April 6, 2008


Project Trinity: The perilous mission of Obama’s church. (Kelefa Sanneh , 4/07/08, The New Yorker)

“Christianity is the white man’s religion.” That was Malcolm X’s verdict, and though he meant it to be final, a generation of black Christian leaders decided to treat it as provisional. In 1969, a thirty-one-year-old theologian named James H. Cone published “Black Theology & Black Power,” a short, astringent book that Wright would use as a blueprint for Trinity. Cone proposed a reciprocal arrangement: just as the Black Power movement could find redemption in the Church, so the Church—dominated and distorted by generations of white men—could find redemption in the Black Power movement. He wrote that there was “a need for a theology whose sole purpose is to emancipate the gospel from its ‘whiteness’ so that blacks may be capable of making an honest self-affirmation through Jesus Christ.” And he argued that, since African-American suffering was such a powerful metaphor for the suffering of Christ, color-blind Christianity was a contradiction in terms. “To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen,” he wrote. “God has chosen black people!”

Like many brash-sounding manifestos of the era, this one came with fine-print qualifications. Throughout the book, Cone was careful to explain that a black-centered Church need not be a black-separatist Church. And even the simplest phrases—“black people,” for instance—turned out to be slippery. It wasn’t about being “physically black,” he wrote. “To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.” In his view, blackness was as radically inclusive as Christianity itself, and just as demanding.

Cone, now sixty-nine, is a professor at Union Theological Seminary, in New York; he has a high, emphatic voice and a tendency to slide to the edge of his seat when he’s about to make a point. On a recent afternoon at his faculty apartment in Morningside Heights, which is decorated with African art, he explained the genesis of black liberation theology. He was following the lead of the National Committee of Negro Churchmen, a group that in 1966 had purchased a full-page advertisement in the Times which endorsed—and, in a sense, tried to coöpt—the goals of the Black Power movement. Cone wasn’t among the signatories; his formative experience came the next year.

“It was the riots in Detroit, in Newark, both in ’67—that was what shook me,” he recounted. “I said to myself, ‘I have to have a theology that speaks to the hurt in my community. I want a theology that would empower people to be more creative. To be just as aggressive as they are in the riots, but more constructive.’ ”

The doctrine he laid out was a response, too, to the paradox at the heart of black Christianity: the new religion of enslaved Africans was also the old religion of the American enslavers. In abolitionist tracts (like David Walker’s “Appeal”) and slave narratives, black writers struggled to find a way to distinguish between righteous Christianity and its monstrous opposite. Frederick Douglass, in an appendix to his “Narrative,” earnestly assures readers that he is not an atheist, then redoubles his attack on the theology of slaveholding America: “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.” (Or, rendered into cable-news crawl: “CONTROVERSIAL MEMOIRIST ATTACKS RELIGION. DOUGLASS: AMERICAN VALUES ‘WICKED.’ ”)

There was, for Cone, another motivating force in the rise of black liberation theology. In black neighborhoods across America, the spiritual marketplace was getting crowded, and churches seemed in danger of being edged out. Politically inclined young people who wanted no part of “the white man’s religion” could turn instead to Marxism, or to various strains of black-nationalist thought, or to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, the group that groomed Malcolm X. Cone found himself on the wrong side of a growing divide—as he puts it, “We were Martin Luther King, Jr., people”—and he realized that not just the sales pitch but the product had to be changed; the urgency in his prose reflected his anger but also his fear that the black Church was becoming obsolete. Preachers who had helped lead the civil-rights movement were being outflanked by black nationalists who mistrusted any belief system that claimed to be universal. The historian and theologian Gayraud Wilmore contends that the Nation of Islam “kept fire at the feet of the historic black churches.” It’s no coincidence, he observes, that the black liberation-theology movement cooled after 1975, the year Elijah Muhammad died. But the effect lingered. [...]

The rise of Jeremiah Wright, in the seventies and eighties, coincided with the rebirth of the Nation of Islam under Minister Louis Farrakhan. In fact, the uproar over Obama and Wright has been, in part, an uproar over Farrakhan, who keeps sneaking into the frame. He and Wright were twinned at the Democratic Presidential debate in Cleveland, on February 26th, when Tim Russert, of NBC, ascribed to Wright the claim that Farrakhan “epitomizes greatness.” (Actually, the statement came from an article by Rhoda McKinney-Jones in Trumpet, a Trinity-associated magazine published by Wright’s daughter Jeri L. Wright; as has been widely noted since then, Farrakhan was given a lifetime-achievement award at a Trumpet banquet in November.) Last summer, the Trinity Bulletin reprinted an open letter by a Farrakhan ally convinced that Israel and apartheid South Africa had “worked on an ethnic bomb that kills blacks and Arabs.” Yet Wright seems to have a complicated relationship with Farrakhan, whose national headquarters are in the South Shore neighborhood, a few miles from Trinity. His remarks about Farrakhan veer from the fulsome (the minister’s analysis of America’s racial ills is “astounding and eye opening”) to the equivocal (he is “sincere about his faith and his purpose”), but for the most part Wright chooses his words with tactical care, the way Cone did when he wrote about Elijah Muhammad. It is the language of a respectful, and possibly anxious, rival. Like Cone in the nineteen-sixties, Wright may have worried that he would be judged, and found wanting, by purer and less forgiving forms of black nationalism. Farrakhan represented the threat; his followers—particularly the young black men whom churches sometimes had trouble reaching—represented the prize.

Wright attended (but didn’t address) the Million Man March, the 1995 gathering in Washington that Farrakhan convened to promote self-reliance and “spiritual renewal” among black men. In the months afterward, Wright delivered a series of sermons that were reprinted in a book, “When Black Men Stand Up for God,” which presents a Christian response to the challenge posed by the Nation of Islam. In it, he lambastes the preachers who opposed the march on political or religious grounds: they had missed a prime opportunity to present their case to African-American men. And, by way of establishing his bona fides, he reminds readers that he studied Islam at the University of Chicago. “I have a different perspective on Islam than the average preacher,” he writes. “Islam and Christianity are a whole lot closer than you may realize. Islam comes out of Christianity.” That’s interfaith dialogue, served with a hint of one-upmanship.

It seems apt that an American pastor who was eager to discover his African past should have crossed paths with a community organizer of Kenyan (and Kansan) descent, who was eager to discover his American future. If Obama felt attacked by Wright’s stormy sermons and prickly politics, he may also have felt flattered to be part of a congregation rooted in the righteous history of a civil-rights struggle that he himself had missed, except as a beneficiary. Nor was the decision to join innocent of strategic calculation

The church has been thriving for 2,000 and they radically alter its teachings to compete with nuts like Farrakhan?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2008 6:03 AM

Here in Philadelphia, we are having a critter uprising in which citizen, of all races, are being attacked and beaten in the center city subway system on an almost daily basis. One victim has died after an attack by junior high school studens at 2:30 P.M.. The last outrage took place on the train as it passed under City Hall itself.

When the hooligans get grabbed up, it turns out that many of them have these faux-Mohammadan names: "Jamal," "Rashid"--you get the picture.

These people who hate their country so much that they give their children the names of forgotten slave-catchers are setting their families up for disaster. No less pretend "Christians" who appempt to hijack Christianity for their private race-war.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 6, 2008 8:52 AM