Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Liberation Theology of Any Color is Dangerous Business

Recently, Senator Barack Obama's (D-IL) connection with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright has swamped the news. At issue are comments made by the Reverend Wright concerning the United States of America and its alleged corruption. According to the Reverend Wright, the United States is a flawed and evil institution and has been so from its start. Our nation was founded on the backs of an exploited people (the Indians) and maintained through the toil of others so exploited (the black slave population). Anything that can be positively stated about America is poisoned because of the evil manner of the country's founding. Further, this problem cannot be rectified until the oppressors are overthrown, in this case all white people, who share equally in the guilt of those who founded the nation. In fact, some of the Reverend Wright's comments go so far as to impute the guilt of the white man all the way back to the foundations of western civilization.

I'm not going to discuss the implications that this has or may have on the Obama presidential campaign. Further, I don't really want to spend much time on the merit or lack thereof of the Reverend Wright's comments except to say this: They are very consistent with a philosophical and theological construct called "Black Liberation Theology," hereinafter referred to as "BLT."

Wikipedia has a nice summary of BLT. It says, "BLT is theology from the perspective of oppressed people. It seeks to interpret the gospel of Jesus against the backdrop of historical and contemporary racism. The message of BLT is that the African American struggle for liberation is consistent with the gospel--every theological statement must be consistent with, and perpetuate, the goals of liberation.

"This theology maintains that African Americans must be liberated from multiple forms of bondage—social, political, economic and religious. This liberation involves empowerment and seeks the right of self-definition, self-affirmation and self-determination.

"Methodist James Cone is still considered its leading theologian, though now there are many scholars who have contributed a great deal to the field. One of its major concerns is with the historic and present racism in "Western civilizations" (especially within Christendom) and the ways in which Jesus urged his disciples to seek freedom for all people."

BLT's philosophical and theological roots are in Liberation Theology, a theological movement that developed in Latin America and is represented by theologians, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo, and Gustavo Guttierez. Politically, it has strong support from Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and others.

Liberation Theology (or LT) was initially developed in the mid-1950s as a way for the Church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, to address what were perceived to be injustices within the social order of South America. The liberation theologians began to develop a theology of activism that mandated social change over the internal relationship of the believer to God.

Eventually, LT began to adopt a Hegelian/Marxist world view in which it saw the world divided into two camps, the oppressor and the oppressed. The oppressors were generally white Europeans and the oppressed were indigenous peoples who were held down. As was typical with Marxist theory, many of the oppressed were allowed to rise to a social level where they enjoyed many of the benefits of the oppressors, but lacked the power of the oppressor. We would call this a "middle class" and a Marxist would call it the "bourgeoisie."

LT theologians tried to redefine Christianity to fit this socio-political viewpoint. The Bible became viewed as a book written by men who had defeated and subjugated others. The Bible was the book written by the "winners" at the expense of the "losers." In this context there was little room for "inspiration". The best one could say is that the Bible could best be understood as a reflection of man's understanding of God in the social setting in which he found himself at the time.

The Bible and theology were further influenced by "materialism." In the context of LT, "materialism" refers not to the desire to possess lots and lots of stuff. Rather, it refers to the foundational principle that all that is knowable in the world is in the world of "matter." The supernatural is unknowable to us. Notice how problematic this is to a traditional understanding of theology.

Because of this change to the foundations, LT developed a new theological base. Sin ceased to be primarily something that a person did that was an offense to divine order and became something that was done against the community. Further, sin was seen as an offense that led to the subjugation of another.

The endpoint of theology changed as well. In traditional theology, the end-point is the knowledge and love of God in the life of the believer, ultimately leading him (or her) to heaven. LT holds none of that, adopting the Marxist notion that concepts such as "heaven" and "hell" are created by man to encourage the submission of oppressed people.

As the nature of sin and the endpoint of theology changed, so, too, did the nature of Sacraments. Sacraments did not exist as something given to the Church by almighty God for the purpose of sanctifying the faithful. Sacraments were signs that were developed out of the lived experience of the Church and have been used in the past as means of oppressing the powerless. The LT theologians sought to re-frame the Sacramental theology of the church in a way that brought it into line with this new view of oppressor versus oppressed.

This is, of course, a thumbnail description of liberation theology and it could be argued that I am making a caricature of the movement. Maybe so. However, what I am trying to do in this article is provide a very rudimentary framework for understanding BLT and its theological predecessor LT. Why? Because in the case of the Reverend Wright, I believe it is insufficient to simply decry what he has said. I think it is more important to understand the philosophy on which he bases his comment.

First, the Reverend Wright believes in what is, essentially, a Marxist philosohpy that divides the world into "haves" and "have nots."

Second, he believes that the "haves" will use whatever means are necessary to keep the "have nots" in their place, or allow then enough of the benefits of privileged life to keep them mollified.

Third, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, primarily, a Gospel of social liberation that has been perverted by the "haves."

Fourth, that same Gospel is not a divinely inspired revelation from God Almighty. Instead it is the testimony of those who have power and have won the struggle for control over the early Church.

In short, in following the teachings of BLT, the Reverend Wright is a misguided soul who has sacrificed the Gospel of Christ for a false gospel, a gospel of BLT, a gospel which is founded not on the love of Christ, but is founded on hate and division, power versus powerlessness, "haves" versus "have-nots". It is truly a sad situation and one that deserves the prayers of all Christians.

4 comments:

Connie said...

Thank you for this brief explanation of Rev. Wright's background. It makes Obama even more distasteful than he already was. Knowing that Rev. Wright is his mentor is scary.

The Rev. Robert T. Jones IV, Psy.D. said...

Connie,

Thanks for the feedback. However, I have intentionally kept the spotlight off of Senator Obama as I think what is more important is the peculiar theological bent of any liberation theology: The tendency to see all issues as being essentially power dynamics between "haves" and "have nots."

Tyler,

Thanks for your post. Unfortunately I couldn't figure out either what you were talking about or how it was relevant to the point I was making. My post concerned Black Liberation Theology and your response seemed to focus on issues of reverse discrimination. I'm not sure that I see the connection between those two points, hence I cannot publish your comment.

Father Bob Jones

Anonymous said...

Father,

The two millennia in which Christendom has flourished have seen many attempts to politicize Our Lord’s teachings. If one reads the gospels attentively you will find that Jesus steered very clear of political and social references other than to “elevate” the Samaritan, prostitutes, and others scorned by contemporary society. There are references to slaves and servants, all without social comments other than the often- quoted maxim admonishing us to “render unto Caesar his due and unto God His due.” The closest He came to a social commentary, perhaps, was the allusion to the spiritual corruption that great wealth can bring.

Although he gave us clear formulae for living, the purpose and intent of his teachings clearly addressed our spiritual salvation, not our living circumstances nor our politics. To view his teachings as biased lessons simply reduces God to the role of a politically motivated tyrant. I believe that He has larger concerns and issues than that and He certainly has a more generous heart..

Jim

The Rev. Robert T. Jones IV, Psy.D. said...

Jim,

Thanks for your extremely accurate and succinct comments.

RTJ+