Sermon delivered May 4, 2008
Before this past week or month you may have never heard of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. After this week, just about everyone knows who he is. His association with presidential hopeful Barack Obama, his interview with Bill Moyers on PBS, and his recent provocative speeches before the NAACP and the National Press Club launched Rev. Wright into the national spotlight. I saw the live broadcast of the National Press Club speech and thought immediately of the need to address the main underpinnings of Rev. Wright’s comments—Liberation Theology. He gave a brief history of its roots and how it interplayed with the development of Black Theology or the Theology of the Black African Churches.
Beginning in Latin America, Liberation Theology is based on the belief that the Christian Gospel demands "a preferential option for the poor," and that the church should be involved in the struggle for economic and political justice in the contemporary world—particularly in the Third World. Dating to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the Second Latin American Bishops Conference, held in Medellin, Colombia (1968), the movement brought poor people together in Christian-based communities, to study the Bible and to fight for social justice. However, since the 1980s, the church hierarchy has criticized liberation theology and its advocates, accusing them of wrongly supporting violent revolution and Marxist class struggle” (Columbia University Encyclopedia 2004).
Black Theology developed alongside Latin Liberation Theology and had its roots in the Civil Rights and the Black Power movements of the 1960s. In the process, many “black ministers consciously separated their understanding of the gospel of Jesus from white Christianity and identified it with the struggles of the black poor for justice.” Rev. Wright correctly credits two books written by James Cone, “Black Theology and Black Power” in 1969 and “A Black Theology of Liberation” in 1970, that made liberation the organizing centre of his theological system and subsequently of many Black churches.While Latin Liberation Theology was concerned with classism and Black Theology was concerned with racism, both held a common concern for the poor (Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology 1984).
So what’s the problem? Is there a problem at all? Certainly Orthodox Christianity teaches the dignity and equality of all human beings, regardless of socio-economic class, race or gender, because we are all created in the image and likeness of God. The divine Son and Word of God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ to save all of humanity from evil, sin and death. Orthodox Christians around the world, historically and now, are involved in activities and ministries that seek to bring God’s mercy and justice to suffering and oppressed people.
The problem is that Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist Theology or any other similar theology have tended to supplant the theology of God revealed in the Law and Prophets of Israel, in the person of Jesus Christ, and continuously revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Saints in the Church. These theologies become heresies when they take part of the truth and try to make it the whole truth. It is like taking a theatrical spotlight and placing a red lens over it and then saying that whole world is red.
This distortion is what caused some in the Latin Catholic Church to support violent revolution motivated by godless Marxism. This distortion is what caused feminist Christians to demand ordination for women while dismissing many traditional forms of Christian spirituality in favor of pagan rituals. This distortion is what caused James Cone to say:
Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill Gods who do not belong to the black community ... Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power, which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love. (See William R Jones, "Divine Racism: The Unacknowledged Threshold Issue for Black Theology", in African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology, ed Cornel West and Eddie Glaube (Westminster John Knox Press)).
As Greek Orthodox Christians, we know well the history of oppression and suffering under the Turkocratia, the Ottoman Muslim persecution that lasted nearly 500 years. We know that the freedom fighters of the Greek Revolution in the early 1800s were mostly Orthodox Christians. While the bishops and priests certainly prayed for the freedom fighters, one does not find writings emanating from the Church encouraging armed revolution and slaughter of the Turks. The same pattern is found under Roman occupation/persecution of the first three centuries and under the Communist Regime in Russia during the 20th century. Even St. Paul’s epistles encourage patient endurance and faithfulness to God, not armed resistance, under persecution. If Greek Orthodox took the same approach as the most radical Liberation and Black theologians we would see everything through the lens of Ottoman oppression. This might motivate us to say things like “God is only the God of the Greeks!” or “Every Turk is evil!”
Certainly do not misunderstand my words to imply that Rev. Jeremiah Wright is evil. In fact, I’m sure he is good person with many redeeming qualities. During his speech to the National Press Club he mentioned many of the ministries of his parish, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. I would like to hear more about those ministries to seniors, youth, the poor, and prisoners along with many others. These are the words and activities that can unite people. That will not happen with the divisive words coming out of an extreme Black Liberation theology.
Rev. Wright quoted Jesus’ inaugural sermon which quoted the Prophet Isaiah (61:1-2). It is the gospel passage we read every September 1st, the beginning of the Ecclesiastical/Church Year, from Luke 4:18-19. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” We must be careful not to read this from a purely literalist perspective. For any one of us can be wealthy, healthy, powerful and free by worldly standards while at the same time be very poor, sick, weak, enslaved and oppressed in terms of our relationship to God and each other.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.