‘Context,’ You Say?
A guide to the radical theology of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
May 19, 2008
What we’ve got here is failure to contextualize. If nothing else, Jeremiah Wright’s defenders and enablers are right about that. To fully understand those “sound bites” and “snippets” calling on God to damn America, accusing the U.S. government of intentionally spreading HIV among blacks, and blaming 9/11 on America’s allegedly terrorist history and foreign policy, we do need more context.
Far from exonerating Wright, however, removing those notorious sermon-segments from their endless video loop and firmly placing them in their social, political, historical, and theological context is even more damning (you’ll forgive the expression) than the original YouTube videos. The full story of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s theology and church adds considerable urgency to already-pressing questions about Barack Obama’s judgment in choosing this man as his mentor and pastor.
Wright’s defenders have portrayed Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ as “well within the mainstream of the black church” while downplaying its militancy and politicization. In fact, Wright’s church is not only thoroughly politicized, but is arguably the most radical black church in the country. The substance and style of Wright’s infamous remarks are part and parcel of a broader, and proudly radical, theology. The bold denunciations are not distractions or somehow beside the point, but are the culmination and justification of Wright’s prophetic vocation. Even his famous “Audacity to Hope” sermon, which led to Obama’s conversion and baptism, fits into this framework.
A scarcely concealed, Marxist-inspired indictment of American capitalism pervades contemporary “black-liberation theology.” Far from the mainstream, Trinity (and the relatively small band of other churches that share its worldview) sees itself as marginalized and radical, struggling in the face of an overwhelming rejection of its political theology by mainstream black churches.
James H. Cone, founder and leading light of black-liberation theology, is the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Wright acknowledges Cone’s work as the basis of Trinity’s perspective, and Cone points to Trinity as the church that best exemplifies his message. Cone’s 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power is the founding text of black-liberation theology, predating even much of the influential, Marxist-inspired liberation theology that swept Latin America in the 1970s. Cone’s work is repeatedly echoed in Wright’s sermons and statements. While Wright and Cone differ on some minor issues, Cone’s theology is the first and best place to look for the intellectual context within which Wright’s views took shape.
Cone credits Malcolm X — particularly his famous dismissal of Christianity as the white man’s religion — with shaking him out of his theological complacency. In Malcolm’s words:
The white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus! We’re worshiping a Jesus that doesn’t even look like us! Oh, yes! . . . The blond-haired, blue-eyed white man has taught you and me to worship a white Jesus, and to shout and sing and pray to this God that’s his God, the white man’s God. The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter . . . while this white man has his milk and honey in the streets paved with golden dollars here on this earth!??In the late 1960s, Malcolm X’s criticisms (Wright calls them “devastating”) were adopted by the founders of the black-power movement, such as Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, and Ron Karenga. Shaken by Malcolm’s rejection of Christianity and taken with the movement for black power, Cone, a young theologian and initially a devout follower of Martin Luther King Jr., set out to reconcile black power with Christianity. He did not reject Malcolm’s disdain for a “blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus” — rather, he came to believe that Jesus was black, and that an authentic Christianity, grounded in Jesus’s blackness, would focus with full force on black liberation. Authentic Christianity would bring radical social and political transformation and, if necessary, violent revolution in the here and now.
Cone understood his task as both “radical” and “prophetic.” It was radical in demanding deep transformation in the structure of society and prophetic in its determinedly angry and denunciatory tone. Black Theology and Black Power, says Cone in the book’s introduction, is “written with a definite attitude, the attitude of an angry black man.” Cone demands and commends anger, criticizes contemporary theologians for the “coolness” of their writings, and notes that “there is some evidence that Jesus got angry.” In the book, Cone sometimes addresses or refers to whites as simply “the oppressor” or “Whitey.”
The black intellectual’s goal, says Cone, is to “aid in the destruction of America as he knows it.” Such destruction requires both black anger and white guilt. The black-power theologian’s goal is to tell the story of American oppression so powerfully and precisely that white men will “tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.” In the preface to his 1970 book, A Black Theology of Liberation, Wright wrote: “There will be no peace in America until whites begin to hate their whiteness, asking from the depths of their being: ‘How can we become black?’”
