Black Liberation Theology and Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Professor Dwight Hopkins answers questions about the black church, black liberation theology, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

BY: Ansley Roan


Dr. Dwight Hopkins is a professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of many books on theology, and his latest is "Being Human: Race, Culture and Religion." He also attends Trinity United Church of Christ, where the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is the former pastor.

In a phone interview, Dr. Hopkins answered questions about the black church, black liberation theology, and how they provide a context for the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's controversial remarks.

What is black liberation theology?

Black liberation theology can be understood from a couple of angles. I usually look at each word. The theology part identifies the Christian connectedness or its roots in the Christian tradition. The liberation part relates to Jesus' message of liberation for people who are left out, people who are hurting. And the black part is how the theology and the liberation are revealed in African-American culture. The actual origin of black theology liberation takes place in 1966.

A group of about 45 black male clergy and one female clergy wrote a statement in the New York Times called "The Black Power Statement." That's the historical marker for the beginning of contemporary black theology liberation. They wanted to reconnect the actual foundation of the black church, which took place under slavery in America.

That church was founded for two specific reasons. Of course, one was to talk about personal healing and personal salvation, but the other aspect of it was to be involved in political conversation and political movements.
Black theology liberation arose from these black clergy persons, to reclaim that heritage of linking personal transformation with systemic transformation. 

 Are there other basic tenets of black liberation theology?

It's biblically based. Three passages come to mind: [The first is] Luke 4:18. This is the passage where Jesus gives his first public statement on what his mission is on earth, that is to say, why has he come down to earth, why has God revealed God's self in Jesus, the man on earth.

And that mission is very clear. It's to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to help--to liberate, you know, those who are imprisoned, to support--you know, support the--justice for the oppressed. It's very clear. Black liberation theology, biblically speaking, is based on that.

The second passage is Matthew 25:31 and following. From the perspective of black liberation theology, or black theology liberation, they mean the same for me--that's the only passage where Jesus gives criteria to enter Heaven.

And it doesn't say that you have a prosperity gospel. It doesn't even say how many people did you convert to Christianity? It talks about the same thing that Luke 4:18 talks about: the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the thirsty, those who are in prison.

And the third is John 3:16, "God so loved the world that God gave God's only begotten son." The point there is that God loved the whole world, not just internal healing, but the whole world. The whole world includes politics, economics, culture, international affairs, all of that. God loves all of God's creation. So, black theology liberation doesn't believe that it should be a little separate island, a monastery, but that it should go out into all of the world that God loves. 

It's a theology of love, actually. It's just that it loves the whole world, and it fights for God's whole world, particularly for those who don't have a voice to speak out, or people who don't have resources to allow them to have input on how the world that God loves should be run. The black church, in general terms, is there for lifting up the spirits through celebration and adoration. And part of a way of doing that is to involve in social justice issues.

Can you put that in the context of the black church? Has there always been that connection between faith and politics?

Yes, it's always had that connection.

There are various forms of African-American churches, but, underneath all the various forms of black church expression, there is this continuum between personal salvation and social justice, political social justice. And most churches and black churches in America fluctuate along that continuum. Black theology liberation is the best expression of holding both foci together in a very positive way. So, those black churches that carry out black theology liberation are those that hold both the personal healing and the prophetic message together.

Continued on page 2: What does 'the prophetic tradition' mean? »

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