Why Black Liberation Theology Matters

Published May 12, 2008

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Recent things considered, it seems Barack Obama will be the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

Thus the importance of Peggy Noonan’s most recent WSJ column. It is an explanation of why Sen. Obama’s “Rev. Wright problem” is not much of a problem for her, and why it shouldn’t be so much of a problem for us, “whose thoughts are usually not unlike [her] own,” but with whom, on this account, she “finds [herself] out of step.”

Ms Noonan dedicates the first half of her op-ed to say, in short, something like this: Don’t get me wrong, what I’m about to do (politically exonerate Sen. Obama of pastor problems) should not be seen as an endorsement of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I don’t agree with and I dislike the things he says, but that shouldn’t change your vote, because if he has passed on to Sen. Obama any of his rage, it’s not the dangerous kind … it’s the good kind, in fact. It’s a kind of sentimental loyalty to the injustices of his past.

To make her point, she employs the story of a young, well-adapted Irish American friend who still smiles with ethnic pride when he listens to old ballads against the Brits. This lad, she says,

"…knows the dark days are over. He just enjoys remembering them even if he didn't experience them. His people did. I know exactly what he feels, for I felt the same when I was his age. And so what? It's just a way of saying, 'I'm still loyal to our bitterness.' Which is another way of saying, 'I'm still loyal.' 'I have a nice life, I'm American, I live far away, an Englishman has never hurt me, and yet I am still Irish. I can prove it. I can summon the old anger.' Is this terrible? I don't think so. It's human and messy and warm-blooded, as a human would be."

The length alone of Ms. Noonan’s prologue should tell us something about the seriousness of the Rev. Wright issue. Ms. Noonan ordinarily prefers succinctness to completeness. She respects us enough to come to our own logical conclusions. But here she was unwilling to be misunderstood even by few. So completeness won out.

Perhaps her eagerness to brush aside the Obama-Wright relationship is mostly about her dread of a Sen. Clinton presidency. But I don’t think so. About things political, Ms. Noonan is always upfront — that’s why we read her, that’s partly why we love her. And what’s more, about things Clintonian in particular, Ms. Noonan is never bashful.

Yes, her exoneration of Sen. Obama seems genuine. I also think it is a mistake. Here’s why:

Unlike the Irish American’s innocent affinity for the anti-British tunes of yesteryear, Sen. Obama’s relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright was all about the present. In the Sen.’s own words, for 20 years the pastor was his “mentor.” A mentor teaches. A student learns, and the adult student only comes back to the mentor if he wants more.

Ms. Noonan describes Rev. Wright as “a bright man, warm, humorous and compelling, but also needful and demanding of the spotlight, a showman prone to crackpottery.” If this were all he was, I would agree that the fear of political influence on Sen. Obama has been overblown. Like him or not, when it comes to personality, the honest critic admits Sen. Obama is no Rev. Wright.

But we’re missing the point. The critical element of concern for many of us, whose “thoughts are usually not unlike Ms. Noonan’s”, is not Reverend Wright’s personality or love for the spotlight—it’s his theology of black liberation.

Liberation theology finds its historical roots in a school of Latin American theological thought made famous in the 1960s and 1970s. In these turbulent years of dictators and militants, some Catholic priests and bishops, Protestant pastors, and laity sought to revolutionize the church’s understanding of its own salvific mission. Instead of giving priority to the spiritual redemption of the soul, they turned their sites almost exclusively to social justice. Their materialistic view of humanity blurred the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the church. They stopped looking up at the Prince of Peace. Their Jesus was now a warrior.

Many liberation theologians in Latin America had good objectives. They were personal witnesses of the great disparity between the rich and the poor and refused to stand by with their arms folded. They saw how some indigenous peoples, blacks, mestizos, and the poor rural and urban masses were being manipulated and abused by the powerful. But their horizontal and materialistic vision of man led them to adopt elements of Marxist philosophy, including “class struggle” — the pitting of the poor against the rich. In this theological context, the victim status of the lower classes justifies in some cases the use of force to rectify social inequality.

When you hear Rev. Jeremiah Wright talk about social and racial inequality in America, the influence of liberation theology is painfully evident. It is of a different stripe (not violent), but it is there. His unconditional support for Louis Farrakhan (Nation of Islam leader) and other militants, his crude language, the selective content of his preaching, and his conspiracy theories against the government, are divisive. And they are divisive in a similar way as followers of liberation theology in Latin America.

Even though Rev. Jeremiah Wright has now retired as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, the language of black liberation theology is still detectable in the church’s literature. Here, for example, is the first sentence of the church’s mission statement on its official Web site.

Trinity United Church of Christ has been called by God to be a congregation that is not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ and that does not apologize for its African roots! As a congregation of baptized believers, we are called to be agents of liberation not only for the oppressed, but for all of God’s family.

Like the good people at Trinity, I believe strongly in the need to turn faith into action in our common struggle against social injustice and inequality. But I don’t believe anger, hatred, and a clinging to victim status are proper and effective tools to achieve this goal. That’s what we saw in their former pastor. I can’t picture Jesus like that. And that has nothing to do with Jesus not being black.

As we move toward the general election, we must help our politicians steer away from dirty politics. We mustn’t tolerate political cheap shots that sting, but that are inconsequential or distracting to vetting a candidate’s ability to govern for the common good.

I don’t think 20 years of mentorship under Rev. Wright’s is inconsequential in this process. We now know the senator was long privy to the pastor’s ways. Could he have continued there for so long without ever buying a word, a like sentiment. If he can convince the country of that, he may be the next president of the United States.

I look forward to your e-mails!


God bless, Father Jonathan
E-mail Father Jonathan

P.S. Today I sat down with the “maestro” of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, Mr. Long Yu. Tonight he will conduct a historic concert at the Vatican in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI. Why did this Chinese government-sponsored orchestra want to come to the Vatican for the very first time? Why did the Vatican welcome them? On Friday I will post an article about our fascinating conversation, with pictures!


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Father Jonathan Morris is author of the new book, “The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for when Life Hurts”. For information go to www.fatherjonathan.com

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