So what exactly is “black power”? Echoing Malcolm X, Cone defines it as “complete emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary.” Open, violent rebellion is very much included in “whatever means”; like the radical anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon, on whom he sometimes draws, Cone sees violent rebellion as a transformative expression of the humanity of the oppressed. Drawing on existential theology, Cone defends those who looted during the urban riots of the late 1960s as affirming their “being,” rather than simply grasping and destroying. Modifying Descartes, Cone explains the rioters’ implicit message as “I rebel, therefore we exist.”
While Cone asserts that blacks hate whites, he denies that this hatred is racism. Black racism, says Cone, is “a myth created by whites to ease their guilt feelings.” Black hatred of whites is simply a legitimate reaction to “oppression, insult, and terror.” Cone derides accusations of black racism as a mere “device of white liberals.”
Indeed, one of the most striking features of Black Theology and Black Power is its strident attack on white liberals. According to Cone, “when white do-gooders are confronted with the style of Black Power, realizing that black people really place them in the same category with the George Wallaces, they react defensively, saying, ‘It’s not my fault’ or ‘I am not responsible.’” But Cone insists that white, liberal do-gooders are every bit as responsible as the most dyed-in-the-wool segregationists. Well before it became a cliché, Cone boldly set forth the argument for institutional racism — the notion that “racism is so embedded in the heart of American society that few, if any, whites can free themselves from it.”
The liberal’s favorite question, says Cone, is “What can I do?” He replies that, short of turning radical and putting their lives on the line behind a potentially violent revolution, liberals can do nothing. The real liberal question to blacks, says Cone, is “What can I do and still receive the same privileges as other whites and — this is the key — be liked by Negroes?” Again, he answers, “Nothing.” To prove it, he pointedly dismisses the original bogus white liberal, Abraham Lincoln, who after all was more concerned with holding the Union together than with ending slavery.
For Cone, the deeply racist structure of American society leaves blacks with no alternative but radical transformation or social withdrawal. So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist. “Theologically,” Cone affirms, “Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.’” The false Christianity of the white-devil oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed:
The religious ideas of the oppressor are detrimental to the black people’s drive for freedom. They tend to make black people non-violent and accept only the prescribed patterns of protest defined by the oppressor himself. It is the oppressor who attempts to tell black people what is and is not Christian — though he is least qualified to make such a judgment.To revolutionize or eliminate these faulty “white values,” black pastors and theologians must reject the influence of “white seminaries with their middle-class white ideas about God, Christ, and the Church.” “This does not necessarily mean burning of their buildings with Molotov cocktails,” says Cone. But it does require the replacement of middle-class consciousness with “black consciousness,” with “a theology which confronts white society as the racist Antichrist, communicating to the oppressor that nothing will be spared in the fight for freedom.”
So until the advent of a genuine revolution (in which, it is true, black people would likely join with white radicals and poor whites against middle-class whites), blacks “must withdraw and form their own culture, their own way of life.” To regain their identity, they “must affirm the very characteristic which the oppressor ridicules — blackness.” Only such affirmation can counteract the deadly process in which black people have been stripped of their culture and taught to hate their very blackness.
Cone’s radicalism is evident in his categorical rejection of anything short of total social revolution: “It does not matter how many gains are made in civil rights. Progress is irrelevant.” Black hatred of whites is every bit as justified as hatred of Germans by Jews, says Cone. The Jewish Holocaust was “one, big soul-wracking ‘incident,’” but American blacks endure a slow-motion holocaust in “constant jolts.” For Cone, then, short of revolution, white society cannot improve, and blacks are enduring a perpetual de facto holocaust as long as they stay inside it.
One might dismiss Black Theology and Black Power as a relic of the radical Sixties. As far as the vast majority of black churches are concerned, that is true, but Trinity and a small group of radical congregations and prestigious divinity schools don’t see it that way. In those precincts, Cone is lauded, and his early work is read, celebrated, and republished in anniversary editions.
In 1998, in anticipation of the book’s 30th anniversary, the University of Chicago held a three-day conference in honor of Black Theology and Black Power. Martin Marty, the prominent University of Chicago historian of Christianity who once taught, and has lately defended, Wright, was a key sponsor of that conference. C-SPAN taped the event, and students (some of them still in high school), community members, and politicians (including Obama?) attended. Cone himself spoke, saying, “Thirty years later . . . I am still just as angry.” Yet the most forceful testimony to the living power of Cone’s text may be the fact that its outlines are reflected in nearly every aspect of the controversy surrounding Reverend Wright. Rumors of the Sixties’ death, it would seem, are greatly exaggerated.
