What we’ve got here is failure to contextualize. If nothing else, Jeremiah Wright’s defenders and enablers are right about that. To fully understand those “sound bites” and “snippets” calling on God to damn America, accusing the U.S. government of intentionally spreading HIV among blacks, and blaming 9/11 on America’s allegedly terrorist history and foreign policy, we do need more context.
Far from exonerating Wright, however, removing those notorious sermon-segments from their endless video loop and firmly placing them in their social, political, historical, and theological context is even more damning (you’ll forgive the expression) than the original YouTube videos. The full story of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s theology and church adds considerable urgency to already-pressing questions about Barack Obama’s judgment in choosing this man as his mentor and pastor.
Wright’s defenders have portrayed Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ as “well within the mainstream of the black church” while downplaying its militancy and politicization. In fact, Wright’s church is not only thoroughly politicized, but is arguably the most radical black church in the country. The substance and style of Wright’s infamous remarks are part and parcel of a broader, and proudly radical, theology. The bold denunciations are not distractions or somehow beside the point, but are the culmination and justification of Wright’s prophetic vocation. Even his famous “Audacity to Hope” sermon, which led to Obama’s conversion and baptism, fits into this framework.
A scarcely concealed, Marxist-inspired indictment of American capitalism pervades contemporary “black-liberation theology.” Far from the mainstream, Trinity (and the relatively small band of other churches that share its worldview) sees itself as marginalized and radical, struggling in the face of an overwhelming rejection of its political theology by mainstream black churches.
James H. Cone, founder and leading light of black-liberation theology, is the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Wright acknowledges Cone’s work as the basis of Trinity’s perspective, and Cone points to Trinity as the church that best exemplifies his message. Cone’s 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power is the founding text of black-liberation theology, predating even much of the influential, Marxist-inspired liberation theology that swept Latin America in the 1970s. Cone’s work is repeatedly echoed in Wright’s sermons and statements. While Wright and Cone differ on some minor issues, Cone’s theology is the first and best place to look for the intellectual context within which Wright’ s views took shape.
Cone credits Malcolm X—particularly his famous dismissal of Christianity as the white man’s religion—with shaking him out of his theological complacency. In Malcolm’s words: “The white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus! We’re worshiping a Jesus that doesn’t even look like us! Oh, yes! . . . The blond-haired, blue-eyed white man has taught you and me to worship a white Jesus, and to shout and sing and pray to this God that’s his God, the white man’s God. The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter . . . while this white man has his milk and honey in the streets paved with golden dollars here on this earth!??” In the late 1960s, Malcolm X’s criticisms (Wright calls them “devastating”) were adopted by the founders of the black-power movement, such as Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, and Ron Karenga. Shaken by Malcolm’s rejection of Christianity and taken with the movement for black power, Cone, a young theologian and initially a devout follower of Martin Luther King Jr., set out to reconcile black power with Christianity. He did not reject Malcolm’s disdain for a “blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus”—rather, he came to believe that Jesus was black, and that an authentic Christianity, grounded in Jesus’s blackness, would focus with full force on black liberation. Authentic Christianity would bring radical social and political transformation and, if necessary, violent revolution in the here and now.
Cone understood his task as both “radical” and “prophetic.” It was radical in demanding deep transformation in the structure of society and prophetic in its determinedly angry and denunciatory tone. Black Theology and Black Power, says Cone in the book’s introduction, is “written with a definite attitude, the attitude of an angry black man.” Cone demands and commends anger, criticizes contemporary theologians for the “coolness” of their writings, and notes that “there is some evidence that Jesus got angry.” In the book, Cone sometimes addresses or refers to whites as simply “the oppressor” or “Whitey.”
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