Sunday, March 16, 2008
American nationalism collides with black liberation theology.
Barack Obama is in the unenviable position this week of trying to distance himself from his own pastor and from a theological tradition that has strongly informed his Christianity. ABC News reported Thursday on statements that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has made in the course of his impressive ministry on Chicago's South Side — including "God damn America" — wondering whether Wright was a "liability" for Obama. Fox News flogged video of part of a sermon Wright delivered at Trinity United Church of Christ in which Wright compared America's white ruling class to the Roman Empire in Jesus' time and all but endorsed Obama from the pulpit. ("Hillary ain't never been called a nigger" is perhaps the most provocative statement in the clip, although it's probably true.) Obama quickly did the politically expedient thing and denounced Wright's statements and removed Wright from his campaign's group of spiritual advisors, although he tried not to repudiate Wright himself, whom Obama has called a father-figure.
Saturday's Times gave an overview of the whole two-day media frenzy about Wright, helpfully providing a bit of context around Wright's Afrocentric Christianity and briefly introducing black liberation theology. I can't stress enough that anyone who is trying to understand Wright's theology and its roots must read Jason Byassee's profile of Trinity UCC in the May 29, 2007, issue of the Christian Century: "Africentric church: A visit to Chicago's Trinity UCC." But the black church, liberation theology, and the social gospel tradition aren't the only branches of Christianity that don't line up neatly with American nationalism or rah-rah celebrations of American political power and mainstream American culture. The New Testament itself is shot through with denunciations of political structures that oppress people — and its apocalyptic texts (especially Revelation) can get pretty wild-eyed about it. (Even the nativity story, James Carroll writes, has a strongly political dimension that we often overlook.)
Now perhaps earlier generations of preachers would have condemned the nation's sinfulness in slightly more orotund ways than Wright's "God damn America," but that's hardly a new sentiment from the pulpit. Wright said God damns America for its violence, its oppression, its racism. Republican-aligned or right-leaning pastors routinely say God damns America for a different set of "sins" ranging from legalized abortion to gay marriage to liberalism. Sadly, what will probably startle many white Americans is the discovery that resentment and anger about white racism is very much alive and well in the black church, and in the church that Obama belongs to.
That's not to say that Wright's sermons and speeches aren't problematic from a political perspective — but I don't think Wright was speaking politically. He was preaching, in ways consistent with his church's theology, the broader tradition of black liberation theology, and with the gospel itself. And the goal of his preaching, I assume, was to emphasize God's sympathy for his audience, which has a strikingly different experience of American life than the pundit class. (Or than I do!) One could disagree with parts of what Wright has said, but I find it disturbing that much of the outrage focused on him is targeted at the true and defensible things he has said.
Obama's political problem, in other words, is not necessarily Jeremiah Wright's problem. Most of us hear messages in church that we don't always agree with. And if there's a certain degree of political paranoia in some of Wright's sermons, well I'll be damned if there isn't a degree of political paranoia in some of the preaching you're likely to hear in conservative, moderate, and liberal churches all over this country.
But even discounting the demagoguery that preachers sometimes (or often) lapse into, there's a stronger point to make about sermons: If you're not hearing something you disagree with in church, I'd say you're attending a shallow, narrow church. The church has to take an oppositional stance (as best it can) toward aspects of our own behavior and toward aspects of our cultural and national life; otherwise, what's its point? Giving benediction to the conventional wisdom and the dominant ethos of the country is not what Jesus had in mind, even for life in a liberal democracy. A point worth keeping in mind during Holy Week.
("Obama's spiritual mentor may put church in hot water," Jeff Goldblatt, FoxNews.com 3.12.08; "Obama's preacher: The Wright message?" ABC News 3.13.08; "On my faith and my church," Barack Obama, Huffington Post 3.14.08; "Obama denounces his pastor's statements," Jodi Kantor, New York Times 3.15.08)
Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 16 March 2008 at 6:35 PM