“Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”

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.



12 Responses to “Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”

  1. Pingback: Political Fund Consultant » Blog Archive » “Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?” « The Prince and …

  2. bigdtootall says:

    Please dont throw the baby Jesus out with the bath water. Thanks for kicking this can of worms. I am always disturbed when pastors use their pulpits and people for specific agendas.

    • Heck, I tend to be conservative with bathwater, never mind the baby Jesus. 🙂 Let’s keep it all, without ascribing particular politics to Jesus.

  3. lbwoodgate says:

    I agree that we should not try to speak for someone who lived a couple of thousand years ago in social and political conditions that come nowhere near what we live in today but the message of compassion doesn’t have to muddied by casting disparagements toward collective efforts through the body politic to correct some abuses and neglect that result from our contemporary circumstances. There will always be those within efforts to ease the needless suffering of those less powerful people who never really see the big picture and are out to effect “justice” or “freedom” from a self-serving frame of reference, be it a small private entity or a larger more complex bureaucracy or corporation.

    It’s not so much the institution that’s fallible or even “evil”, but those who run them with some self-certainty that they are chosen by God, Jesus or whatever other unseen force they conjure up in their disturbed little minds. The notion that trickle down economics will ultimately lift all ships is a hope by those who think a fair policy to distribute the wealth is morally bankrupt and choose to believe instead that Jesus really did magically produce more fish and loaves of bread in Matthew 5 than seeing it as a metaphor for the haves sharing what they had with the have-nots.

    We take from religion what suits our interests basically and though I no longer associate with any religious institution of any stripe I am still disposed to follow the bent that was formed in me early to believe it is better to give than receive, not foolishly out of some sense that I will be rewarded in an after life, but because there but for fate go I. We accomplish more when we act collectively and in our huge complex culture that demands that government serve as as a springboard to achieve the task our conscience imposes on us.

    • Beautifully written Larry. But, well, yes and no. You still see Compassion writ large, as though the virtue commanded the harnessing of whatever Power might be at our disposal to Do Compassion — whether or not actual people agreed. And that is sort of my point. Compassion as a personal virtue is a thing of beauty, an impulse that makes us selfless in moments that would otherwise proceed with unremarkable self-protection and self-preservation. Compassion, truly embraced, doesn’t coerce anyone, doesn’t demand that anyone else be compassionate, doesn’t agitate in groups for “collective” action. It simply does good in the space we are arbitrarily allotted, and does good for its own sake. “Collective compassion” is an oxymoron. We don’t sanely put enforced compassion in people’s faces. We don’t say, “I am compassionate and desire this political result, and you, therefore, will likewise be compassionate, whether you wish to or not.” On its face, any genuine “compassion” is stripped out of that equation. It becomes a strident insistence that you are superior because you have this thing called “compassion,” in addition to “conscience,” that compels you to compel others. Make no mistake, I’m not doubting your own compassion. I believe you have it in spades. I’m just questioning your next step of assuming your own personal compassion translates to a political agenda that makes you better, because of your Compassionate agenda, than people who disagree with your political agenda. And this is finally my point about compassion: it is and always should be personal. Whether we are liberal or conservative, we do compassion, or not, personally. We don’t make it a moniker of our politics, because then we’re importing apples into oranges and we convince ourselves that apples are superior to oranges — which, even if apples happen to be superior to oranges, didn’t happen because the oranges lacked our apples.

      • lbwoodgate says:

        I see compassion as a human trait that develops in stages. There is the “easy” compassion that individuals show to people they like or are like them and then there is in deed the writ large compassion that millions of us see that is an integral part of who we are as a species. The clan or tribe member contributes to the greater need of the subgroup, even when it involves those within that group they don’t particularly like. They are not forced to. It is a part of their culture. Likewise the broader view of community that started with the early christians where many different types came together under one belief and shared what they had with each other. It becomes a part of the culture.

        For you to imply that collective action and compassion are odds with each other suggests to me at least that this was never incorporated in your identity as a member of society. I and millions like me have no problem being taxed to help elevate people out of poverty and provide sustenance for them on a scale that no individual or group of individuals can do. I don’t want to support sloth and dead beats but I expect those who tax me to insure that such people are weeded out and aid goes only to those who need it.

        I need no more wealth than what it takes to sustain me so any surplus I have should go to that collective effort that enables all members of society to coexist in a manner that is dignified and not desperate to the point that would force otherwise reasonable people to take what I have in order for them to survive. My surplus is tiny compared to a small, very wealthy group in this society. But I have enough to live comfortably, afford a few luxuries and still donate to charities AFTER my taxes have been removed from my earnings. I am the norm Kendrick, not the exception, and for anyone to lamely accuse the collective action that enables us all as something forced upon us is simply a view I can’t quite grasp.

