Religious Scholars Discuss Liberation Theology

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Barack Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright is part of a religious tradition known as Black Liberation Theology. Two religious scholars discuss its foundation and contemporary meaning.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop Guys on the Obama speech and the politics of infidelity. But first, every week we explore issues of spirituality in our segment Faith Matters. Today, we wanted to talk about the issues raised by the controversy over Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Some, like Geraldine Ferraro and the conservative New York Post editorial page are calling him and his views racist. So we wanted to ask, what is the core of Reverend Wright's theology? Are his views widely shared? To discuss these questions we'd like to turn to two well-known religious scholars. The Reverend Bernard Richardson is Dean of Howard University's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, and the Reverend William B. McClain is a professor at the Wesley Theological Seminary. He teaches a course on preaching and worship in the black tradition, and he's hear with me in Washington. Welcome to you both. Thank you for coming.

Reverend BERNARD RICHARDSON (Dean, Howard University): Thank you.

Reverend WILLIAM B. MCCLAIN (Wesley Theological Seminary): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Reverend McClain, you know Reverend Wright.

Rev. MCCLAIN: I do, yes I do.

MARTIN: I think people would like to know, do you think he's a racist?

Rev. MCCLAIN: No, he's not a racist. He's a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

MARTIN: Now, we've been hearing the term, black liberation theology, a lot in connection with Reverend Wright. Is that what Reverend Wright preaches and what is it, and where did it come from?

Rev. MCCLAIN: It comes out the Bible, and it comes out of the tradition of the black church. Ever since black people have been in America and have been introduced to Christianity on these shores, black people have sought freedom and to be released from oppression and to be treated as human beings. Most people associate the current knowledge of black theology and liberation theology with Dr. James Cone and a newspaper article that was done in 1966, but the truth is that the themes of liberation theology go back much farther than that, back to slavery, back to the negro spirituals, back to the effort of black people to seek freedom.

MARTIN: Dean Richardson, some people have been comparing Reverend Wright unfavorably with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saying that on the one hand, Reverend King preached a gospel of, kind of, love, and they see Reverend Wright as preaching a gospel of, sort of, of anger. What's your take on that?

Rev. RICHARDSON: I think that's a real problem if we couch it in that context. What's interesting is that if you would look at a sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King on the Vietnam War, this famous speech that he did at the Riverside Church, and some of the things that he said in that speech would make Jeremiah Wright's sermons seem very light. I mean, Dr. King said in that sermon, for example, that the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is his own government. And that the - America was responsible for killing millions of Vietnamese, especially children, and that how we corrupted their children and killed their men. That's part of the prophetic tradition of the black church, and so when - you can't compare Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Dr. King as they speak so profoundly and so powerfully against racism and against injustice.

MARTIN: Reverend McClain, you are a professor of preaching and worship, and one of the things that some have noted - and of course, let's just say this, Reverend Wright has preached thousands and thousands of sermons over the course of his long life and what people are seeing are these sort of snippets that have sort of popped up on YouTube - but in those snippets, he seems very angry, and so there are some who've looked at that and say what is he so angry about? So if you would speak about the style of discourse?

Rev. McCLAIN: I think one has to see Jeremiah Wright within the prophetic tradition, as Dr. Richardson just pointed out. But let's go back beyond King, let's go back farther than that. Let's go back to the seventh and eighth century prophets, to Isaiah and Josiah and Amos and his namesake, Jeremiah. These prophets were people who spoke truth to power. These were people who called a nation and called the rulers to task because they failed to take care of the poor.

When they failed to take care of the orphans and the widows, when justice was not done, these prophets angrily called the nation and called the rulers to be faithful to what God has called them to be. That is the tradition in which Dr. Jeremiah Wright fits into. The prophet speaks truth to power and sometimes those words are not kind words. Those words are not nice words. Those words call for truth and call for justice and for liberation and for things to be set right. Now, part of the problem with the snippets that we're hearing of Dr. Wright's sermon is that we don't hear the whole thing. One of the things that is clear about the prophetic preaching tradition was true of the prophet, was true of Martin King, is true of Dr. Wright. Always the prophet has a word of hope. What you don't get is the end of the sermon.

You hear the accusations, you hear the charges, but there's always a word of hope, a word that we can turn around, we can be redeemed, we can do right. There is a way out, and you don't hear that end of the sermon. I'm sure in those sermons, I didn't hear all of Dr. Wright's sermons, but I'm sure there's a word of grace, there's a word of hope, with the prophets, with Isaiah, with Jeremiah, with Amos, with Josiah, always there is a wooing word, "Yisrael shall be redeemed."

MARTIN: Dean Richardson?

Rev. RICHARDSON: Exactly, and it also comes out of a sense of compassion, deep compassion…

Rev. MCCLAIN: Yes, indeed.

Rev. RICHARDSON: For God's people and the love of God. And so the anger comes from that when they see God's people hurting and that's what that anger is about, but it comes from compassion and from love.

MARTIN: Some have noted that one of the statements that has drawn particular attention is when he says, and forgive for those who are offended by this language, God damn America. Does damn have a specific theological meaning?

