4 Stars Out Of 5
A Survey of Cultural Theology Gone Wrong
October 16, 2010
The first time I heard Reverend Jeremiah Wright yell, "God %#&@ America!" I was eating breakfast with complete strangers. My college choir was touring the Midwest and each night we would stay with local volunteer families. There I was, sipping coffee with my host family, when the now-infamous clip of Rev. Wright's sermon began to play on the morning news.
A bit of awkwardness set in, but it was eventually relieved by the mother, who let out a modest laugh and simply said, "Well...that was interesting."
It was the spring before the 2008 election, and that replay of Rev. Wright's sermon was certainly not the last. But throughout the entire media hubbub that followed, I couldn't help but think back to that mother's reaction.
What did most Americans really think of all this? What was it about Rev. Wright's sermon that so thoroughly enraged them? Did it have to do with his core religious beliefs, or was it merely his insult to America? Did they outright dismiss Rev. Wright as a fringe radical, or did they understand that his belief system held prominence in some circles?
For those whose education in black liberation theology ended with media sound bites, theologian Anthony Bradley's new book, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America, will sufficiently fill in the gaps.
For Bradley, however, the Obama-Wright controversy serves only as a window into the realm of black liberation theology. Without it, most Americans, including most blacks, would be unaware that such theology even exists. Therefore, Bradley's book is not about politics, nor is it even about Rev. Wright. Instead, it focuses wholly on the actual theology -- its history, its anthropology, and its overall implications. More specifically, Bradley seeks to both outline its core problems and suggest a proper alternative that is, in his belief, consistent with both the black experience and the Word of God.
So what is black liberation theology?
Here's a definition quoted in the book from the National Committee of Black Church Men (1969):
Black theology is a theology of black liberation. It seeks to plumb the black condition in the light of God's revelation in Jesus Christ. Black theology is a theology of "blackness." It is the affirmation of black humanity that emancipates black people from white racism, thus providing authentic freedom for both white and black people.
For clarification purposes, it may help to see how this specifically translates into the Christian narrative. Here is Bradley, intermittently quoting black liberation theologian James Cone on black theology's view of Christ:
In Christ, God becomes oppressed humanity -- a humanity, in America, that is black. Calling Christ black "means that black people are God's poor people whom Christ had come to liberate." ... The black Christ leads "the warfare against the white assault on blackness by striking white values and white religion" ... "The passive Christ of white Christianity when combined with African culture became the Liberator of oppressed victims from socio-political oppression," writes Cone.
Bradley has plenty problems with such theology, but most of them have to do with its fundamental foundation in pseudo-Marxist victimology. As Bradley says, a theology that promotes oppression and misery as a necessary starting point for salvation is "predicated on the autonomous black person as a nearly permanent victim of white aggression." Such a foundation results in an anthropology that blatantly contradicts the imago Dei, beginning and ending with "the experience of the human person in relation to other persons, not as a creature created by a triune God."
Within this overall perversion of man's relation to God (and other men), Bradley sees several key points of disconnect between black liberation theology and orthodox Christian teaching. For example, black liberation theology replaces the authority of Scripture with the authority of the black experience. Likewise, it supplants a focus on individual sin/redemption with an emphasis on collective oppression/salvation.
Much of Bradley's critique is centered on the work of James Cone, the already-quoted theologian whom Bradley describes as "the chief architect of black liberation theology." Indeed, although Cone's contemporaries have disagreed with him on several of his beliefs, most of Cone's work is still considered definitive, a fact Bradley sees as unfortunate for the movement. Perhaps the most interesting of Bradley's analysis of Cone comes in a chapter titled "Victimology in the Marxist Ethics of Black Theology," in which Bradley methodically dissects Cone's use of Marxist theory to promote socialistic solutions for the black community. (Here, Bradley relies heavily on the work of economist Thomas Sowell.)
When it comes to the Church at large, the book's most valuable contribution comes in a chapter titled, "Biblical Interpretation and the Black Experience," where Bradley points out the problems with black theology's culturally applied hermeneutic. As already indicated, black liberation theology places black experience, black history, black culture, and black revelation (i.e. liberation) above the authority of Scripture. In Bradley's view, this leads to an upside-down hermeneutical outlook that confuses "interpretation methods with application methods." The result? A non-autonomous, relativistic, and culturally determined Biblical interpretation.
As Bradley explains:
[According to black theology,] Since the Bible is not the revelation of God (only Jesus [the oppressed] is), the Bible serves as a guide for checking the interpretation of God's revelation in light of a God who is a God of liberation...God is not the author of the Bible, and any effort to prove verbal inspiration detracts from the real meaning of the biblical message: human liberation. The meaning of Scripture is not to be found in the words of the Scripture as such but only in its power to point beyond itself to the reality of God's revelation directed at black liberation.
The reason I say this is valuable for the Church at large is that we are currently experiencing a rollout of this kind of thinking across all cultures within the Body of Christ. Certainly many Christians are not as proud or self-aware of their cultural preferences as Cone is, but couldn't it be said that many in today's Church do indeed prefer their respective experiences, histories, cultures, and revelations to traditional and "bothersome" hermeneutic principles?
But Bradley's focus does not end with a thorough indictment of black liberation theology. He also strives to find a way forward, one that reconciles the black experience with the authority of Scripture. Indeed, as a black man himself, Bradley often expresses sympathy and understanding for the reasons behind Cone's construction. As Bradley explains early on, his second mission is to develop "a Christian approach for understanding the black experience in America while remaining faithful to Scripture and orthodox teaching." On these points, Bradley's views are intricate and nuanced, and thus I will leave it to you to unlock them.
In the end, although you may find some value in terms of understanding the background to the beliefs of Rev. Wright or Obama, Bradley's book provides much more value as a survey of cultural theology gone wrong. Black liberation theology is certainly not the only manifestation of culturally obsessed theology, but Bradley's thorough examination on behalf of the black community should serve as a model for the rest of us.