critique of Wright’s BLT and Obama’s association, but anyone who is an American Christian regardless of race, has ample evidence for concern. What would be the Christian response? Any movement or theology that promotes racism is not biblical and neither is a movement or theology that promotes racism as a reaction to racism! “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Eph.3:28, ESV). Here Paul makes it clear that Christian faith is supposed to remove racial and ethnic boundaries. However, BLT is racial by definition. Most theologians in the movement promote Jesus as a “Black Messiah,” blacks as the “chosen race,” and everyone must become “black” (i.e., oppressed) in order to be saved.
According to Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, BLT insists that Scripture must be interpreted through the black experience. Luke 4:18 is a central text used by this movement. In this verse, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…to set at liberty those who are oppressed”(ESV). BLT advocates interpret this as meaning that Jesus’ mission was to eradicate poverty and to bring about freedom and liberation for the oppressed. However, Jesus was not using this text for racial purposes. He was actually referring to spiritual poverty and bondage, to those who are “poor in spirit”! “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) He taught that only those who acknowledge their spiritual poverty would be delivered.
Jesus never played the race card and he never “proof-texted” for racial purposes. In Christ, such distinctions are not made. Scripture teaches in Galatians 3:28 that the wall of racial barriers between Jew and Gentile is removed for those who are in Christ. There are no racial distinctions given as advantages in the matter of salvation. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:22-24 ESV).
Jesus or Barabbas
Throughout the Bible and history, God has come to the aid of the oppressed in a spiritual and moral sense. This is without question. Jesus himself said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). But in BLT, as with certain groups in Jesus’ time, the cry is for political liberation instead of spiritual salvation.
It is no exaggeration to say that the black race has been oppressed in America. When any race or culture has seen themselves as historically oppressed, socially and economically, it is understandable they would cry out for a political liberator rather than a spiritual one, as the crowd once cried out for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. But any leader, like Wright, who tries to use the Bible to “damn America” is not only reading things into scripture, but usurping God’s authority. Only God himself has the right to condemn.
Not only is Rev. Wright’s extreme Afro-centric approach unbiblical but many black citizens are offended by his anti-American slurs because of their vested interest in the nation. Day Gardner, founder and president of the National Black Pro-Life Union in Washington says, “We came here as slaves, but it was our blood, sweat and tears that helped to build this country…I’m tired of being made to feel – by our own people sometimes, such as Rev. Wright – that we are disconnected from what we are. I am an American.”
We should agree with former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes who decried the whole idea that Christians would allow themselves to be defined by race. He said, “Once one has been defined by his relationship to Christ, we are to look upon all people in terms of the way God sees them…It doesn’t mean we don’t have identities, but it also wouldn’t mean that our view and understanding of everything would be characterized on the basis of race.”
1. Cone’s books include Black Theology and Black Power (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), God of the Oppressed
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), and Risks of Faith (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1999).
2. Interview of James Cone on National Public Radio ( March 31, 2008).
4. See Trinity’s website: www.tucc.org
5. Stanley Kurtz, “Jeremiah Wright’s Trumpet,” Weekly Standard, (May 19, 2008): 3.
7. NPR interview (March 31, 2008).
8. Kurtz, “Jeremiah Wright’s Trumpet.”
9. Ibid., 1.
10. See www.christianactionleague.org/article/950