Last week Barack Obama did two remarkable things. First he risked speaking directly to the reality of racism in America and American history. Obama framed his remarks with his signature phrase of “the audacity of hope.” He claimed that his populist candidacy for the presidency is proof that audacious hope has a place in today’s America.
The second remarkable thing that Obama did was refusing to repudiate his former pastor and mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It is the case that Obama was politically expedient in holding Wright at arm’s length in the current contest for the Democratic nomination for president, but it remains remarkable that Obama did not throw Wright under the proverbial bus. How could he have? It was Wright who provided Obama with that signature phrase, “the audacity of hope.”
In the wake of the flap over Wright’s prophetic preaching of a theology of liberation–now presented in the media as “black liberation theology”–it is helpful to see the context of Wright’s perspective. Wright is an heir to the historic struggles of black Americans. More than heirs, he and his community of black ministers, male and female, and the churches they lead continue the struggle day-by-day by living out the demands of the gospel in the lingering oppression of a racist society.
What is Black Theology? When did it take hold in America? Those questions help us see Jeremiah Wright in context.
The social ferment of the mid-20th century produced the new wine of Black Theology. What began in the struggles over slavery and abolition in the mid-19th century turned into a segregated society yearning for justice 100 years later. The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, which forced the integration of public schools in Little Rock, Ark., and beyond, opened the floodgates of hope and despair across the country. Within a decade of Brown vs. Board of Education the Civil Rights Movement had hit its stride, and the first rumblings of a Black Power Movement were being heard.
James H. Cone turned out to be midwife who assisted at the birth of Black Theology. He continues to be the most constant voice and influence among those have nurtured Black Theology for 40 years. His story mirrors the context out of which Black Theology arose and gained acceptance along other political theologies of the 20th century.
In 1938 the state of Arkansas was in the clutches of “separate but equal” public education that epitomized a segregated culture in the United States. Cone was born that year in a small town not far from Little Rock. He grew up with the reality of a society divided by race and came to maturity in the midst of the painful attempts to address and correct those injustices through appeals to the gospel.
At 16 he was ordained in the A.M.E. Zion church and began a life of ministry. Cone graduated from high school only two years after the pivotal Brown vs. Board of Education decision and was a college student at Philander Smith College in Little Rock during the early days of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to prominence as a Civil Rights Movement leader.
By 1963 Cone had completed his basic seminary training at the Garrett Theological Seminary near Chicago and begun work on a doctoral degree at Northwestern University. He returned to his alma mater in Little Rock and there had his first experience of a wide gap between theology taught and theology lived. In God of the Oppressed (1975) Cone wrote: “I encountered head-on the contradictions of my seminary education as I attempted to inform black students about the significance of theological discourse.”
Three years later Cone took an appointment at Adrian College, a small college near Detroit, where he saw first-hand the devastating effects of the race riots that swept Detroit, Newark and Watts. It was a turning point for Cone and a launching pad for Black Theology. Cone gathered up his Arkansas experience, which gave him confidence in the gospel, and began seeking to apply the hope of the gospel to a society that was coming apart at the seams.
Cone was deeply impressed by the nonviolence of King, but he could not shake the results of the Black Power movement. In 1968 Cone published the first of many books that laid out the principles of Black Theology. Black Theology and Black Power boldly confronted the hopes of the gospel (following the influences of King) and the effectiveness of the more aggressive and political work of the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. The tensions between the nonviolence of King and the more aggressive influence of Malcolm X have shaped Black Theology for 40 years.
Without fail over the years Cone has explored the heart of the gospel as “setting at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4.18) and challenged others to do the same. To hear the gospel call of liberation is for Cone a summons to bear the literal good news to those who have been systematically oppressed because of the color of their skin.
The summons is also for those who have contributed to the oppression by refusing to hear the cries of the oppressed, or by remaining silent in the face of the continued sin of racism. To set free the oppressed is also the setting free of those who oppress.
Black Theology is a Christian response to the persistent sin of racism that has stamped–and continues to stamp–American culture. Black Theology is more than a response to racism, however. It also is an invitation and model to see how the gospel is always concrete, practical, and prophetic.
The context of Jeremiah Wright’s prophetic preaching is consistent with the 40-year history of Black Theology. That Obama framed the contemporary reality of racism in America with an audacious hope to see it end in our lifetime is nothing short of remarkable. That Obama could speak hopefully and also be an affirming critic of his mentor is equally remarkable.
Doing so Obama showed character and courage, risking the misunderstanding of pundit and person on the street in favor of the complex truth of our society. Telling the truth, framed by hope, about our complex society may be a first step toward transforming it.
Richard F. Wilson is Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Columbus Roberts professor of theology and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion in the college of liberal arts at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.