“How can I be Christian if it doesn’t have any impact on what’s going to happen for African Americans?” (MIPodcast Moments)

  • BLAIR HODGES: That takes us to the topic of black theology. In your book Down In the Valley you talk little bit about James Cone, who is a prominent theologian, and you also talked a little bit about Jeremiah Wright. People might remember that name from when Barack Obama was campaigning in the 2008 presidential election. Jeremiah Wright was a pastor that had said things about 9/11 and other things that his political opponents fixated on and exploited a little bit. And I thought your book provides some important context for this. Talk for a minute about Jeremiah Wright and what people might learn about him that they’re not going to get in some simplified coverage on CNN or whatever. ((Ironically, I’ve since discovered a CNN blog post that had some fairly in-depth analysis of Wright’s sermon at the time.—BHodges)) JULIUS H. BAILEY: Right, yes, yes, so you may remember back to Jeremiah Wright. Obama attended his church. And in part of a sermon he called America to account for some of the issues we talked about earlier, and he said some things prior to talking about America, but people focused on that clip and said, you know, “he’s disparaging America,” or “he’s not totally pro-America!” But it’s really that dynamic we talked about earlier: How can African Americans—who are clearly a part of American history and part of American culture—be patriotic while still calling out America on their promises if they’re still not living up to them, if the American dream doesn’t seem applicable to African Americans? And so Jeremiah Wright during Obama’s campaign made that statement about America. You mentioned black theology going back to James Cone—and some would argue, back to the slave ships and back to West Africa—this idea of black preachers or religious leaders having a really important role in many African American religious communities of asserting for people, to be the voices of those who don’t have a voice. And so, for Jeremiah Wright there’s this sort of black prophetic tradition of calling America out, that you have a religious responsibility if God’s given you this is podium, to not only advocate for yourself, but to advocate for all of your people. And so for Jeremiah Wright it’s to call America out, it’s “why is America not still living up to the promises of the American dream for many African Americans?” And again people were taken aback. And you sort of see that dynamic—you can imagine as you probably remember back, that during a political campaign you don’t necessarily want to be calling America out on their promises to America. And so you see Obama sort of distance himself from that, which you can see why politically would be the case. But you also sort of see that dynamic, and our dynamic now, where people just take a clip from the sermon—they’re not playing the entire sermon, right? They’re just giving you that clip. And so part of what I try to do is to frame that within the context of James Cone and others, of many black Christians who just continue to struggle. James Cone talks about actually thinking about leaving Christianity because it just seemed like he was so disheartened about the way the white churches were dealing with race relations in the 1960s, he just couldn’t see, “how can I be Christian if it doesn’t have any impact on what’s going to happen for African Americans?” or “how do we address these questions?” So black theology is a way of talking about the ways that Jesus can sort of speak to a liberation theology that can be an empowering thing for African Americans, that Christianity and equality, or Christianity empowerment, is not at odds with an African American experience; it actually speaks to that experience. Christianity has that power, but you also need to call America out, or call whatever context you are in, out. That’s what God’s prophets do in the Bible. They call out people if they’re not living up to what God wants them to do, or giving what God wants for the people. And so you sort of see that trajectory. So Jeremiah Wright clearly is part of that. But I think you also see how those dynamics change; that when you have that kind of forum, you have a twenty-four-hour news cycle, you’re also running for president, how that dynamic is really going to shift. And so people say “Oh, wow this is totally out of context,” and part of what I was trying to do in the book is to say, “wow, that is pretty dramatic, but wow look at what black preachers have been doing for centuries!” Like they’ve always been calling white institutions out, or calling America out if he feels like they’re not living up to what God wants for his people in America.