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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

-- CNS

A worshiper raises her hand in the air during a song of praise following Communion during the July 15 closing Mass at the 10th National Black Catholic Congress in Buffalo, N.Y.
Liberation theology frames Wright's view


In the national discussion that followed the recent speech on race by presidential candidate Barack Obama, the phrase “black liberation theology” surfaced to describe the body of thought out of which the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, developed his view of the world, of the United States and of people of color.

But in many ways black liberation theology is as obscure and unknown to white Americans as the lived experiences of the black Americans it speaks to.

The political theology, which links the struggle of people of African descent to the biblical struggle of the Israelites and envisions a God squarely on the side of the oppressed, was born at the same time as the liberation theology that grew out of Latin America in the 1960s.

Black liberation theology’s origins are political and intensely temporal, like the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez that inspired the Christian base communities of Guatemala and El Salvador and condemned the economic and political oppression of Latin American people. Both theologies allow Christ to escape the safety of church. As in the New Testament, he is in the street, deeply concerned about justice for the oppressed.

The black theology’s originator and first proponent was the Rev. James Cone, who published Black Theology and Black Power in 1969. Considered the father of black liberation theology, Cone is the Charles A. Briggs Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York and still a giant in the field.

He wrote in his second book, A Black Theology of Liberation , that the God of the Bible was most concerned with “the lack of social, economic and political justice for those who are poor and unwanted in the society.” Cone argued that that God works for the liberation of oppressed blacks in contemporary America. Because God is helping oppressed blacks and has identified with them, God himself is spoken of as “black.”

M. Shawn Copeland, associate professor of theology at Boston College, called black liberation theology one of a cluster of theologies -- or ways of studying God -- that developed alongside the social and political movements of the past four decades.

“Black theology developed out of the political ferment of the civil rights and black power movements,” she said in an interview with NCR. “It responded to a collapse of meaning at that time. The old meanings no longer fit the situation.”

In the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, at a time of incredible upheaval in the decapitated civil rights movement itself, Cone’s analysis presented a new way of viewing the faith, she said. “People were looking for a way to hold on to the Gospel and be part of the contemporary issues,” like Black Power and civil rights.

A black Christ who suffered with the people of the African diaspora made sense. A God the father who shepherded that diaspora as he did the wandering Israelites of the Hebrew scriptures presented a way to understand Christianity as radically relevant to present-day concerns.

The discipline grew out of black churches and Protestant seminaries while liberation theology in Latin America grew out of Catholic experiences and study. But the two have much in common, including belief in both the importance of identity as a lens for understanding the divine and the paramount right of people to self-determination.

“Black theologies are engaging all types of ideas to help us see what it means to be a human being at this place and time,” Copeland said.

-- David A. Gawlik

Dominican Sister Jaime T. Phelps speaks on communion and racism. (18 min.)

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Dominican Sr. Jamie Phelps, professor of theology and director of the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, said the concerns of black liberation theology have broadened as the movement has aged, moving beyond its exclusive identification with race to include others excluded from the mainstream.

It has expanded into “a critique of the dynamics of how structures of race, class and gender mitigate the fullness of life for those folks who find themselves not part of the dominant culture,” she explained.

In other words, she continued, “to the extent to which race, class and gender act to deny the poor, women and people of color full recognition of their identity as human beings made in the image and likeness of God and to deny their full human dignity and participation as subjects within the society and the church, then to that extent we need to talk about liberation.”

Referring to the uproar caused by Wright’s most critical comments, Phelps said the biblical prophets Jeremiah or Isaiah would not have been much help to a political campaign either. “What [Wright] was saying was as long as we continue to be blind to the social injustice that is part of the U.S., then we are putting ourselves over against the Gospel,” she said.

Copeland said the sermons of Wright, formerly the pastor of Obama’s United Church of Christ congregation, that caused the recent controversy involving the candidate were part of a long tradition and rhetorical style of preaching in the black church. The pastor took on the role of his namesake, the prophet Jeremiah, she said, to preach on contemporary matters. “What Jeremiah [the prophet] does is critique the state. It’s a critique of a society for its iniquitous behavior,” she said.

Chuckling that it was strange to find theologians in hot demand on cable news channels and with their answering machines overflowing with interview requests, Copeland suggested good would come of the brouhaha caused by Wright’s remarks and what she viewed as the news media’s often extreme reactions to them.

Americans have a bad habit of letting their brains go soft and demanding complex notions be boiled down to bullet points, she said. Of necessity, theology runs deeper.

“There is this great opportunity for people to start learning,” Copeland said. “There are plenty of things to read. This is a challenge for us in the United States to rouse ourselves and attend to our intellectual needs,” she said.

Eileen Markey is a freelance writer living in Bronx, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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