Saturday, March 22, 2008

Guest Post: Black Liberation Theology

Regular commenter and friend TerriInTokyo wrote a requested bit about Black Liberation Theology. As a ministers daughter brought up in Harlem and Queens Village she oughta know. Have a listen.

Children's book author Virginia Hamilton retold African American folktales. One of my favorites is a traditional folktale called 'The People Could Fly':

They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk up on the air like climbin up on a gate. And they flew like blackbirds over the fields. Black, shiny wings flappin against the blue up there.

Then, many of the people were captured for Slavery. The ones that could fly shed their wings. They couldn't take their wings across the water on the slave ships. Too crowded, don't you know.

The folks were full of misery, then. Got sick with the up and down of the sea. So they forgot about flyin when they could no longer breathe the sweet scent of Africa...
Black Liberation Theology: The message of black theology is that the African American struggle for liberation is consistent with the gospel...This theology maintains that African Americans must be liberated from multiple forms of bondage—social, political, economic and religious. This liberation involves empowerment and seeks the right of self-definition, self-affirmation and self-determination.

Now, I grew up a patriot, an American through and through. And it was always understood in my family that an African American patriot looks at America through a different lens. We lived in an atmosphere of Black Liberation Theology. I don't mean we woke up every morning and had Black Power sermons with our hominy grits and bacon. I mean that the sermons my father preached on Sunday, and the way we look(ed) at the world, gave us a place to stand that was based in the teachings of the Bible. We learned from our life experience that just like in the Bible, there is an oppressor, and there are the oppressed, and that one example of this tragic state of affairs is the vein of hypocrisy that runs through the wondrous Constitution – which is also, by the grace of God and against the will of many, ours

It was a truth that we held to be self-evident, along with all the others.

The 'wings' that Black people need to fly are often wings of the spirit, gained in the church, because, when my ancestors were slaves and then freed, the church was the only place that they could effectively organize for freedom. Slave-owning whites, along with whites who were oppressed themselves were driven by, I believe, a deep human knowledge that what they did to Black people was wrong. They needed to cover their own deep guilt, their original sin, so they became ever more brutal and insane towards the victims of their wrongdoing.

For Black people, worship became a refuge, a place to join together, to try to think clearly in the face of tremendous hypocrisy, to reassert the humanity that we knew we had but that the mainstream culture needed to eliminate, and to organize for a better life for our children. Worship was, and is a place to counter the mindless bigotry towards Black Americans that is still so much a part of American society. Worship is a way to refute thoughtless responses to Rev. Wright's and countless other Black preachers' impassioned sermons that stated how wrong a path America is on when it comes not only to racism, but to the hypocrisy of class that ruins regular people's lives every single day. For example: affirmative action and government bailouts are a negative when they help working and middle class people, but they're just fine for the wealthy and big business (e.g. President C & the subprime lenders) – this is wrong, and thinking folks know it.

I was 8 years old and don't remember July 31, 1966, when 51 Black pastors bought a full-page ad in the New York Times to advocate 'a more aggressive approach to eradicating racism'. But I grew up in an African American church, and the rhythm and message of Black Liberation Theology seems to me to be a fair way to frame injustice. The idea that a brown-skinned Jesus would want to eliminate poverty, and to free the victims of oppression, makes complete sense to me. I think that people choose to emphasize the parts of the Bible that confirm their own thinking, and I am glad that Black Americans (and many others) chose the ones that define the essential importance of freedom for all.

So, given this background, in the face of the largely media-manufactured outrage about Rev. Wright's sermon, I just had to laugh. It pointed out how much a belligerent lack of understanding separates Americans from each other. Fiery sermons from an African American pulpit are a part of our internal music, a kind of coaching of the spirit that you need if you are going to survive in America with a reasonable level of self-esteem.

"But America is post-racist!" Uh-huh: not so much - although I do believe that we are getting there, the progress has been painfully slow if you're one of the oppressed. "Don't blame me for what racist whites do!" Well, now, I'd rather not, but can you stop blustering for a moment and put yourself in my shoes? How trusting would you be, if you were me, if you knew that some human beings weren't willing to stick around for the character content, because for them, the color of our skin trumps all…How much pain would you be willing to take?

I don't for a moment believe that this is the end of this long-needed conversation about race in America. I think it's another beginning, and that it needs to continue. I would just like to ask, gently, as my Mama would have, that we who talk about these things in good faith, check our assumptions, like weapons, at the door.

-- TerriInTokyo