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What Pundits Mistake About Black Theology

For almost a year Fox News and other conservative pundits have hinted that Sen. Barack Obama is either a closet Muslim or a black separatist Christian. Of course both half-formed and contradictory mischaracterizations have been debunked by most within even their own pundit ilk. Yet again, this month Fox’s Hannity and O’Reilly as well as Slate columnist Christopher Hitchens and the editorial board of Investors Business Daily have succumbed to attacking Sen. Obama again over his church’s black ethos.

On air and in print, they worry about Trinity’s (United Church of Christ) “Afrocentric” commitments to the black community and black work ethic. Hitchens called the church racist. And over and over Hannity and O’Reilly parrot the old light-weight racist rhetorical question: how come they can have black theology (or a month) but we can’t have a “white theology” without being called racist?

This concern can be addressed logically with a brief understanding of Black Liberation Theology. Upon examination, it becomes clear that Trinity UCC has an inclusive and even an intellectually exemplary Christian community.

Why a black theology, but not a white theology? First, until the 1970s almost all academic theology was de facto white. But there were still differences due to — and this is key — cultural experience. Theologians who lived through the horrors of war were writing differently about God than those who only knew the angst of missing 4 o’clock tea. Like post-WWI Neo-Orthodoxy, post-segregation Black theology speaks to a culture, for some that means ethnicity, for others, that geography is a greater influence.

Hannity wonders why we should have a black theology at all, but that’s like speaking about Christianity apart of denominational differences. One cannot speak historically without mentioning Catholic theology or Reformed theology or Evangelical theology. Like the mix of British methods and culture in Methodism, Black theology is a mix of 1960s black culture and mores. One reason that the pundits continue to beat their heads against the wall is that they treat black primarily like a color whereas it is actually functioning as an hermeneutical method, aiding believers in the constant quest to see God working in their lives. Pastors like the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright Jr. read culture and scripture through their experience, not too differently from the way that Martin Luther read “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17) through his own very local experience with unscrupulous religious leaders who required payment for salvation.

In fact, Joseph R. Washington, an early voice for black liberation, wrote in his Black Religion: The Negro and Christianity in the United States (1964) of an almost heavenly “assimilation beyond integration” and advocated that black folks just go join white congregations. But the theology of Sen. Obama’s church is rooted more in classic black liberation leaders like Albert Cleage, a UCC pastor in Detroit, and the main intellectual light of the movement Union Theological Seminary’s James H. Cone who actually charted a thoughtful middle ground between the Black Power Movement and stasis. In his Black Theology and Black Power (1969), Dr. Cone defined black liberation as “an attitude, an inward affirmation of the essential worth of blackness,” (117) and he spoke of the civil rights struggle as an act of black responsibility, “not doing what I will, but becoming what I should” (120). Thus it’s clear that when Trinity preaches about the black work ethic or black community, the vision is contra slavery and the slavery of segregation and towards a self-possession that arises from the power of personal experience, like any culturally relevant theology. Since its development, Black Liberation Theology has gone through significant revisions, and even Dr. Cone has at times emphasized scripture or the social sciences, as it is a work in progress flexing to meet the needs of academics and little children in Sunday School.

Hannity with Trinity’s the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright

Dangerously, these pundits opine without understanding the basics of their opponents’ ideas. As early as March 1, 2007, the Rev. Dr. Wright attempted to explain his church’s historic connection to Liberation theology in Nicaragua and mentioned Dr. Cone, yet Hannity cut him off repeatedly, preferring to call him separatist and play up and exaggerate Wright’s ties with non-Christian Louis Farrakhan — a cynical and specious attack, as Media Matters has debunked extensively. Again this stems from a misunderstanding about the role of the church in African-American life.

University of Chicago scholar of religion Martin Marty writes:

So Trinity is “Africentric,” and deals internationally and ecumenically with the heritage of “black is beautiful.” Despite what one sometimes hears, Wright and his parishioners – an 8,000-member mingling of everyone from the disadvantaged to the middle class, and not a few shakers and movers in Chicago – are “keepin’ the faith.” To those in range of Chicago TV I’d recommend a watching of Trinity’s Sunday services, and challenge you to find anything “cultic” or “sectarian” about them. More important, for Trinity, being “unashamedly black” does not mean being “anti-white.” My wife and I on occasion attend, and, like all other non-blacks, are enthusiastically welcomed.

Clearly, if one spends even half an hour reading the sources or listening to the folks, there remains no logical or theological reason for worrying about Trinity. There are bigger issues in the world.

So why do these attacks persist? It’s the old bedfellows of TV conservatism: willful ignorance and fear. These white men fear what they don’t understand. And in an effort to hide this race-based trepidation, they interview ignorant black proxies, like this most recent guest, Jesse Lee Peterson, who is lauded on the white supremacist (h/t Pastor Dan) site, Storm Front. Sean Hannity actually sits on the board of his org.

The real tragedy here is that as Hannity and O’Reilly and Hitchens, et al, continue to mix their ignorance with their racial fears and conflate black theology with “reverse racial hatred.” To Hannity and O’Reilly and Hitchens, African-Americans whine about discrimination and hate whites when they are really only talking about their own community. In so doing, these pundits play right into the hands of overt white supremacists (and closest racism) both of which feed off media-fanned doubts about discrimination and cultural pride. Here I quote directly from the Stormfront site: “blacks will keep doing the two things that they do best – hate and whine.” If Black Liberation Theology can be understood after a pretty quick read of the facts or actually listening to the Rev. Dr. Wright, what does this imply about the goals and information value of Hannity, O’Reilly, and Hitchens?

The best of the American tradition of liberty for all includes the intellectual freedom — and responsibility — to listen to others before attacking them. By continuing to confuse thoughtful, redemptive, contextual Christian theology with reverse racism, these pundits spread cultural ignorance and fan racist fears.

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