MELISSA BLOCK, host:
As we've been reporting, Senator Barack Obama defended his longtime pastor today even as he repudiated some of his views. Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ has given a number of inflammatory sermons about race and politics.
But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, Wright's comments do not surprise people who are familiar with the religious philosophy known as black liberation theology.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Black liberation theology was born on July 31st, 1966 when 51 black pastors demanded a more aggressive approach to eradicating racism. They echoed the demands of the Black Power movement, but as Anthony Pinn, who teaches philosophy and religion at Rice University, says the new theology found its source in the Bible. In short, it is this.
Professor ANTHONY PINN (Philosophy and Religion, Rice University): God's presence in the world is best depicted through God's involvement in the struggle for justice. That God is so intimately connected to communities that suffer that God becomes a part of that community.
HAGERTY: Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says black liberation theology often portrays Jesus as a brown-skinned revolutionary. Hopkins points to Luke 4, where Jesus outlines the purpose of its ministry.
Professor DWIGHT HOPKINS (Theology, University of Chicago Divinity School): Jesus says, my mission is to eradicate poverty and bring about freedom and liberation for the oppressed. And most Christian pastors in America skip over that part of the book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HAGERTY: Hopkins attends Trinity United Church of Christ where Reverend Wright has just retired as pastor. In the now famous sermon from 2003, Wright said that black people's troubles are a result of racism that still exists in America.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ): No, no, no. Not God bless America, God damn America. That's in the Bible. For killing innocent people, God damn America.
HAGERTY: Dwight Hopkins says that was a theological wordplay because the word damn is straight out of the Bible; it has a specific meaning in the original Hebrew.
Prof. HOPKINS: It means a sacred condemnation on the part of God, Yahweh, to a wayward nation who have strayed from issues of justice, strayed from issues of peace, strayed from issues of reconciliation.
HAGERTY: Anthony Pinn at Rice University acknowledges that black liberation preaching often sounds angry. But, he says, the anger does not advocate violence, instead, it's channeled toward helping the poor or fighting injustice. Trinity has 70 such ministries. Pinn says the words can be jarring to the untrained ear, but they are still valid.
Prof. PINN: Folks including myself may be taken aback by the inflammatory nature of the rhetoric. But I don't think very many of us would deny that there's a fundamental truth - racism is a problem in the United States.
HAGERTY: Moreover, black liberation preaching is a loud, passionate, physical affair. Linda Thomas who teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago says, the whole point of it is to challenge the powerful and to raise questions for society to think about. Thomas says if white people are surprised by the rhetoric, it's because most have never visited a black church.
Professor LINDA THOMAS (Theology and Anthropology, Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago): I think that many black people would know what white worship is like. Why is it that white people don't know what black worship is about? I think that there's a centrality with white culture that says we don't have to know about that.
HAGERTY: Barack Obama presents himself as uniquely situated to bridge those two cultures because of his biracial heritage. In his speech today, he said that he could no more disown his controversial pastor than his white grandmother. He denounced the harshness of Wright's words, not because they were false, he said, but because they did not acknowledge the strides the U.S. has made in the fight against racism. Obama said his own candidacy shows how far the country has come.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.