Black liberation theology takes direct aim at racism

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) “No, no, no _ not God bless America. God damn America.”

With these incendiary words, looped hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube and news broadcasts, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright preached himself and his most famous congregant, presidential contender Barack Obama, into a political maelstrom.

Quickly the question of race developed into a speed bump for the streaking Obama campaign, leading the candidate to try to set the record straight Tuesday (March 18) about his relationship with Wright, the man, and Wright the fiery pastor who recently retired from Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ.

What has not received much coverage, however, is black liberation theology, the doctrine behind Wright’s rhetoric.

The theology, which grew out of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, embraces a black-centered Christianity aggressively focused on eradicating racism.

Liberation theology had its roots among the poor in Latin America. In the United States, however, the originator of black liberation theology is James Cone, an African-American Protestant minister who grew up in the segregated South and now teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Cone took the idea that the God of the poor is much different from the God of the rich and privileged and created a doctrine that sought to make the gospel speak to African-Americans suffering oppression in white society.

Black liberation theology accepts traditional Christian beliefs, such as Jesus as savior. But it teaches that Christ’s message today would be one of fighting for racial, political and economic equality.

Cone described an early “crisis of faith” that led him to try to create a theology reconciling the nonviolent Christianity of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the “by any means necessary” philosophy of Malcolm X _ in effect, a religious answer to the secular Black Power movement of the day.

This led to his seminal works on the subject, “Black Theology & Black Power” (1969) and “A Black Theology of Liberation” (1970).

Cone, 69, is now a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary and continues to lecture on black theology. Appearing at Harvard Theological Seminary in 2006, Cone said his goal was to “make sense of the Christian Gospel in the face of the horrific suffering of black people in the U.S.”

In a somewhat prophetic interview with the New York Times in 1989, Cone noted that serious theological scholarship needed to inform the messages delivered in black churches.

“Without strong theology, preaching becomes entertainment, and there is a tendency to make church life center around the preacher.”

(Rosemary Parrillo writes for The Star Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

KRE/JM END PARRILLOA photo of James Cone will be available via

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