Wright's Theology

(Disclaimer: For the record, I don't think Obama is a racist.)

Obama apologists are saying that he agrees with Reverend Wright only religiously, not politically; Wright is his spiritual, but not political, advisor. He chose Trinity United Church of Christ because he accepts its interpretation of Christianity.

The church's website makes its devotion to black liberation theology abundantly clear, and Wright himself has admitted he draws his worldview from the writings of James Hal Cone, considered the founder of black liberation theology.

Let's hear what Cone has to say about the subject.
"Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community... Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love."
"To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people."
"While it is true that blacks do hate whites, black hatred is not racism."
"All white men are responsible for white oppression."
"Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man 'the devil.'"
"If there is any contemporary meaning of the Antichrist, the white church seems to be a manifestation of it."
Now that we've all heard the gospel's message of love, hope, and unity...

(The irony, of course, is that Barack Obama is half-white...)

Exactly what kind of spiritual advice is Barack Obama getting? Why did he choose a church whose theology is grounded in statements such as these? He's stated quite clearly he disagrees with Wright's political stances; does he agree with Wright's religious stances?

I'm not sure we'll get a straight answer to that.


Spaceman Spiff said...

If you read James Cone this way, in little sound-bite snippets, of course he sounds crazy. But of 1) he isn't writing to you, and 2) you can't hope to understand a theologian that way. So if you want to make an informed statement about James Cone, you've got to go a little bit out of your way.

My advice is to try to apply the rule of charity. Assume Cone is striving for a faithful reading of scripture, and try to figure out why he might say the things he said. It's a paradigm thing, it really is. It might take awhile, but it would be worth your effort. And if you're not going to do that, then you really should preface any statements you make about with "Well, I don't really know much about it, but..."

For myself, reading Cone is like reading Psalm 137. When I read "happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us/he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" I really don't have anything in my experience that can make sense of that. I don't know oppression. In my own natural state, I just don't get why stuff like that should be in scripture, and how it jives with the sermon on the mount.

Yet that verse is in our canon of scripture, and I suspect it is there for people who do know oppression, for they need to know that God is for them. They need to know that God is angry for them, and God is going to bring justice for them.

That's a start anyway. I think you have to read Cone that way. If you quote him next to the Psalmist about Babylon, or the book of Joshua about the Canaanites, it isn't quite so crazy.

Now, I don't think that it's easy to make sense of. I don't think genocide or baby-smashing are good things, even if it's a Babylonian baby. But what's expressed here can't just be tossed aside. We have to figure out what it means for such verses to be in our canon of scripture, and it can't just mean "we're allowed to confess to God when we're angry." It's more than that. It's that God is going to oppose those who oppress and liberate those who are oppressed.

But of course, as far as Obama, in the speech he made the other day, he made abundantly clear what he spiritually got out of that church. As he said, he came to understand the stories in scripture as his own story, and the story of his community. And that is a good thing. It's what the gospel is all about, I think.

Speaker for the Dead said...

Obviously, I'm not an expert on James Cone. But I didn't cherry-pick these quotes; I know that because they were taken from a book called "Black Theology and Black Power." The quotes all deal quite directly with both concepts.

Why might he say the things he said? He hates white people, he said it himself.

And I don't care about the context, advocating theocide (killing God) is crazy in any shape or form.

I would like to see an arrangement that can make Cone NOT sound crazy, basically.

I know that black churches have traditionally identified with the Israelites in a way whites never have. And I know that, in Cone's case, it must have sucked growing up in Arkansas at the time he did. But the fact of the matter is 21st Century Chicago is a far cry from 20th century Arkansas.

What do I think about Psalm 137? That is a good point to bring up. I think our prayers sometimes include emotional requests of God that aren't borne of love or godliness, but of raw (and generally sinful) humanity. What makes the Psalms so powerful is their commitment to authenticity, even when certain psalms (Psalm 137 is the prime example) make shocking statements. They don't sugarcoat anything, and I don't mind (really) an emotional desire to murder whites or to see justice done. But to say Jesus' story was one of murdering your oppressors is so completely off. You say it can't just be confession, but there's an important point to be made here: man's justice is not God's justice. So God will judge the Babylonians, but not in the way the psalmist wants, and not because the psalmist is angry.

Even if Wright is right and even if Cone is right, America doesn't want to agree with Wright or with Cone, and the fact that Obama is so closely associated with the two should not be ignored.