        Your view that “Compassion as a personal virtue is a thing of beauty” is romantic and perhaps ideal but we don’t live in remote isolation from people outside our extended family and friendships anymore. We have to work cohesively so we don’t implode and “well-organized” government can handle this better than a local charity with the economic system has failed, as it has recently and many other times over the life of this nation. American society is now the “writ large” clan that we all evolved from and necessitates that we account for those who slip through an economic system that admits it can’t insure all will have the means to meet basic, sustaining needs. To simply respond as Scrooge did toward the surplus population is not a part of who I am. Is it for you?

        My personal compassion translated into a political agenda that others might not agree with is not the argument here. I would simply question those like yourself who don’t understand that if one us fail we all tend to fail. You seem to overlook this for the sake of some ideal notion of the individual. The social network that we make up remains tightly woven and strong until we ignore certain sectors. When that part of the social fabric begins to deteriorate we lose a part of our social identity. We are all parts of the whole and no one makes wealth by himself. We no longer live in Machiavellian principalities where each community can fortify itself against the others, so if we don ‘t insure that the weakest links amongst us are tended to it is possible that as a nation, we will collapse like a house of cards.

        • I certainly didn’t say, and didn’t intend to imply, that collective action and compassion are at odds. But whether they are, or not, is a question of moral philosophy, not, properly, part of a political discussion of the merits of this or that particular example of collective action. I could agree with most of your well-written comment — but still take issue with its implication that there’s “Larry’s view,” “the norm,” and there’s “the other view” — which is categorically less compassionate and less moral. It’s precisely that kind of frankly condescending moral framework that makes it so difficult to have political conversations across aisles and ideologies. Once we believe our politics are morally superior, then there’s virtually no hope for flexibility, compromise, understanding, or even rudimentary listening. We simply take permanent comfort in our moral superiority. And if that’s how we little peeps in the hinterland talk at each other, can we seriously blame our elected officials for things like gridlock? I’m obviously not saying morality has no place in politics — I’ve argued quite the opposite, especially concerning corruption — I’m simply making a process point about political argument. If you really think your “compassion” drives your politics, then at least recognize that the other view is probably driven by a similar self-image, let the two competing moral postures cancel each other out, and focus on the political merits.

  4. Pingback: Political Campaign Expert » Blog Archive » “Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?” « The Prince and …

  5. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Call it “Compassion” or call it “Practical Compassion” – whatever you want, but the government has an important and vital role in protecting the less fortunate among us. The fact is, a great deal of people can be compassionate toward their family and friends, but when it comes to a stranger in need – their compassion has finite limits. That’s why the government has to step in and practice “Practical Compassion,” the result of which is to elevate the less fortunate as a way to minimize the burden on society because of damaging disparities in income, education and healthcare.

    So, I disagree, Kendrick. We DO and MUST make it a moniker of our politics – liberal and conservative. I don’t support the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” soulless views of too many libertarians. Compassionate government shows the world we’re not a heartless communist or fascist place, that we value life and want to improve the lives of the disadvantaged, because, practically speaking, it benefits us all. People won’t and can’t practice this kind of compassion by themselves. Practical Compassion has to be done by the government. And my belief in it doesn’t make me better than anyone – it just is. It just has to be.

    • I believe I made my point poorly, because I am not arguing for any particular result, much less any particular ideology. I am arguing that political arguments should be conducted in political terms, not moral terms. When we wrap our political arguments in moral terms, which slides almost invariably into moral superiority, then we rarely have anything meaningful to discuss with the other side. We’re just talking past each other — or more precisely, from a preening moral perch above the other. Government assistance is a good example. For you, evidently, government assistance properly “elevates the less fortunate as a way to minimize the burden on society because of damaging disparities in income, education and healthcare.” You can make an argument like that without presuming that you are therefore “more compassionate.” For some conservatives, the most “compassionate” thing government can do for the less fortunate is support markets, which have lifted more people out of poverty than any welfare program ever could. And one of the least “compassionate” things government can do is perpetuate a dole that creates a culture of dependency, breaks up families, and encourages sloth and other social pathologies — all of which increase “the burden on society.” Importantly, I am not taking either position on the merits. I’m very narrowly calling for the argument to proceed on political merits, rather than competing claims of the greater “compassion,” or other morally charged terms. My point is a process point, not a result point. That’s why I took care in my post to question both left and right misappropriations of Jesus or the Gospels.

  6. lobotero says:

    Kendrick, excellent and well thought out post….as usual….

    • WJ Moussa Foster, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities says:

      Read Dr. Hendrcks’s books before you state that Jesus was apolitical regarding the state.

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