What exactly would Cone’s ideal, post-revolutionary society look like? Cone has no better answer to that than did other Sixties revolutionaries, yet his fundamental social and economic perspective is Marxist. He would like to see capitalism replaced by some form of “democratic socialism.” His nod to revolution in Black Theology and Black Power was not systematically Marxist, but after extended encounters with liberation theologians from Latin America in the 1970s, Cone took up Marx more seriously.
In his 1982 book, My Soul Looks Back, Cone updates us: “The black church cannot remain silent regarding socialism, because such silence will be interpreted by our Third World brothers and sisters as support for the capitalistic system, which exploits the poor all over this earth.” And: “We cannot continue to speak against racism without any reference to a radical change in the economic order. I do not think that racism can be eliminated as long as capitalism remains intact.”
But what about Marxism’s rejection of God, and the claim that religion is the “opium of the people”? Cone concedes that white and black middle-class religion may stultify action, just as he conceded the soundness of Malcolm X’s attack on dreamy, heaven-in-the-hereafter faith. Yet Cone argues that liberation theology is not an opiate but “a tonic that gives courage and strength in the struggle for freedom.” The problem, says Cone, is not liberation theology but the false Christianity of middle-class blacks who are “upset with American society only because they want a larger piece of the capitalistic pie.” Cone concludes: “Perhaps what we need today is to return to that ‘good old-time religion’ of our grandparents and combine with it a Marxist critique of society. Together black religion and Marxist philosophy may show us the way to build a completely new society.”
Asked about these writings in a recent interview, Cone said, “I’m not a Marxist. . . . I’m a theologian, and I want to change society. I was searching for my way forward. I want a society in which people have the distribution of wealth, but I don’t know quite how to do that institutionally.” There is actually no contradiction between this carefully worded statement and Cone’s position in My Soul Looks Back. He is chiefly a theologian, and has no specific economic program. Yet he seeks an alliance with Marxists and adopts a fundamentally Marxist analysis and critique of capitalism.
Cone’s theology sheds revealing light on the history and social setting of Wright’s early adulthood and later ministry at Trinity. In his first two years of college, Wright participated in the student civil-rights–sit-in movements of 1960 and 1961, where, he says, “I saw white Christian racism up close and ‘in my face.’” While singing as a soloist in historically black Virginia Union University’s traveling choir, Wright struggled to sort out his call to the ministry and his view of “the ‘honkies’ I was growing to hate with each passing day.”
Years later, as Wright was completing a bachelor’s degree at Howard University, also historically black, the school’s famed choir sang only classical music. Gospel or jazz, and even more so African music, was forbidden. This did not sit well with Howard students, who rebelled during the turbulence that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 (just as Cone was composing Black Theology and Black Power). The Howard choir, with which Wright feels an ongoing connection, was outraged to be barred from singing Duke Ellington or Count Basie, even as these American geniuses were being granted honorary degrees by white schools. Says Wright, the choir was “tired of singing German lieder and Italian arias to prove they were intelligent. They wanted to sing their own music.”
In those days, Trinity was one of the few predominantly black congregations in the liberal United Church of Christ denomination. Trinity had been formed by the UCC at the height of the early civil-rights movement, and the initial goal was to build a fully integrated church. Trinity’s ethos was decidedly middle-class. “Unfortunately,” says Wright, in those days “the notion of integration meant that blacks should adopt a white lifestyle, a white way of worship, European values, and European-American ways of viewing reality.” Trinity’s congregation sang hymns from “white hymnals,” priding itself on services that could “out-white white people’s services.” In 1967, in a step viewed as misguided by today’s Trinity congregants, the old Trinity rebuffed a call for cooperation from the Black Panther Party.
As the black-power movement spread in the wake of the King assassination, Trinity resisted. In the broader black community, post-’68, “aspirations for integration and assimilation were being replaced by those of black pride and separation,” writes Julia Speller, a leader at today’s Trinity, in her history of the congregation. While the old Trinity’s middle-class congregants had enthusiastically supported the civil-rights movement, even this was challenged, says Speller, “as the African Americans of the nation lost faith in American systems and sought empowerment through self-help and revolution.” Membership soon dwindled to 87 adults.
