By The Rev. Madison Shockley
Are we really supposed to believe that being black is an advantage for a man named Barack Hussein Obama? First he is accused of being a Muslim (as if something would be wrong with that). Then he is accused of being the recipient of the support of the leader of the Black Muslims, Minister Louis Farrakhan. Now that he has established himself as a bona fide Christian, it is suddenly revealed that he is—oh, my—a black Christian. Obama writes revealingly about his journey toward blackness in his first book, “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.” He seemed to finally arrive when he not only lived and worked on the south side of Chicago, but when he found his faith and spiritual home at Trinity United Church of Christ.
However, the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who inspired Obama’s Christian faith, married him to his wife and baptized his children, has been “caught” preaching a gospel of black liberation theology to a congregation of 6,000 mostly black people. And this is a problem because ... ? This is a problem because most of white America has never set foot in a black church of the liberation tradition. And as they are being given the most inflammatory peek (30 seconds from a likely 45-minute sermon), they find themselves suddenly scared to death at the thought of a black Barack Obama as president of the United States. Scared because they are no longer sure they want a black Barack Obama answering the White House phone at 3 a.m.
Right-wing talk radio hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh have taken these clips and declared that the faith of Trinity church is a racist, separatist distortion of Christianity. Never mind the fact that Trinity church belongs to a denomination that is 94 percent white! But that would contradict their critique, and they, along with the mainstream media, consistently omit this fact.
“A Black Theology of Liberation” by James Cone was published in 1970. This book chronicled the development of a unique understanding of Christianity with its roots in the African-American experience. This theological tradition took the religion of slave owners (Christianity) and translated it into a faith that would inspire black self-love, hope, empowerment, humanity and freedom. Some things were definitely lost in translation: a white God, a white Jesus and a blessed America. Black slaves and black people in the Jim Crow South found in a Christianity of black liberation a powerful resource for combating the racism of the society, the government (local, state and federal), the grinding poverty of their condition and the seeming hopelessness of their oppression. To paraphrase an old gospel song, the Rev. Dr. Wright is still “on the battlefield for his Lord.”
Obama found a faith that gave him not only spiritual hope and a meaningful belief but also the sociocultural connection to the black community he never had before. His understanding of his black identity was now complete. Ironically, that is what a church like Trinity United does for all of its members. The difference is that Obama’s journey toward blackness began in the ambiguity of his biracial family in Hawaii, while most black people begin their journey in the conflicted self-hatred of a family filled with people that look just like them. Some in the family think that black people will never get a fair shake until they shake off all of the cultural trappings that enhance the obviousness of their blackness and so set out to change their speech patterns, social affiliations, addresses and educational choices. Others in the family might compensate (sometimes overcompensate) for the negation they experience in society by emphasizing their blackness.
That is why the motto of the Trinity United Church of Christ, “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” is appealing to black folks from all kinds of families. However harsh this might sound to white people, it must be remembered that the alternative position is that a Christianity that could endorse slavery, racism and oppression against black people is irredeemable and should be forever abandoned.
I submit that black liberation theology serves as a critical bridge between black and white in America. But it is just a bridge, one that allows us to cross from one shore to the other—should we choose to make the trip.