And I find it really hard to dissociate Wright and Cone from the church itself. And that church's story isn't even Obama's story; as I've mentioned already, he was raised in Hawaii (and Indonesia) by white people, fictionalized a youthful struggle for racial identity, and did not experience anything like oppression. And I find it hard to believe this is the only church in Chicago he could find, the one church that espouses political and religious views he would have to decry to succeed politically.

My comment on "Follow Up" will explain why exactly I care so much about this whole thing.

Spaceman Spiff said...

Don't call it cherry-picking if you don't want to, but you cannot read him this way and expect to understand him. Do you really think that he is "advocating theocide"? Really? Because if so, I think you just need to spend a bit more time thinking about what he means.

It just seems pretty obvious that what he means is more or less that any concept of God which is racially oppressive is a false one, and needs to be deconstructed, or killed, and that is not crazy in the least! It's a particularly poor reading of him to think he's suggesting that there exist multiple Gods and that we can and should kill some of them.

Anyway you have to account for the fact that Cone has always worked with white people, and his theology draws heavily on white theologians. So I think it's a misunderstanding to say he hates white people, as such, nor do I see him suggesting that Jesus' story is one of murdering your oppressors.

But if you're going to say Psalm 137 is in our canon merely as an example of a sinful man's anger expressed to God, then I think you've failed to see it's place within Israel's narrative. It seems clear to me that (some of) the biblical writers of the Old Testament thought God was going to deal with the Babylonians exactly that way and for exactly the same reason the Psalmist was angry. Contrary to your opinion, they thought God's justice was something that humans could indeed understand (if imperfectly), that God had revealed it to some extent in the Law, and that God would act according to it.

So I maintain you can't really deal with scriptures like that without recognizing that they capture something of God's anger and judgment on oppressors, not just man's sinful anger.

Anyway to the point about Obama, he has given an incredibly cogent explanation of how it is he ended up at that church and why it is he stayed there despite not sharing some opinions with his preacher. He has also made incredibly clear that he does not share those opinions. He's also made a very clear tie between properly understanding people like Wright and exactly what is wrong with them and his message of unity.

And when has anyone suggested that this was the only church he could find? If no one did, then why the straw man? As far as why he continued to go there, again, he's answered that pretty well, with respect to relationships and seeing and valuing the person as a whole, flaws and all. So can we stop this guilt by association thing?

Speaker for the Dead said...

Obviously, I wasn't interpreting his comments literally. But even the metaphor or hyperbole of theocide should not be employed.

The statement reveals a fundamental flaw in Cone's thinking; he is determining what God should be based on his screwed up (i.e., human - mine is screwed up, too) conception of reality. He is inverting the proper relationship; we should be determining what WE should be based on GOD'S conception of reality.

But I guess that you might not agree with that if you don't like the DCT.

His conception of God seems pretty racially oppressive, and if he did associate with whites, it was probably to relish in their white guilt. I see no other way to explain his statements. I know he wrote his thesis on Barth and stuff.

Guilt by association? You're trying to make me guilty for past imperialism and past racism and past slavery, but Obama's best friend can be a blatant racist diametrically opposed to Obama's message and get away with it? I don't mean that to sound angry, but I really can't imagine that anyone else would get a pass the way Obama has.

What I meant was that we could only understand God's justice imperfectly. And so God obviously had indicated he would judge Babylon, but that didn't mean he would do it because of anything the psalmist felt or said. And yes, he was angry. That doesn't mean he was racist against Babylonians or intent on bashing babies. I think we mostly agree on Psalm 137.

In any case, Cone doesn't have poetic license, Jewish heritage, or lack of a New Covenant to excuse him.

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the cogency of his explanation. You seem to be giving him, Wright, and Cone the benefit of the doubt each and every time.

And he might have given reasons for why he chose to STAY at TUCC, but he didn't explain why he first CAME. And I want to know what the discriminating factor was.

Spaceman Spiff said...

I don't think the metaphor of idol-killing is a bad one. Maybe we could translate Cone that way, rather than theocide?

Anyway, I don't want to sound like I'm making you guilty by any sort of association at all. Moral complicity is what I am in fact putting on both of us, for benefiting greatly from morally compromised situations. But guilt? Well, I wouldn't put that on you, not by association, anyway.

Anyway, if your capacity for reasoning is messed up, and therefore untrustworthy, then how can you rely on it so confidently to lead to the conclusion that our concepts of justice should not factor into our concept of God? I think any such argument, absent an actual critique of the concepts involved, must cut both ways.

Anyway, I don't think his theology is actually racially oppressive when properly understood. But it takes quite a bit of paradigm shift to see what he's doing.