In 1972, Trinity finally decided to seek a more black-identified style of worship, and a fuller relationship with the surrounding black community. In Jeremiah Wright, with his raft of higher degrees and his desire to revive and develop black musical forms, Trinity believed it had found an ideal new pastor. Wright transformed Trinity’s service — the choir took up quasi-dance stepping and swaying moves, along with African dashikis, drums, tambourines, and washboards — and the congregation grew exponentially.
Although Trinity had brought on Wright with change in mind, the original congregants were not prepared for the extremes to which Wright’s “Africentrism” and black-liberation theology would take him. Wright arrived in 1972, and by 1975 nearly all of the members who had originally invited him had left. In 1983 a group of particularly active and prominent members uncomfortable with Wright left Trinity and the UCC for a local Pentecostal Apostolic church.
In 1978 there was trouble with the UCC as well, as a national-level official attempted to distance the church from Trinity. Says Speller, “Trinity was accused of being a cult (only three months after Jim Jones and Jonestown!) and Wright of having an ‘ego problem.’” The unnamed official failed in his efforts, and after church-sponsored attempts at “reconciliation” offered an apology to Trinity.
Although Wright had been nominally Africentric all along, it was not until the late 1980s that he actually traveled to Africa. These visits provoked a change in his thinking. In Black Theology and Black Power, Cone had spoken as if blacks had been essentially stripped of their African heritage by slavery. Wright had never been fully comfortable with this view, and instead had stressed continuities between Africans and American blacks. Now, after seeing Africa, Wright moved seriously in the direction of identification with Africa, infusing his sermons and worship at Trinity with anti-apartheid (and other Africa-related) political activism. This, of course, was the very moment at which Barack Obama, still trying to reconcile his own complex African and American identities, encountered Wright.
The 1988 “Audacity to Hope” sermon invoked the privation and oppression of “black and brown” citizens in Africa and the rest of the world. To a superficial ear, the sermon may seem simply to call for aid to the world’s hungry. For those attuned to Wright’s theology, however, it contains a scarcely veiled attack on Western capitalism, which Wright believes is the true cause of the suffering and privation of the “black and brown” world.
There are several different transcripts of the “Audacity” speech — Wright gave it multiple times, changing it along the way, and some published versions may be toned down for general consumption. But the one included in What Makes You So Strong?, a collection of Wright speeches, attacks “white America’s corporate dollars that hold and pull the purse strings of so many national black organizations.” For Wright, this corporate money turns middle-class blacks into “slaves.”
So Wright believes that American capitalism is both the underlying cause of the poverty and suffering of black people abroad, and the sinfully tempting apple that lures deluded middle-class blacks to enslave themselves to corporate white America. In this he follows Cone. Attacks on capitalism are scattered throughout Wright’s sermons, and it is difficult to believe that someone as sharp as Obama could have failed to pick up on this radical message. Indeed, it’s difficult to read or hear almost anything by Wright without figuring it out.
Wright’s Cone connection remains strong. Cone’s recent work argues that the crucifixion of Jesus was essentially a public lynching, with the Romans anticipating the role of modern white Americans. This analogy shapes the recent sermon/article in which Wright refers to ancient Roman “garlic noses.” Wright’s invocation of Thomas Jefferson’s “pedophilia” (i.e., Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings) also echoes recent remarks by Cone.
Sadly, the excesses of “middle-class black assimilationism” — such as denying choirs access to greats like Duke Ellington and Count Basie — provoked in Cone and Wright a still more extreme and damaging counter-response. The tragedy is that the members of the old Trinity seem to have genuinely sought a middle way. They were ready for a shift away from assimilationist extremes, yet they refused to repudiate “middle-classness” or embrace a radical rejection of American culture.
Wright, Cone, and the academics and politicians who excuse and enable them are stuck in a late-Sixties time warp. To Wright, middle-class blacks are abandoning poor blacks to gain a piece of the capitalist pie. The tragedy of the 1990s, says Wright, is that “most African Americans have now given psychological assent to their oppressors and to their enslavement. We have gotten the chains off our bodies and put them on our minds!”