Rev. McCLAIN: I think part of the problem here is the context in which you hear and - you only hear the snippet. The damn here, is really, condemns. God condemns a nation. God condemns those who will not seek justice. God condemns. God punishes. God is not pleased with those who would not do right, who would not serve justice, who would not seek the good of the land and good of the people. That's what he's really saying.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with the Reverends William B. McClain, Professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, and Reverend Bernard Richardson, Dean of the Rankin Chapel at Howard University, about the preaching and style of worship in some of the black churches. Dean Richardson, talk to me about the whole afro-centrism thing. That's the other thing that some have, kind of, pointed to. Reverend Wright's denomination, the United Church of Christ, is quite a diverse, and I would argue predominantly white - but his congregation is, I believe, predominantly African-American and the phrase has been used, unapologetically black. Now, you know, in the body of Christ, there is no white or black, there is no male or female, as the Gospel says, there is no Gentile or Jew. So, in highlighting those divisions, some consider at odds with the message of the Gospel. If you'd speak to that.

Rev. RICHARDSON: He isn't highlighting, the church isn't highlighting division. First of all, that saying did not come from Jeremiah Wright. It came from his predecessor. He inherited that language, but what's most important is that he's speaking to a people who's struggling with their identity and struggling with the fact that people take them as less than human beings, so he wants them to say that, he wants them to know that God made them who they are. God is proud to be - they should be proud to be God's children. They are black and they should not be ashamed of it. That's what he's stressing to a people who's struggling.

MARTIN: Some would argue, though, that if you had a church that was unapologetically white, it would be offensive. And some would argue, what's the difference?

Rev. MCCLAIN: It could be if you took it out of the context of the history of this nation. Of course, yes. But when you look at the context in which it is stated and the history of this nation, then one can understand.

Rev. RICHARDSON: Also, I think we ought to say on that point, that that church needs to be commended...

Rev. MCCLAIN: Absolutely.

Rev. RICHARDSON: And he needs to be commended for staying in the city and being the church in the city. Many of the white churches left the city, but they have stayed in the city. They have stayed to minister to the people who are in the city, they have stayed with many ministries - which is a predominantly black neighborhood. So, one of the things is, the church is trying to reach and serve the people who are in the neighborhood. Many white churches leave the neighborhood when the neighborhood changes. We go to the suburbs, but at least this church, The United Church of Christ, Trinity United Church of Christ, has stayed in that city and served those people. And one of the reasons why Dr. Wright is so popular is he has identified with the people in that neighborhood and identified with their hurts, their needs, their pain, and has tried to bring the gospel to bear on their human needs and that what preaching is. That's what it is to be a prophetic preacher.


Rev. RICHARDSON: Yes. And he uses his faith, he uses the faith to help people to channel that anger in positive ways and to channel it into loving themselves and to loving their families and into changing the communities in which they live. That is the positive method of Dr. Wright.

MARTIN: Robert McClain, as a person who knows Reverend Wright over the years, do you find this whole conversation painful?

Rev. MCCLAIN: Yes. I find it very painful because I know the man very well and I know his heart. I know his ministry. I've known him for many years. I knew his father and I am aware of the great good that he has done and I'm just - it's very painful to see him dragged through the mud in this way and to play snippets of his sermon, when you've got a great preacher here whose sermon you have really not heard. We don't preach with snippets. We don't preach with soundbites. We preach a whole gospel, a whole sermon and it is unfair to him and unfair to Trinity Church to just separate these snippets of what is a great sermon and a great preacher.

MARTIN: It is also if you've heard the story of the crucifixion, but not of the resurrection, speaking of Good Friday.

Rev. MCCLAIN: Exactly. That is exactly it.

Rev. RICHARDSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: Reverend Richardson?

Rev. RICHARDSON: Michel, Dr. Wright has so much compassion for his people. He is just a remarkable human being. He sends out pastoral letters to young ministers. I was one of those ministers who received a letter from him, just encouraging us in ministry and trying to keep us strong and not to deal with the prosperity gospel that is so prevalent in our community. He is telling people to serve. He is not concerned about money and popularity. He is just such a remarkable human being and to see him dragged through the mud like what is happening right now, but there is something else though, and I think...

MARTIN: Briefly.

Rev. RICHARDSON: Robert McClain would agree with me and that is, he is almost - to us, he is called to such a time as this. He - all his life he has been preparing for this moment. I think some good will come of this because of his ministry.

MARTIN: I'm pretty sure, Dean Richardson, just briefly, in the minute we have left. I would like to ask why you are in New Orleans today?

Rev. RICHARDSON: We brought 550 students to New Orleans to help with the rebuilding of New Orleans. Students from Howard University, this is our third trip and they are doing a remarkable job. And there are so many issues left to be solved in New Orleans and we are hoping that the nation will understand that there is still a lot of work to be done.

MARTIN: It is my understanding that in fact you have - more students have gone every year...


MARTIN: In the three years that you've been doing this.


MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

Rev. RICHARDSON: Because I think the students of Howard have a deep compassion and love for the people of New Orleans and we want New Orleans to be back on the front page.

MARTIN: All right.

Rev. RICHARDSON: There is tremendous work to be done.

MARTIN: Well, as I think many know, today is the day that Good Friday is observed and Easter is observed this weekend, also in the Jewish community, Purim is observed today, so thank you both and happy Easter to you both.

Rev. RICHARDSON: Thank you very much.

Rev. MCCLAIN: Thank you Michel.

MARTIN: Reverend Bernard Richardson is Dean of Howard University's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. He joined us from member station, WWNO in New Orleans. I was also joined by the Reverend William B. McClain. He is a professor of preaching and worship at Wesley Theological Seminary and he was kind enough to join us here, in our Washington Studio. Gentlemen, thank you both again.

Rev. MCCLAIN: Thank you.

Rev. RICHARDSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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