In recent weeks, controversy has swirled around Barack Obama because of remarks made from the pulpit by his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. While I sincerely doubt that the media and those quick to judge Wright for his controversial comments have taken into consideration most of the sermons he has preached, preferring to act in their normal modus operandi by taking his statements out of context, the remarks Wright has made do draw attention to the divide that exists between white and black Christianity in America.
A popular remark that characterizes race relations in America is that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. There is indeed a division that exists between black churches and white churches. Certainly more African-American Christians are attending predominantly white churches these days, and conversely, many white Christians attend African-American churches. But for the most part, the hour of worship on Sunday morning remains very segregated. This is due mostly to the racial divide in this country, and some of it stems from different worship styles the two communities embrace. But part of the segregation is due to differing interpretations of the gospel.
Conservative white evangelicalism has been influenced greatly by a dispensational theology that sees America as playing a key role in God’s predestined plan; a quasi-theological manifest destiny. Indeed, dispensational theology is still very much a part of the theological and political culture of evangelicalism. Jerry Falwell was a dispensationalist, as is Pat Robertson, both of whom have had a huge political influence. And one cannot scan the channels of religious broadcasts without running across preachers like John Hagee or Ronnie Floyd spouting off their brand of dispensationalism.
Dispensationalists see the world moving toward a God-ordained end in which an apocalyptic battle will take place when nations, particularly Muslim nations, will rise up against the modern State of Israel. In the minds of many of these dispensationalists, America will play a key role in supporting Israel, who they equate with the ancient chosen people of God.
Many of the proponents of dispensational theology, therefore, have an apocalyptic view of the world that sees the inevitable end coming in a war between good and evil. Since this end is unavoidable, there is no need to work for earthly peace and justice; the plan is already written and America, as the only real God-blessed nation, plays a lead role on the side of good.
Black liberation theology, however, holds a slightly different view of the gospel message. Influenced by the liberation theologies that were birthed in the countries of the Third World, where the message of Jesus was viewed as more than a promise of spiritual salvation, and extended to the political, social, and economic liberation of oppressed populations, black liberation theology confronts governmental leadership with its failure to implement God’s justice for the oppressed.
African-American theologians and pastors like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as some white religious leaders who supported the Civil Rights movement, embraced this liberation message and took seriously the political, social, and economic message of Jesus. In doing so, they stood very much in line with Jesus and the Prophets of ancient Israel who railed against Israel’s rulers for their unjust policies against the oppressed.
While I dare not over generalize the dichotomy between these interpretations of Christianity, I see a lack of understanding this division as part of the problem with many who have criticized Rev. Wright. I am not here to offer an uncritical defense of Wright’s words, but I have preached sermons that verge on the same tenor as his; sermons that scold American leadership for its failure to side with the poor and oppressed in favor of the rich and powerful and for its failure to seek true peace and justice in the world in favor of waging war.
If we are serious about our Christian faith, then we need to become more biblically literate in order to separate the wheat of the gospel message from the chaff of our patriotic idolatry. This calls for us to read the scriptures afresh and to consider seriously the political, social, and economic, in addition to the spiritual, messages of the Prophets and Jesus, all of whom spoke harshly to Israel’s leaders, condemning their policies and calling them to repent before God brought judgment on them.
The problem that some have had with the kind of preaching done by Rev. Wright and others is that it does not view America as God’s predestined hope for the world. Rather, it condemns governmental leadership when it does not seek justice, when it does not lift up the oppressed, and when it does not seek peace. Such preaching does not make Rev. Wright or others anti-American or unpatriotic. Rather it positions them in the prophetic tradition of Jesus, who I suspect would have more brutal things to say to America’s leaders.