Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, espouses Black Theology, an approach to Christianity born in the 1960s that emphasizes racial liberation and the supposed bigotry of "white" Christianity. Obama credits Wright with leading him to Christian faith when he was in his late 20s. One of Wright's sermons, "The Audacity of Hope," provided the title of the Illinois senator's current book. Obama's close association with Wright may lead his potential supporters—not to mention his opponents—to wonder whether Obama espouses the anti-white, victimology-oriented politics of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other radical demagogues among the black clergy.
While I’m no Democrat, and I'm otherwise not inclined to come to Obama's defense, I do think the Hebrew Bible, regarded as God's word by Jews and Christians alike, offers a perspective on race and religion that could help him explain some controversial teachings of his spiritual mentor. The Bible makes it clear that racial identity can serve a positive purpose in the eyes of God and that God has chosen some races to teach important lessons to the rest of the world.
This may sound surprising, for conservatives like me are supposed to be in favor of race-blind thinking. That is why Rev. Wright received a hostile grilling from Sean Hannity recently on Fox News. Hannity pointed to statements on Wright’s church website that seemed to place an undue emphasis on blackness.
Trinity asks its members to make a "Personal Commitment to Embracement of the Black Value System--to Measure the Worth and Validity of All Activity in Terms of Positive Contributions to the General Welfare of the Black Community and the Advancement of Black People towards Freedom."
Hannity pressed Rev. Wright on whether there was something offensive about this language: “Now, Reverend, if every time we said 'black,' if there was a church and those words were 'white,' wouldn’t we call that church racist?" Wright responded by demanding to know how many books Hannity had read by James H. Cone, a professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary who originated Black Theology. Trinity’s website pays prominent homage to Cone, but Hannity did not seem familiar with his work.
Had Hannity studied Cone, he would have discovered statements even more troubling than Rev. Wright's reference to a "black value system" on his website. A fiery rhetorician, Cone decried white oppression in terms that seem to call for a violent revolution by blacks. In his 1969 manifesto, "Black Theology and Black Power, Cone wrote, “I believe that all aspiring black intellectuals share the task that LeRoi Jones has described for the black artist in America: 'To aid in the destruction of America as he knows it.'" No wonder Rev. Wright told the New York Times that Obama had indicated to him that as a presidential candidate he might need to "publicly distance himself" from his religious mentor.
Nonetheless, if you take an honest look at the concept of race as it plays out in the Bible, you will find that Wright--and even Cone--has a Scriptural leg to stand on. There is nothing biblically problematic about seeing a particular race as having a unique perspective on God. On those terms, Obama could even defend his pastor’s theology rather than distancing himself from it.
In the Hebrew Bible race-blindness is not the ideal. On the contrary, the special importance of race is key to understanding a scripturally based worldview. According to the Book of Genesis, all human beings belong to one of three great races descended from Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Noah and his family were the only humans left alive after the Flood that destroyed the world. According to tradition, Shem became the ancestor of the peoples of Asia, including the Middle East. That is why Jews are called “Semites,” meaning "offspring of Shem." Ham fathered the peoples of Africa, and Japheth, those of Europe. The Book of Genesis also offers a more detailed breakdown of the racial identity of the world’s inhabitants. From Shem, Ham, and Japheth there descended a total of seventy primordial national units, listed in Chapter 10 of Genesis.
On the heels of this list of the world's first nations comes the story of the Tower of Babel. Its point is that God favors keeping national groups distinct. The citizens of Babel were engaged in constructing a forerunner of today’s European Union, forcing once-separate peoples into an amalgam intended to erase national borders and ethnic distinctions. (Fittingly, the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France, was designed visually to recall Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting "The Tower of Babel")
Furthermore, the Bible tells us that God singled out one nation, the people called Israel, descendants of Shem, to deliver a special message about the relationship between morality and monotheism. That is the Jewish nation's special gift to the world: that the one God, in contrast to the many gods of paganism, demands that people live according to moral principles stipulated by God himself. The Jewish God, unlike the amoral gods of paganism, embodies the good and desires that people seek the good.
Thus, if the Bible makes it clear that the Jewish people have a special God-given message, it is not farfetched to believe that there is a special African message, entrusted to black people, the offspring of Ham, alone. You might call that message "black theology." Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh, the nineteeth-century Italian Kabbalist, explained, "Each people has its own special character and embodies a particular idea, and so has an appropriate field of activity in which its genius must develop and express itself."
This is all a way of saying that God probably has a divine mission for every race and ethnic group, and that whatever unique contribution Africans have to give to the world, it is not racist to suggest that a black church, even a black theology, could be the vehicle for making that contribution. This is an idea advanced by Obama's spiritual mentor, Rev.Wright, of which Obama needn’t be ashamed.
But what is the African mission to the world, according to Obama? Of what message does it consist? These are questions whose answers would tell us a great deal about Obama himself.