Defenders of Trinity’s Africentrism compare it to the harmless Celticentrism of Catholic churches that are predominately Irish. This analogy is flawed — such churches do not insist that Jesus was Irish, that his ministry was identified solely with the sufferings of the Irish oppressed, that non-Irish churches are the Antichrist, or that middle-class Irish who foolishly ape mainstream American ways are collaborating in their own enslavement to an intrinsically oppressive capitalist system. If Irish Catholics had been Celticentric in this sense, the great success story of Irish-immigrant assimilation would never have been written. And had Wright expanded the elements of black culture at Trinity without actually repudiating black aspirations to fully join the American middle class, as the original congregants had hoped, it might have opened up a far better solution for Chicago’s blacks. That road not taken would have been the real analogue to the Celticentrism of Irish Catholic churches.
At the heart of Cone’s and Wright’s refusals to enter the mainstream of American culture lies the ongoing conviction that, appearances to the contrary, nothing in American race relations has improved. No matter how different things look today, it’s all just a disguised form of slavery or holocaust. Cone’s original attempt to justify black hatred of whites by equating America with Nazi Germany was unconvincing, but the slavery/Holocaust analogy lives on as the indispensable linchpin of black-liberation theology.
Ultimately, this theological need to see slavery and holocaust alive in the American present (along with Cone’s call for angry, prophetic denunciations) stands behind Wright’s infamous sermon clips. In 2005, Wright co-edited an anthology of essays called Blow the Trumpet in Zion. In that reader, Cone singles out the large black prison population as the latest example of “the nearly four-hundred-year-long history of terror against Black people in the United States.” Of course, this same theme appears in Wright’s notorious “sound bites” and “snippets.” Wright embraces the canard that the U.S. government is intentionally infecting the black population with HIV to justify his theological notion of an ongoing holocaust — and thereby validate his refusal to make peace with America or its capitalist system. Echoing Cone’s early writings, another essay from Blow the Trumpet in Zion castigates preachers for being “so mealymouthed” when it comes to denouncing political evil. Obviously, Wright has taken that message to heart.
Wright’s denunciation of America for bringing 9/11 on itself explicitly invokes Malcolm X’s notorious claim that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a case of America’s chickens coming home to roost. Wright’s tale of America’s long history of “terrorism” — from our attacks on the Indians, to our attacks on Cubans in Grenada (Wright has visited Cuba three times), to our bombing of Muammar Qaddafi, to America’s support for Israel’s “state terrorism” — comes straight out of Cone’s historical playbook.
More deeply, Wright’s view of 9/11 parallels Cone’s startling attacks on “liberal do-gooders.” Cone refuses to concede that white liberals can be innocent of racism. In the same fashion, Wright refuses to concede American innocence in the matter of 9/11. Since Wright sees American capitalism and the military power that defends it as fundamentally responsible for the world’s misery, no American can escape guilt for his participation in this system.
When we consider that nearly the whole of Wright’s original congregation left, that other active members departed, and that Wright’s radicalism made relations in the United Church of Christ rocky, Barack Obama’s decision to stay appears all the more striking. Indeed, Blow the Trumpet in Zion is filled with attempts by Cone’s followers to come to grips with their rejection by the broader black community. Nearly every sermon Wright preaches, as well as his now-infamous bulletins and church magazines, is filled with his radicalism, and it’s therefore impossible not to conclude that Obama was broadly attracted to Wright’s politics. Interestingly, Obama’s remarks on unemployed workers’ clinging to conventional religion as a sop are not at all inconsistent with Cone’s or Wright’s — or for that matter Malcolm X’s — views.
Obama has now attempted to distance himself from Wright, claiming to be “outraged” by the reverend’s recent comments. Yet it’s hard to believe that Obama heard anything in the past few weeks that he hadn’t heard before. What gives outrage only now has been going on for decades.
In his rejection of the path of assimilation; in his contempt for “middle-classness” and the capitalist system it sustains; in his pursuit of a separate, black Christianity and his hostility to conventional religion; in his bitter and “prophetic” denunciations of America’s history, its founding icons and its anti-Qaddafi, pro-Israel foreign policy; in his conviction that the U.S. government is responsible for genocide against blacks; and in his insistence that Americans are collectively guilty for 9/11, Jeremiah Wright is a true follower of James Cone’s theology of black liberation. It would seem the only thing worse than quoting Jeremiah Wright out of context is quoting him in context.
Mr. Kurtz is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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