Black Theology and Black Churches

John ArmstrongRace and Racism

Obama_and_michelleThe heart of my post re: Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright was not about politics. It was about race and how we perceive race in the American Church. Because I believe we must learn to listen to voices that we do not normally hear well I suggested that we try to hear this story in a less condemning way than we are prone to hear it as white Christians.

In today’s issue of the Wall Street Journal there is a fine article titled: "Blunt Sermons Rooted in Black Tradition." The new pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Rev. Otis Moss III, the son of civil rights leaders, preached a sermon yesterday titled: "Why the Black Church Won’t Shut Up." He described how Jesus led the poor to Jerusalem, likening their plight to that of blacks under Jim Crow laws and the slaves who were shipped from Africa.  Said Rev. Moss, "I’m sorry we’re a noisy bunch but if I shut up, you won’t know my story." I believe, as I’ve indicated, that this is the heart of the matter. Black Christians I know, and this is a broad statement, generally wish we "knew their story" and shared in it by shutting up and listening to them sometime. The man who taught me this, back in 1970, was the late Harlem evangelist Tom Skinner, who really made me mad until I talked to him and shut up long enough to hear him out. Tom never made it in the white world because he would not stop saying the things that shook me up. He preached the gospel so powerfully and biblically but it didn’t matter. On the whole whites would not listen to him. And whites would not fund him either. I found this out over the next few decades. Tom was a flawed man, as some of you well know, but he was a good man and a real Christian. I will always thank God for his getting in my face at Wheaton College about my own residual racism. I have continued trying to work this out for 38 years!

I’ve already made it clear that Rev. Wright stepped over the line, at least in my view. But I do not condemn him quite so as aggressively as some because I understand that this is a certain kind of preaching rooted in both the Bible and shared experience. I disagree with Wright’s social gospel and his personal representation of America as evil. But I grant him the right to say these things and I suggest we need to ask: "Why did he say them?" This is the hard part for white Christians who are financially comfortable and strongly connected to our own story of success and the American dream as we’ve known it. This story has worked favorably for many of us and our children so we figure our black brothers and sisters need to stop complaining and get in line and make just it like we did.

200283349001But the strong biblical cry for justice and love for the poor pushes me to listen to Jeremiah Wright even if I reject some of his message very strongly. Comparisons to listening to evil men and biblical wisdom do not apply to this context if I read the Scriptures faithfully in their larger context. I would, to make my point, gladly sit down with Dr. Wright and listen to him with real respect. I would reserve the right to disagree and I would also try to listen to him very carefully, asking lots of questions in the process.

Trinity United Church of Christ issued a statement saying Wright’s "character is being assassinated in the public square because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe. . . . It is an indictment on Dr. Wright’s ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15-or-30 second sound bite." I agree and think we should measure the man by the whole of his life, not just the offensive remarks. And I think I respond this way because of how I understand my Christian faith and what it leads me to do in this broken and messy world. This is really at the heart of being missional for me, which is the purpose of ACT 3.

I am submitting to you, my readers, that the simple thesis of white detractors  about this issue is this—what they see here is Louis Farrakhan, race-hatred and anti-Semitism. They do not hear the rest of this story. Writers Suzanne Sataline and Douglas Belkin, writing in the Wall Street Journal, say today that "Wright’s sermons may sound spiteful to some, [but] they are rooted in the history of black protest and a Christian theology shared by some African-American churches." I am not promoting liberation theology but I am suggesting that we would do well to listen to the discordant notes that it plays in the wider Church and then ask, "Why do our brothers and sisters feel this way?" And, we should further ask, "What is the thoughtful Christian response, the response that seeks reconciliation as a higher goal than politically correct statements?" In my life and theology personal and social reconciliation is a much higher goal than political philosophy and the use of certain offensive language. This view is rooted in creation and redemption. I believe I am very deficient in my own views on many things and thus I continue to seek to adjust them as I try to learn and grow. I do not see how I can grow by listening only to white political conservatives.

Human_raceThus, as I have simply put it, this issue is first and foremost about reconciliation, not about who said what and why Obama is a really racist because his pastor uttered some unseemly and angry words in the larger context of ministry in a black social gospel experience. We’ve been here before and the discouraging thing is that we evangelical white Christians still have a long way to go. This is not to say that some of our black brothers and sisters could not learn to help us, without all the angry condemnations, but someone has to to take a first step for reconciliation to happen and I want to be a peacemaker and a reconciler, not a warrior for the cause. This is at the heart of my life’s calling and the central thesis for the book I am writing: Your Church is Too Small.

For Obama’s part he produced a three-and-a-half minute response on video that has appeared on the Net today. I could not find this video morning and would thus welcome someone informing us all where it can be viewed. I did visit Obama’s campaign site a
nd watched several videos on faith. It seems to me the man believes in the Christ of history. He has also embraced, as many black Democrats have, a social gospel message.

Does this mean that Obama is not a real Christian? This is where I think the problem comes for a large number of white evangelicals. They cannot conceive of a Christian who holds some of the views Barack Obama clearly holds; e.g., abortion, gay marriage, etc. If you read The Audacity of Hope51wt8hf6vol_aa240_
you will see his views clearly stated in one well-written chapter. He admits his own struggle with these tough moral issues rather candidly but comes down on the wrong side, at least so far as I am concerned.

I will keep on saying this—I profoundly disagree with Obama politically. But I also accept his confession of faith as it is and thus I will treat him as my brother in Christ. Even if he were not a Christian I would still treat him with love and civility because he is made in the image of God. Furthermore, he is not a lawless or God-hating man, but a public servant elected by the people of Illinois. In this case he is my U. S. Senator whether I approve of him or not. (I guess I am old-school here. I can respect people that I simply do not completely agree with. I remember my parents teaching me to respect John F. Kennedy, as our president, even though we did not want him to be president. I also felt the same for Jimmy Carter, who is loathed by many evangelicals who once voted for him. Yet, right or wrong, Carter clearly provides a completely credible profession of faith.) Even if Obama was a non-Christian I would pray for him, show him human respect and try to trim the angry diatribes I hear Christian make against him continually.