Presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) defended his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on Tuesday, even as he repudiated some of the pastor's inflammatory sermons. But Wright's comments likely come as no surprise to those familiar with black liberation theology, a religious philosophy that emerged during the 1960s.
Black liberation theology originated on July 31, 1966, when 51 black pastors bought a full page ad in the New York Times and demanded a more aggressive approach to eradicating racism. They echoed the demands of the black power movement, but the new crusade found its source of inspiration in the Bible.
"God's presence in the world is best depicted through God's involvement in the struggle for justice," says Anthony Pinn, who teaches philosophy and religion at Rice University in Houston. "God is so intimately connected to the community that suffers, that God becomes a part of that community."
Freedom and Liberation
Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says black liberation theology often portrays Jesus as a brown-skinned revolutionary. He cites the words of Mary in the Magnificat — also known as the "Song of Mary" — in which she says God intends to bring down the mighty and raise the lowly. Hopkins also notes that in the book of Matthew, Jesus says the path to heaven is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. And the central text for black liberation theology can be found in Chapter 4 of Luke's gospel, where Jesus outlines the purpose of his ministry.
"Jesus says my mission is to eradicate poverty and to bring about freedom and liberation for the oppressed," Hopkins says. "And most Christian pastors in America skip over that part of the book."
Hopkins attends Trinity United Church of Christ, where Rev. Wright just retired as pastor. In the now-famous sermon from 2003, Wright said black people's troubles are a result of racism that still exists in America, crying out, "No, no, no, not God bless America! God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people."
According to Hopkins, that was theological wordplay — because the word "damn" is straight out of the Bible and has a specific meaning in the original Hebrew.
"It means a sacred condemnation by God to a wayward nation who has strayed from issues of justice, strayed from issues of peace, strayed from issues of reconciliation," Hopkins says.
A Loud, Passionate, Physical Affair
Anthony Pinn of Rice University acknowledges that black liberation preaching often sounds angry. But he says the anger does not advocate violence but is instead channeled into constructive routes. Trinity UCC, he notes, has 70 ministries that help the poor, the unemployed, those with AIDS or those in prison. Pinn says the words can be jarring to the untrained ear, but they're still valid.
"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 is a fundamental truth: Racism is a problem in the United States," Pinn says.
Black liberation preaching can be a loud, passionate, physical affair. Linda Thomas, who teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology in 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.
"I think that many black people would know what white worship is like," Thomas says. "Why is it that white people don't know what black worship is about? And I think that is because there is this centrality with white culture that says we don't have to know about that."
Obama presents himself as uniquely situated to bridge those two cultures because of his biracial heritage. In his speech on race Tuesday, the presidential hopeful said he could no more disown his controversial pastor than he could disown his white grandmother.
"These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love," Obama said.
He denounced the harshness of Wright's words — not because they were false, he said, but because they did not acknowledge the strides that the U.S. has made in the fight against racism. Obama said his own candidacy shows how far the country has come.