“Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”
November 27, 2011 12 Comments
That’s the Washington Post headline of an interesting and somewhat disturbing Thanksgiving Day piece by Lisa Miller. The column follows with pronouncements from African-American theologians and academicians who focus on “justice,” and Jesus as a class warrior, and this provocative gem from Obery Hendricks, a Bible professor at Union Theological Seminary: political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.
Miller first cites James Cone of the Union Theological Seminary, who authored Black Theology and Black Power (1969) with inspiration from Malcolm X, and who in turn inspired Rev. Jeremiah Wright — conspicuously without supplying anything Cone said or thought (so let me): “Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see. But we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p.143.]
Now there’s a plan, and certainly an answer to (someone’s) prayer: marry the left to ninja super-liberal class-warfare Jesus, hint at civil war, and for good measure, call some conservative Christians not really Christians at all. That should trigger a gush of electoral success.
This shallow pastiche of Black Liberation Theology, coupled with the suggestion that it offers political guidance to the 21st century left, misunderstands religion and politics at many levels.
First, the sweeping use of “black church” should give pause — as though “black church” means something ideologically uniform (or uniform in any other way for that matter), as opposed to churches attended predominantly by African-Americans. This is precisely the religious and political stereotype of African-Americans to which so many African-Americans and others deeply objected when Rev. Jeremiah Wright was portrayed as typical of the “black church.”
There is a political contingent on the right and a political contingent on the left who want very much, for separate reasons, to pigeon-hole the “black church” as angry black-Jesus-warriors against “oppression” and “rich people.” And that’s simply not the reality of the range of black churches in America.
The right contingent and the left contingent are equally vapid, using African-Americans as a uniform political symbol — at a moment in history when African-Americans are emerging in mainstream American perception as diverse in the same ways as Americans are diverse (thanks in no small measure to the emergence of credible black conservatives who successfully weather the storm of opprobrium from disgusted liberals and their own communities).
Second, the facile equation of historical African-American oppression with the modern grievances of the left should give pause. The horrible history of slavery, racism, lynching, ghettoism and oppression in America confers upon African-Americans a unique narrative. Similarly, the Holocaust — the genocidal slaughter, ghettoism, and oppression of mid-20th-century Europe and elsewhere — confers upon Jews a unique narrative. African-Americans and Jews are understandably resistant to lots of piggy-backing on these narratives — particularly when the piggy-backing comes from loud political groups that suffered nothing even remotely approaching slavery or genocide.
Even the African-Americans and Jews who are themselves part of loud political groups advocating for some modern notion of “justice,” I would surmise, privately wince at specious conscriptions of their narratives. Thus, for example, have many African-Americans (and others) chafed at the blithe comparison of the modern gay rights movement to the 1960s civil rights movement. Gays “may want to cast their fight in civil-rights terms, and a lot of people are buying it. But not the faith community and especially not the black community,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, whose Hope Christian Church has a flock of 3,000 in the Washington, D.C. area.
And there’s no better example than the deep blue state of Maryland, controlled by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, and poised in early 2011 to become the sixth state to sanction gay marriage. The measure passed the Maryland Senate 25 to 21, and moved on to the House of Delegates, traditionally even more liberal on social policy. And there it floundered. A significant factor was the vocal opposition of African-American pastors — that “black church” that Lisa Miller sees as a wellspring of solace, validation and justice narration for the modern left.
My point is not to plunge into the complicated and on-going politics of gay marriage in Maryland (Maryland will likely approve gay marriage, and with support from some African-American pastors, and my support as well) — but more narrowly to highlight the error of marrying “the black church” to any current liberal “justice” agenda.
Third, any marriage of religious doctrine, left or right, to current political disputes should give pause. It is perfectly appropriate for people of faith — or even cynical admirers of the political possibilities of faith — to ask, “what would Jesus do?” in the grip of a personal moral choice. It is not appropriate to ask “how would Jesus vote?” on the stimulus package, bank bail-outs, auto industry bailouts and labor union windfalls, deficit reduction measures, and tax policy.
The historical Jesus didn’t take a single “political” position (in the sense we are discussing) except arguably the brilliant and much-debated answer to Pharisees seeking to trap him on tax obligations: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). And they were amazed and went away (Matthew 22:22).
To be sure, Jesus was a radical Jew — but his radicalism was religious and personal, not political or statist. Indeed, the notion that Jesus was some sort of justice warrior on behalf of the poor and downtrodden — and that government welfare programs are therefore “what Jesus would want” — precisely misunderstands the difference between the religious and the political, and between the personal and the public/governmental. Jesus felt enormous compassion for the poor and the oppressed, and acted personally on that compassion — as, it is fair to say, he would urge all of us to do. But he never advocated a power-structure program or any governmental redistribution initiative — not because he opposed or supported such statist programs, but because they were utterly irrelevant to his religious and personal message.
Do politics to your heart’s content, he might have said, but first do right in your personal life. Jesus had nothing to say about our politics — and much to say about how we treat other actual human beings in our life and whether we thereby honor God.
And thus we come full circle to Black Liberation Theology — its deep resonance in the 1960s and its inaptness as an “answer” for liberals in the 2010s.
When Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her bus seat solely because she was black, that was an immediate and deeply personal offense, a direct and shameful disrespect. African-Americans and their allies very naturally put Jesus on their side against such steady personal mistreatment. Using power arbitrarily to humiliate a human being would send Jesus into orbit — and law and politics conspired at the time to institutionalize precisely that repetitious personal humiliation.
Black Liberation Theology was one (among several) responses to that repetitious personal humiliation — and black theologian Cone’s threat of a “protracted civil war” — in the context I have now described — against that repetitious humiliation was a fair and angry response to human beings horribly misbehaving — directly and personally — toward other human beings. Indeed, Black Liberation Theology at the time was an honest conditional, a noble plea to white America to do the right thing — with “right” cast in sincerely Christian terms — or else. And “or else” simply meant the last resort of a people directly oppressed and personally humiliated several times a day.
The mistake, the disconnect between 1960s Black Liberation Theology and Lisa Miller’s wistful and overreaching resurrection of Black Liberation Theology fifty years later, is precisely captured in Obery Hendricks’ insistence that political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.
That insistence isn’t tethered to any defensible solidarity with Jesus. Jesus did not make, and would not have made, any pronouncements about “government programs” — much less the religious credentials of those who debate the merits of “government programs.” Government programs have nothing whatever to do with the personal righteousness with which Jesus passionately concerned himself.
“Government programs” operate in the political realm, and their merits are fairly debated in political terms — chief among such terms being the extent and duration of public assistance, whether the assistance includes a work incentive (or disincentive), and whether the assistance encourages the superfluity of fathers and the disintegration of families. Take whichever position you wish, but do not invoke Jesus — from the left or the right.
Our politics are pointed and sullied enough without misappropriating the Gospels and excommunicating Christians of different political orientations.