Weighs in on
[Note from Paul Burke: Dr. James Cone is rightfully considered the dean of Black Liberation Theology. Along with his seminal works on the subject mentioned below, he also wrote Martin & Malcolm & America, the best book I've read about my two favorite Americans, and one of the best books I've ever read on any topic. Dr. Cone's thoughts on the political firestorm surrounding Sen. Barack Obama and his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, are instructive.]
Hana R. Alberts
Last week, Sen. Barack Obama addressed the recent imbroglio over incendiary comments from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Obama's church in Chicago.
In a speech he gave in Philadelphia, Obama spoke of the emotional and historical baggage carried by the black community and the overwhelming resentment familiar to anyone who has faced injustice.
Obama denounced Wright's harshest statements--the pastor has said, "God damn America"--while urging all Americans to join in discussions about race and history in an attempt to bridge divisions in society.
Wright's sermons are rooted in the tenets of black liberation theology, the life's work of James H. Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, whose books both informed and inspired Wright.
According to Cone, who wrote two of the seminal texts on black liberation theology--Black Theology & Black Power in 1969 and A Black Theory of Liberation a year later--the black community is constantly experiencing conflicts that are virtually irreconcilable.
In a Q&A with Hana R. Alberts, Cone discusses why Wright said what he did, where Obama's emphasis on shared history comes from and the inevitability of anger in the black community.
Forbes: What don't people understand about black liberation theology?
Cone: I don't think people have done much reading about black liberation theology, and I think what they think--what they've heard--of what's been in the media is often only a sort of--how can I say it?--kind of a distortion of it.
Black liberation theory emerged out of the ministers: out of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the late 1960s.
What we were trying to do is to show that one can be black and Christian at the same time. That one can love oneself as a black person. And also, in fact, that that's the only way you can learn how to love other people.
And one of the problems in a racist society is that blacks who are the victims of that white supremacy often develop self-hatred. To see that self-hatred is to see what violence we do against each other. …
The violence that blacks do to each other is a violence that is the result of not liking who you are.
Now, Martin King was certainly aware of that, but he was addressing the social and political things in the society that made blacks feel less human. … He changed the laws of the society so that blacks could be more effectively functional in that society.
Now, Malcolm X. He was a cultural revolutionary. He changed the way black people thought about themselves. He helped black people to love themselves.
So black liberation theology is an attempt to bring Martin and Malcolm together. The "black" in black theology stands for Malcolm X. The "theology" in that phrase stands for Martin Luther King. …
King taught us how to be a Christian, to love everybody. And it's important. But Malcolm taught us that you can't love everybody else until you love yourself first.
And so black theology wanted to interpret the Christian gospel in such a way that black people will know that their political and social liberation is identical to the gospel and also identical to them loving themselves. That is, we are a part of God's creation.
God created us black. And because of that, that blackness is good. So in a world in which values are defined by white domination and white supremacy--in that kind of world--then God sides with those who are the victims in it.
And so black liberation theology was an attempt to make the gospel accountable to the black community, who were struggling for a more just society in America.
What you have in Jeremiah Wright is someone trying to bring together Martin and Malcolm. He's a Christian preacher in a white church, by the way. He is speaking to the hurt in the African-American community. The suffering.
You know, when King spoke to the black community, he spoke with language very similar to Jeremiah Wright. …
When King spoke out against the war in Vietnam, he said, and this is a quote, he said America[n government] is "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." This was in 1967 at Riverside Church. And the media came down hard on him.
King said [he] gets [his] credentials from the gospel, and not from the government. He was speaking out against the war in Vietnam. Wright was speaking of the war in Iraq and all that. He was speaking to the same kind of reality. The language gets extreme.
Are Wright or Obama examples of these theories?
I think Rev. Wright is a perfect example and expression of black liberation theology. He's part of a progressive black ministerial community. …
I'm not sure how much Barack Obama knows about the subject of black liberation theology. … I wouldn't expect him to have read as widely as Rev. Wright. I've read both of Barack Obama's books, and I heard the speech. I don't see anything in the books or in the speech that contradicts black liberation theology. If he had it explained to him, I think he would [understand it].
In his speech, Obama said, "But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races." Is the anger about which Wright and Obama speak inevitable?
I think it's inevitable. But that's why King said he had to keep marching. Because the marches were an outlet for the anger that black people felt. So the anger is deep, and I think what you saw expressed in Rev. Wright's sermon is that anger.
Black people are the one people in this society who have not been unpatriotic. We have never attacked the government with guns or anything like that. We have been so committed to this country. …
We are super-American because no matter what this nation has done to us, we still love America. We still are committed. We are the last people to do anything to bring this country down. But that doesn't mean that you're not upset about what the country has done to you. But yet, in spite of that, we are still very patriotic.
Yes, that anger is deep. Very, very deep. But at the same time, the patriotism is deep too. And that's what people--when they hear Rev. Wright, they don't know that part of the anger is saying, "This is my country too." And so it's both patriotism and also anger. They are kind of dialectical. They feed on each other.
In his speech, Obama emphasized that Wright--and, really, all people--are products of historical consequences, these universal experiences of defeat and discrimination. In other words, we are the result of a succession of people who were reacting to their historical circumstances and what was handed to them. Is this an important concept to remember?
It is a concept to keep in mind. Because we are the product of our pasts. It isn't really past, as Faulkner says, it's really present--with us. What happened before is very much present with us today.
I think most whites often find it difficult to appreciate and to identify with what has happened to African-Americans in this country.
I think understanding a people is very important. You know, to be understood is very important to people, whether you can do anything about it or not. To be understood is important. …
You get can a Ph.D. in history in this country and never learn about black people. It's not taught in our schools, so people can't be well aware that black people have a different history.
We didn't come here on the Mayflower. We came on slave ships, and that runs in our blood, and it's a part of America's history. It's not something we want to forget.
And so I just hope that we can, you know, talk about very difficult things, like about race, without, you know, demonizing each other. It's one thing to see the system as bad, but there's no reason to demonize individuals.
And so sometimes I think whites take it personally when we talk about the institution of slavery. We talk about lynching. We talk about segregation. It is not an individual white that is the object of our critique; it is the nation.
In his speech, Obama said, "The church contains in full the kindness and the cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America." Do you agree with this characterization of the black community?
One way you can see it is that there are black people who also oppose Rev. Wright. And there are blacks who support [him]. Well, those blacks will be in the same worship service. And they will learn from each other. They will check against each other. They will keep each other from going too far one way or the other.
That's the thing about the black community. We don't all think alike. We try to mutually respect each other and take each other seriously … because I can't refuse to listen to someone who disagrees with me when they've been through the same experience I've been through. I have to listen to them.
What we have in the African-American community is the bitterness and the love, is the Martin and the Malcolm. …
[W.E.B.] DuBois calls it a double consciousness. It is like--we are American, yes. And we are also black. And they don't treat us right, so it's a double feeling. It's a paradoxical feeling. And I think Barack Obama caught it well with that statement--the paradox that exists, even in the church itself, even in the homes of black people.