As far as the Psalmist, I'd say it does come off in a way we would call racist today (at least if we'd call Wright and Cone racist) and so does much of the Deuteronomistic history (Josh-2 Kings), and you've got to admit that Ezra-Nehemiah comes off pretty racist. Those things are properly set in opposition to pieces of Isaiah, to Ruth, to Jonah, and indeed obliquely to Proverbs and Job which refer to non-Israelites as wise and righteous. So what do you do with a canon like that? Man it's tough.

And we might be mostly in agreement but I do want to press the point that prophets like Isaiah do seem to think God is going to smash Babylon, and they think they know why. And that reason is in fact the very one given by the Psalmist, and they give a pretty clear voice to the very same anger expressed in that Psalm, only they attribute it to God.

So those verses in Psalm 137 are not really such an isolated case, of which we might imagine the Psalmist later repented. It represents a significant strand that is picked up in the prophets and historians as well, and again today by liberation theologians of all stripes.

I don't think what they need are excuses, but instead to be properly understood. But I think Cone does have as much poetic license as any theologian, which is to say quite a bit. Theologians aren't like philosophers in this way. You really have to figure out what they're doing with the words they're using, and you can expect it to be something slightly different than normal. Poetic license is in fact a great way to put it in a lot of cases.

Anyway I'm sorry it sounds like I'm giving them a free pass. I don't think that's quite a fair characterization, since there are plenty of things he could have said that would have earned my disapproval.

And trust me, if I thought Cone and Wright were as racist as the soundbites make them sound, I'd be on your side. But I know enough about liberation theology to maybe have a better idea how to interpret such statements, and I also have a slightly different perspective on modern issues of race than you.

What I'm consciously trying to do is to interpret them fairly and defend them against what seem like cheap shots. I should add that I think there are good reasons to distrust Obama (and Wright), though I think they are much the same reasons we have for distrusting anyone in positions of such power.

As far as why Obama first went to TUCC, well, maybe someone invited him?

Speaker for the Dead said...

About the cherry-picking thing, the long quote is how Cone chose to explain his theology. So at the very least, it's an irresponsible representation of his thought.

Cone, instead of submitting to what God is, says he will "not accept" a God who does not conform completely to Cone's conception of Him. Not only that, he refuses to accept God's love UNLESS God is against whites. Isn't saving grace enough?

It would be nice he said someone invited him, because right now it's hard for me to shake the idea he just chose the biggest black church for political expediency.

I think our concept of Justice depends on our concept of God, not the other way around. But this is something we probably would disagree on, running back to the Scripture as EN and DCT stuff.

My perspective on modern issues of race? Jeremiah Wright has probably reinvigorated racism in the white community. As has James Cone.

The reason I distrust Obama more than Hillary or McCain is that he seems to be advocating more of an ideology than a set of political positions. He is actually changing people's minds in a way that really bothers me, and he seems perfectly content as an ideologue.

Spaceman Spiff said...

I think the reasons why Cone will not accept a God who is not against an oppressing group flow very naturally from scripture. I think the "theocide" statements are quite polemical, but if you wanted to just get the idea you could hear him as saying any "god" who is not against oppressors is not the God of the Bible. And in that, Cone is absolutely right.

Further, he is right that whites have been (and continue to be) an oppressing group in general, and so insofar as that is true, God is "against" us.

The type of "saving grace" to which you seem to be referring is, I think, a very dualistic concept of salvation. But God is not just the God of "spiritual" salvation, he is also the God of history, the God who frees oppressed people, who feeds the hungry, who sets the lonely in families. If we know this God, then we also know that a "god" who offers only "saving grace" is not God at all, but an idol.

Scripture also teaches me that justice comes from God, and yet also that God is just. So I think in reality, any understanding we have of justice is fundamentally an understanding of God. But our understanding of justice, in this sense, can often outstrip our understanding of scripture.

I continue to maintain that if a person today were convinced scripture taught them that they needed to murder and rape, but their sense of justice told them such actions were wrong, well, their sense of justice would be more in line with God than their reading of scripture, and I would hope therefore that they would listen to their conscience.

It seems clear to me Cone and Wright have exacerbated race issues, they have merely exposed what was lurking in men's hearts. I think, again, that James Cone's theology is not for white people. So if you're going to get it you have to do the digging to reconcile the fact that the man obviously does not hate white people with his polemic language.

Anyway, when Obama became a Christian, was he already a politician? The impression I got was that this was quite a long time ago. It seems somewhat cynical to me to infer that someone's 20 year journey of faith was merely a political decision, even if that person is a politician. You might be right, but I think you should look into the facts.

