SPENGLER The peculiar theology of black liberation By Spengler
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
One of the strangest dialogues in American political history ensued on March 15
when Fox News interviewed Obama's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, of
Chicago's Trinity Church. Wright asserted the authority of the "black
liberation" theologians James Cone and Dwight Hopkins:
Wright: How many of Cone's books have you read? How many of Cone's book
have you read?
Sean Hannity: Reverend, Reverend?
Wright: How many books of Cone's have you head?
Hannity: I'm going to ask you this question ...
Wright: How many books of Dwight Hopkins have you read?
Hannity: You're very angry and defensive. I'm just trying to ask a
Wright: You haven't answered - you haven't answered my question.
Hopkins is a
full professor at the University of Chicago's Divinity School; Cone is now
distinguished professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary. They promote
a "black power" reading of Christianity, to which liberal academic
Obama referred to this when he asserted in a March 14 statement, "I knew
Reverend Wright as someone who served this nation with honor as a United States
Marine, as a respected biblical scholar, and as someone who taught or lectured
at seminaries across the country, from Union Theological Seminary to the
University of Chicago." But the fact the liberal academy condescends to sponsor
black liberation theology does not make it less peculiar to mainstream
American Christians. Obama wants to talk about what Wright is, rather than what
he says. But that way lies apolitical quicksand.
Since Christianity taught the concept of divine election to the Gentiles, every
recalcitrant tribe in Christendom has rebelled against Christian universalism,
insisting that it is the "Chosen People" of God - French, English, Russian,
Germans and even (through the peculiar doctrine of Mormonism) certain
Americans. America remains the only really Christian country in the industrial
world, precisely because it transcends ethnicity. One finds ethnocentricity
only in odd corners of its religious life; one of these is African-American.
During the black-power heyday of the late 1960s, after the murder of the
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, the mentors of Wright decided that blacks were
the Chosen People. James Cone, the most prominent theologian in the "black
liberation" school, teaches that Jesus Christ himself is black. As he explains:
is black therefore not because of some cultural or psychological need of black
people, but because and only because Christ really enters into our world where
the poor were despised and the black are, disclosing that he is with them
enduring humiliation and pain and transforming oppressed slaves into liberating
Theologically, Cone's argument is as silly as the
"Aryan Christianity" popular in Nazi Germany, which claimed that Jesus was not
a Jew at all but an Aryan Galilean, and that the Aryan race was the "chosen
people". Cone, Hopkins and Wright do not propose, of course, to put non-blacks
in concentration camps or to conquer the world, but racially-based theology
nonetheless is a greased chute to the nether regions.
Biblical theology teaches that even the most terrible events to befall Israel,
such as the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, embody the workings
of divine justice, even if humankind cannot see God's purpose. James Cone sees
the matter very differently. Either God must do what we want him to do, or we
must reject him, Cone maintains:
Black theology refuses to accept a God
who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is
not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better
kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the
black community ... Black theology will accept only the love of God which
participates in the destruction of the white enemy. What we need is the divine
love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy
their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is
participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love. 
In the black liberation theology taught by Wright, Cone and Hopkins, Jesus
Christ is not for all men, but only for the oppressed:
In the New
Testament, Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted
of society, and against oppressors ... Either God is for black people in their
fight for liberation and against the white oppressors, or he is not [Cone].
In this respect black liberation theology is identical in content to all the
ethnocentric heresies that preceded it. Christianity has no use for the
nations, a "drop of the bucket" and "dust on the scales", in the words of
Isaiah. It requires that individuals turn their back on their ethnicity to be
reborn into Israel in the spirit. That is much easier for Americans than for
the citizens of other nations, for Americans have no ethnicity. But the tribes
of the world do not want to abandon their Gentile nature and as individuals
join the New Israel. Instead they demand eternal life in their own Gentile
flesh, that is, to be the "Chosen People".
That is the "biblical scholarship" to which Obama referred in his March 14
defense of Wright and his academic prominence. In his response to Hannity,
Wright genuinely seemed to believe that the authority of Cone and Hopkins, who
now hold important posts at liberal theological seminaries, was sufficient to
make the issue go away. His faith in the white establishment is touching;
he honestly cannot understand why the white reporters at Fox News are bothering
him when the University of Chicago and the Union Theological Seminary have put
their stamp of approval on black liberation theology.
Many things that the liberal academy has adopted, though, will horrify most
Americans, and not only "black liberation theology" (Queer Studies comes to
mind, among other things). It cannot be in Obama's best interests to appeal to
the authority of Cone, whose unapologetic racism must be repugnant to the great
majority of Americans, including the majority of black Americans, who for the
most part belong to Christian churches that preach mainstream Christian
doctrine. Christianity teaches unconditional love for a God whose love for
humankind is absolute; it does not teach the repudiation of a God who does not
destroy our enemies on the spot.
Whether Obama takes seriously the doctrines that Wright preaches is another
matter. It is possible that Obama does not believe a word of what Wright, Cone
and Hopkins teach. Perhaps he merely used the Trinity United Church of Christ
as a political stepping-stone. African-American political life is centered
around churches, and his election to the Illinois State Senate with the support
of Chicago's black political machine required church membership. Trinity United
happens to be Chicago's largest and most politically active black church.
Obama views Wright rather at arm's length: as the New York Times reported on
April 30, 2007:
Reverend Wright is a child of the 60s, and he often
expresses himself in that language of concern with institutional racism and the
struggles the African-American community has gone through," Mr Obama said. "He
analyzes public events in the context of race. I tend to look at them through
the context of social justice and inequality.
Obama holds his
own views close. But it seems unlikely that he would identify with the
ideological fits of the black-power movement of the 1960s. Obama does not come
to the matter with the perspective of an American black, but of the child of a
left-wing anthropologist raised in the Third World, as I wrote elsewhere (Obama's
women reveal his secret , Asia Times Online, February 26, 2008). It is
possible that because of the Wright affair Obama will suffer for what he
pretended to be, rather than for what he really is.
1. See William R Jones, "Divine Racism: The Unacknowledged Threshold Issue for
Black Theology", in African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology, ed
Cornel West and Eddie Glaube (Westminster John Knox Press).