A Note to White American Christians: We Don’t Own Theology

In the latest round of political mud-slinging, white Americans have come face to face with a perspective other than their own, a counter-narrative that has the “audacity” of saying “God damn America.”

Who could think, let alone say such a thing?

Well, a lot of people actually. In this case the much publicized line, taken out of context, taken out of its place in culture, history, theology, and every other factor that would help it make sense, was made by an African American pastor who has been struggling for equality for his people and who preaches a form of theology called Black Liberation Theology.

It’s not the kind of theology that will make white people feel all that comfortable because it seeks to address the wrongs dealt against African Americans right up to the present day. One need only visit the neighborhoods of Kensington or West Philadelphia to get a sense of how America has abandoned the African Americans and other minorities who inhabit our inner cities. NPR has a great story with some insights from theology professor Dwight Hopkins:

“Jesus says my mission is to eradicate poverty and to bring about freedom and liberation for the oppressed,” Hopkins says. “And most Christian pastors in America skip over that part of the book.”

Hopkins attends Trinity United Church of Christ, where Rev. Wright just retired as pastor. In the now-famous sermon from 2003, Wright said black people’s troubles are a result of racism that still exists in America, crying out, “No, no, no, not God bless America! God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people.”

According to Hopkins, that was theological wordplay — because the word “damn” is straight out of the Bible and has a specific meaning in the original Hebrew.

“It means a sacred condemnation by God to a wayward nation who has strayed from issues of justice, strayed from issues of peace, strayed from issues of reconciliation,” Hopkins says.

That narrative runs against the flow of white Chritians on the right who focus on the faith of the founding fathers, forgetting that our nation was made prosperous in its early years in part because of the slave trade. Even after slavery was abolished close to 100 years of institutionalized racism followed. These are deep, dark sins that cannot be reconciled simply with the passage of a law. And so if white people, such as myself, have a hard understanding the sermon of a black liberation preacher, I assure that the black liberation preacher doesn’t understand why some Christians persist in calling our country a “Christian nation.”

Theologian Diana Butler Bass offers her own take on this issue:

As MSNBC, CNN, and FOX endlessly play the tape of Rev. Wright’s “radical” sermons today, I do not hear the words of a “dangerous” preacher (at least any more dangerous than any preacher who takes the Gospel seriously!) No, I hear the long tradition that Jeremiah Wright has inherited from his ancestors. I hear prophetic critique. I hear Frederick Douglass. And, mostly, I hear the Gospel slant—I hear it from an angle that is not natural to me. It is good to hear that slant.

That is not, of course, comfortable for white people. Nor is it easily understood in sound bites. It does not easily fit in a contemporary political campaign. But it is a deep spiritual river in American faith and culture, a river that—as I had to learn—flows from the throne of God.

And lest we pluck splinters amidst the planks in our own eyes, we should heed the words of Frank Schaeffer, son of Evangelical theologian and bulwark of the religious right Francis Schaeffer. He shares some quotes from his father’s writing, quotes that should frighten us far more than anything coming out of Liberation Theology:

Consider a few passages from my father’s immensely influential America-bashing book A Christian Manifesto. It sailed under the radar of the major media who, back when it was published in 1980, were not paying particular attention to best-selling religious books. Nevertheless it sold more than a million copies.
Here’s Dad writing in his chapter on civil disobedience:

‘If there is a legitimate reason for the use of force [against the US government]… then at a certain point force is justifiable.’

And this:

‘In the United States the materialistic, humanistic world view is being taught exclusively in most state schools… There is an obvious parallel between this and the situation in Russia [the USSR]. And we really must not be blind to the fact that indeed in the public schools in the United States all religious influence is as forcibly forbidden as in the Soviet Union….’

Then this:

‘There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate… A true Christian in Hitler’s Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state. This brings us to a current issue that is crucial for the future of the church in the United States, the issue of abortion… It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God’s law it abrogates it’s authority. And our loyalty to the God who gave this law then requires that we make the appropriate response in that situation…’

Was any conservative political leader associated with Dad running for cover? Far from it. Dad was a frequent guest of the Kemps, had lunch with the Fords, stayed in the White House as their guest, he met with Reagan, helped Dr. C. Everett Koop become Surgeon General. (I went on the 700 Club several times to generate support for Koop).

So while it’s hard for a white person to truly relate to the experiences of African Americans, we should be slow to judge that which we do not understand.

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