As far what you said about Clinton and McCain, it seems to me that the tag of ideologue implies dogmatism or extremism or something that I just haven't seen in his speeches. I think there's a pretty wide gap between those things and merely a "set of political positions." I think it's better, though, for someone's political decisions to be governed by a sound set of ideas, in conversation with those who disagree, than to stick with a set of individualized positions that often enough conflict with each other.

Speaker for the Dead said...

Again, by your logic, I think Abraham never would have attempted to sacrifice Isaac. But that's a whole 'nother story.

(Can you think of any biblical examples as morally unambiguous as murder and rape?)

If Cone's theology isn't for white people, one could say it's pretty oppressive...

Here is, I think, the huge, HUGE problem with Cone's theology. He defines himself and all other people based on race; more broadly speaking, you could say he defines people based on political, national, economic, and racial factors (those are the main reasons, after all, for oppression). But, when thinking theologically, he shouldn't say, "I am an oppressed, poor American black man. They are oppressive, rich white men." He should say, "I am a sinner. They are sinners." People define themselves in extremely superficial ways, and I think race and class are both extremely superficial ways with which to define people.

I really don't like the idea of a mainly social justice God. Not because I don't like God, or because I don't like social justice. But if God has been actively striving for social justice and peace on Earth, He has failed miserably. Justice is meted and perfected in the next life. Which is the only way to make sense of all the crap that goes on in our world; in comparison with heaven, it is nothing, and it is humanity's fault anyway.

God is the god of the oppressed and the oppressors. The fact of the matter is that what Cone and Wright have endured in their lives is nothing compared to what the vast majority of people throughout history have endured.

Of course it's cynical of me to say that about Obama...but since he would almost certainly repudiate Cone's theology and Wright's politics, and since his own mother wouldn't be comfortable at that church, and since his whole message has been about transcending race, and since he got SO mad when Imus said his thing...

Spaceman Spiff said...

Any effort at doing theology must invariably be particular to the situation of the theologian. There is nothing oppressive in that. What would be oppressive is if someone wrote a theology that claimed to be universal while it was steeped in the language and experience of one culture.

Biblical examples as unambiguous as rape? How bout genocide? How bout smashing babies against rocks? How bout slavery? How bout Nazi-ism? Scripture appears to endorse all of those things at various points. Yet if you think those things are wrong, well, I hope you would agree with me that it's better that someone not do those things even if they thought Scripture taught them.

If someone thought those things were taught in scripture but their conscience convinced them it was wrong, then you should agree that in this case their conscience was more advanced morally than their explicit reading of scripture. And we have historical examples of all of them (except maybe baby-smashing).

Of course, this is vastly different from Abraham's situation, since God appeared to Abraham over and over again. God asking that of Abraham is different than God saying this is a good thing in general.

Some more clarification: I never suggested a "mainly" social-justice God. To suggest either or is a false dilemma. My conviction is that the Bible presents a God who is concerned both with social justice and with spiritual salvation, and that the two are intimately tied together.

Your objection is an interesting one, but the same objection could be leveled at a God whose main object was to reach human beings with the message of Christ, couldn't it? Really, I think this is the modern theodicy problem, and I don't think either a retreat to the "mainly" the spiritual or physical, or the displacement of justice to the afterlife, or even just blaming faulty humanity, really serve as final answers. I think the Biblical text supports the claim that we just can't completely make sense out of all the evil in the world as it stands, or all the people who don't accept the gospel yet.

In addition, I think the appeal to heaven really misses the gospel Jesus brought: the kingdom of heaven is near, and finally the apostles said the kingdom of God has come. We are called to (even commanded to) a new way of living now that is both socially just and spiritually renewed. We live in a time of "already, but not yet." The kingdom is here, and we can and must begin to realize it, but not fully. This, I think, makes better sense of Paul and Jesus in their contexts.

Yes, God is God over both oppressed and oppressors, but of course what I meant, and what you probably wouldn't object to is that God is a God for the oppressed and against the oppressors, insofar as they are oppressors.

As far as Wright and Cone, I think you're making an unfortunate move by trivializing their experiences of racism. The simple fact is you just don't know. And that should be enough, I think, to humble you and I from saying things like that.

And I would say the main difference between Wright and Obama is Obama's optimism with regards to our country (of course this includes rejecting claims like the gov't invented AIDS...). That difference is not simply repudiating the man completely.

And, now that I think about it, I don't see how it's politically expedient for him to be a member of such a church. Isn't moderation generally more politically expedient? Certainly when it comes to religion, theological conservatism (not to say political conservatism) is far more politically expedient, or so it seems to me.