2016-06-30
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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.

So not every predominantly black church in America is going to subscribe exactly to black liberation theology?

No, no, not every church. But they do operate on that continuum.

What does the "the prophetic tradition" really mean? How does it relate to Jeremiah Wright's comments?

The phrase "prophetic tradition" is based on particularly the Hebrew Scriptures in the Old Testament. The story line in the Old Testament is that God made a covenant with ancient Hebrew people. God would be with them as long as they kept God as the highest God and would not make any false idols.

Now, when the people turn away from this covenant of grace and love, God raises up prophets to condemn and to damn the wayward actions of the people. This condemnation and this divine damnation is in order to bring them back to the correct path of the covenant, of love, faith, resources, justice.

The role of the prophet is the one who is raised up by God to say, "Thus saith the Lord." So, what happened with the Jeremiah Wright piece is that the 30-second sound bytes only show the damned, the condemnation part. It doesn’t show, "If you’re going to be my people, you must come, you must turn back to your glorious days."

But anybody who heard the whole sermon will know the other part of the formula. Covenant is made, people break covenant, God sends prophets to damn the people, and then people hear the message and they return. They leave their wayward way and then they enjoy the fruits of the original covenant. So the full flow is not expressed in 10 seconds of a sermon. So people just hear "God damn America," not "God bless America."

Has that prophetic tradition also continued through all parts of the black church? 

To various degrees people would speak out. They will speak out against injustices, but they would choose different forms of speaking out. 

 As we're looking at black liberation theology and the black church, are there differences in theologies or emphasis between black churches and the mainline traditional Protestant churches?

The biggest difference between black churches and the mainline churches would be race. The other contrast would be, in forms of worship. Black churches in the main encourage and accept bodily movement, accept this notion of call and response, which is that the preacher preaches from the pulpit and the congregation responds.

There's also the form of preaching. People will say that the congregation actually helps the preacher finish the sermon. So the laypeople's participation is something that's a little different. The songs are different, and also the ones that they have in common are sung differently. The cultural issues, the racial issues, those two are broad categories, or things that are contrasting.

What is the most common inaccuracy or misperception that you have seen with all the Jeremiah Wright news?

The biggest mistake that most of the media have made is to use a political analysis in their analysis of Jeremiah Wright. Overall, they've done sort of a good job. The media have used the political analysis of Obama: What impact have the Wright public appearances had on his campaign? Are the superdelegates wavering? Is Hillary going to make hay out of this? That's the political analysis. Then, they take the same thing and they apply it to Jeremiah Wright. Actually, they should apply a religious analysis to him.

When I was at the press conference he pretty much said he was surfacing for three reasons. One, he felt that people were mischaracterizing him as a religious leader. Two, he felt that people were mischaracterizing his church, Trinity. And three, he felt that people were mischaracterizing what he said, "My momma's faith." So he had to speak up, he says.

People can disagree in terms of political fallout and consequences, but you have to understand his side on his terms. People got into a political frame, "Well, you know, he's politically motivated to hurt Obama," as opposed to looking at the religious implications. I think that mixing of the political and religious frame is not doing full justice to what's going on in this historic moment in America.

At one point, Jeremiah Wright said, This is an attack on the black church. Is that right? It's a United Church of Christ church. How does this all fit together?

UCC is a predominantly white denomination. UCC has become one of the more liberal/progressive predominant white denominations on the gay/lesbian issue, on the ecology issue, racial justice issue,  the ordination of women issue, Native American issues, the antiwar issues. So that's why Reverend Wright can feel comfortable in that denomination. The largest church within the UCC nationwide is Trinity. Trinity gives the most money to the national office, and the most monies for foreign--overseas missions. So that's how it situates itself, both in terms of the progressive liberal theology of the larger denomination and its commitment to this predominantly white denomination.

On the issue of attack on the black church, when I heard him say that, I took [him to mean] it was an attack on the progressive prophetic wing of the black church.

For the last 7 1/2 years, President Bush has promoted five black preachers who are prosperity gospel people. They are legitimate members of the black church. From my perspective, they have a different theology and a different biblical interpretation. But, clearly, Wright, who preaches against prosperity gospel, would not be including them in his statement.

Who are the prosperity gospel preachers that you're talking about?

You've got Creflo Dollar,  Eddie Long, T.D. Jakes, and there are about two others. They've had access to President Bush, and he's actually promoted them for the last 7 1/2 years. I'm not saying it's good or bad. I'm just saying they have similar theologies that have political consequences with the president.

America sees that and thinks “We thought that was the black church. Where does Jeremiah Wright fit in?" Prosperity gospel is a recent development, but the whole personal salvation and social justice has been there since the black church began. It's just that it doesn't have any high visibility.

Does the idea of being critical of the government or aware of the government situate itself theologically better in the black church than in the mainline Protestant churches?

I think in terms of consistent awareness and critique, yes. Of course, there have been great prophetic white preachers--William Sloane Coffin, who was the pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, Harry Emerson Fosdick, you know, to a certain degree Jonathan Edwards and, you know, Reinhold Niebuhr. He had some serious stuff to say about race. But, consistently, it's been the black church that's been aware of and the "critiquer" of the government and public policy.

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