Monday, March 17, 2008

The Essential Radicalism of Black Liberation Theology

Somewhat overshadowed amid all the noisy politics of Barack Obama's Wright controversy are the ideological underpinnings of the explosive black church teachings at Trinity United Church of Christ. Reverend Jeremiah Wright claims to be teaching black religious liberation from the pulpit. But what's the nature of this theology. The Asia Times takes a look:

Senator Barack Obama is not a Muslim, contrary to invidious rumors. But he belongs to a Christian church whose doctrine casts Jesus Christ as a "black messiah" and blacks as "the chosen people". At best, this is a radically different kind of Christianity than most Americans acknowledge; at worst it is an ethnocentric heresy.

What played out last week on America's television screens was a clash of two irreconcilable cultures, the posture of "black liberation theology" and the mainstream American understanding of Christianity. Obama, who presented himself as a unifying figure, now seems rather the living embodiment of the clash.
Paul Hinderaker at Powerline elaborates on Obama's relationship to liberation docrtine:

Obama's own writing suggests that his relationship with the Trinity Church and with Jeremiah Wright has been a deep one. He says he attended church regularly, except during specific periods such as after his first child was born. He says Rev. Wright had a significant influence on him and, in fact, played a major role in bringing him to Jesus.

If we take Obama at his word, his relationship with Wright was not pure opportunism. Rather there was an affinity. What was the nature of that affinity?

I think we should stipulate that it was not Wright's most extreme racist and anti-American pronouncements. But it also seems clear that it was not traditional Christian belief either. Obama was not looking for that -- indeed, he had rejected traditional Christianity before encountering Wright. As just noted, Wright brought him to Jesus. More precisely, Wright's brand of Christianity accomplished this.

What is that brand? According to Wright (for example, during his contentious interview with Sean Hannity last year), the brand is
liberation theology. Liberation theology sees the Christian mission as bringing justice to oppressed people through political activism. In effect, it is a merger of Christianity with radical left-wing ideology. Black liberation theology, as articulated for example by James Cone who inspired Wright, emphasizes the racial aspect oppression.

It's easy to see why this brand of Christianity, and probably only this brand, could bring a left-wing political activist like Obama to Jesus.

How would the statements of Wright that have recently come to light be viewed in the context of liberation theology? In particular, employing the various terms Obama has used to describe Wrights statements, which ones would be "not particularly controversial," which would be "controversial" or "provocative," and which would be deplorable?

Comments about crimes against Palestinians would, I submit, fall within the mainstream of liberation theology, just as they do for most hard-leftists who don't put Christianity into the mix. Palestinians make the "A List" of oppressed victims of virtually every leftist ideology that sees the world as divided into oppressors and the oppressed.
Comments about the U.S. treating some of its citizens as less than human, or bringing 9/11 on itself, or inflicting AIDs on black people would, I take it, be controversial and provocative even within the world of black liberation theology. One can believe that oppression is rampant and that the U.S. is heavily implicated, without going as far as Wright did in these remarks.

But Wright's remarks seem no worse than controversial and provocative within this framework. An oppressor will go to great lengths to oppress, and it is an open question just how far that imperative extends. Wright offers one possible answer to that question: there are virtually no limits. If that answer were beyond the pale of the black liberation theology of his congregation, Wright would not have survived and prospered there.

Moreover, certain comments of Michelle Obama are surely uncontroversial in the world of black liberation theology. It would, in fact, be most difficult to reconcile pride in America with that theology. The open question for its adherents is how low their estimation of America should be, and how low they think America would stoop. Pride in America would seem out of the question.

In sum, Barack Obama's close and longstanding affiliation with Wright and his church probably does tell us something important about the man. It doesn't tell us that he agrees with Wright's most extreme ravings, but it suggests that Obama is enough of a leftist to be attracted to, and comfortable at, a place where Wright's most extreme views, though controversial and provocative, are not outrageous.
PoliGazette's got a discussion as well.

But let's be more clear about ideological foundations.

Wright speaks of his teachings falling under the larger doctrines of liberation theology that burst upon the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. Less noted, however, is the deep bed of Marxist-Leninism inherent in liberation theology, revolutionary extorations that go way beyond Biblical interpretations of salvation to promote final justice and uplift for the oppressed - by way of armed force if necessary.

Particularly in Latin America, liberation theology became tantamont to revolutionary agitation. As
Lawrence Mayer has argued:

The change in Latin American society ... was encouraged by the transformation of the Roman Catholic Church as a world organization, most notably in the Vatican II Conference of 1963 and the reign of Pope John XXIII. This liberalizing trend in the Church was propelled by changes in the Latin American clergy. The influx of foreign-born priests, especially those of European origin, weakened the hold of the upper classes on the priesthood .... Priests and nuns who believe in liberaton theology subscribe to the idea that the principal function of the Church is to strive for what they see as social justice in this world, as opposed to being merely concerned with salvation in the next. Further, clerics of this school are more concerned with the well-being of their flock and empowerment of the poor and the marginalized in Latin society than with protecting the property and authority of the Church hierarchy....With the advent of liberation theology ... priests and nuns have frequently supported the political left, sometimes even to the point of endorsing radical movements against their governments (emphasis added).
"Radical movements" here would include organizations such as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua. These were groups backed by Fidel Castro's Cuba, who in turn was backed by Moscow. For such revolutionary organizations, the final stage of ideological struggle culminates in the complete obliteration of capitalist authority relations in the advent of national liberation.

This is the context needed to understand the Wright sermons. The most aggressive supporters of black liberation forsee the "chickens coming home to roost" right here in the United States, in the victory of the Marxist-Leninist revolution that completes the world dialectical struggle against the dominant state in the international chain of capitalist-oppressors, the United States.

Barack Obama must completely condemn and repudiate any past or present associations with such revolutionary doctrines.

He's scheduled a major speech to address these concerns.

The event will be a wasted opportunity unless the Illinois Senator addresses the radicalism of black liberation theology directly. The urgency in this demands the renuncation of Reverend Jeremiah Wright himself. If Obama hopes not only to win his party's nomination, but to have a realistic chance of being competitive in the fall general election, his course can include nothing less.