01 May 2008

Black Theology and Black Impotence

During the present controversy over elements in certain of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, many have again wondered when blacks in the U.S.A. will cease seeing themselves still being as oppressed as they ever were under slavery and the segregation era. I think the answer is, “Not for a long time.”

Having said that, however, I disagree with Rush Limbaugh’s frequently proffered reason. That reason is: blacks as perpetual victims is a lucrative business for men like the Reverends Sharpton, Jackson and Wright, who, in short, are opportunists and nothing more. Unlike Limbaugh I hesitate to make such statements about men I've never met. I'm not saying he's wrong; quite frankly it can easily look to be the case.

On the other hand, one could for the same reason suggest that someone like James Dobson really – deep down inside – does not want solutions to the problems with the family he has identified because The Dysfunctional Family is a lucrative business for him. If and when Focus on The Family succeeds in solving the problems it has set for itself a lot of people are going to be unemployed. These things could be true about Sharpton, Jackson and Wright, even about Dobson; but it's more than I know about these men, so I won't speculate.

No, I think what motivates the likes of Sharpton, Jackson and Wright is not personal financial benefit. Rather, what motivates them is Black Theology. I don't mean by “Black Theology” theology done by blacks, as opposed to a “White Theology” done by whites (and therefore “orthodox”, while “Black Theology” is “unorthodox”); I mean by the term that school of thought, within the stream of liberal Christian theology, to which theologians like James H. Cone gave, or began to give, systematic expression in his Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation.

In Black Liberation Theology, God exists with and identifies with the oppressed. This is true of any Liberation theology, but for liberationist theologians there is not a universal theology. Liberationist theologies do not reason from a divinely inspired text like classical theologies. The theological center of any liberationist theology is experience. Philosophically speaking, no two people can have the same experience of an event, even though they both are present at the same event. Theological statements, then, being rooted in experience, are not of universal application; they are culture specific. Oppressed blacks therefore must have their own unique theology of liberation, since the black experience of oppression is not the experience of oppressed Latin Americans, among whom the first liberation theologies were crafted.

As a liberationist theology, Black Theology posits a God who exists among, and identifies with oppressed blacks. And the God of oppressed blacks is not the God of oppressing whites; He cannot be, by definition. Think of it the way Dr. Cone puts it (paraphrased by me): The God of the white men running the slave ship simply cannot be the God of the black slaves down in the hold. In liberationist theology, it cannot be that Oppressor and Oppressed are in relation with the same God, any more than oppressed Hebrews were in relationship with oppressing Egyptians. And if, in existing, moving and having His Being among the oppressed, God must be existing, moving and having His Being among blacks, then God Himself is black. Dr. Cone describes God's “Blackness” in this way:

The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God's experience, or God is a God of racism...The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God's own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering...Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity. (A Black Theology of Liberation, pp. 63-64)
Now if, as Dr. Cone says, “God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” then, quite logically, if one is truly to know God and be in relationship with God, then one must be in humiliation and suffering. In other words, if your God is a God only of the oppressed, then you must be one of the oppressed; and you must always be one of the oppressed. When you cease being one of the oppressed, then you cease to be in relation with that God who is God only of the oppressed. If you are in relation with any God after you are no longer one of the oppressed you must know that God is not the God with whom you were formerly in relation. (One easily sees how blacks like Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Sowell, Michael Steele, Walter E. Williams, and Shelby Steele have lost their status as Blacks: they are no longer among the oppressed. To be truly black in Black Theology is to be oppressed.)

If one is to remain in relation with the God of the oppressed, specifically in this case, oppressed blacks, then one must always see oneself as oppressed. This is why I said above that the answer to the question, “When will blacks cease to see themselves as oppressed?” is not for a long time.

“But James,” you say, “things really have changed.” You will no doubt list for me those things which used to be the case but which no longer are. There is no forced segregation in schools. There are no Jim Crow laws. You'll go on and on. And you'd be right. However, theology, being about those things in the category of The Ultimate, is about those things which do not change. The response of Black Theology is that what has changed is the form, or the appearance of the oppression, not the fact of it.

Something in Jeremiah Wright's speech to the NAACP really brought this home to me. He was talking about education and said that black learning styles are not white, or western learning styles.

Dr. [Janice] Hale showed us that in comparing African-American children and European-American children in the field of education, we were comparing apples and rocks. And in so doing, we kept coming up with meaningless labels like EMH, educable mentally handicapped, TMH, trainable mentally handicapped, ADD, attention deficit disorder. And we were coming up with more meaningless solutions like reading, writing and Ritalin. Dr. Hale's research led her to stop comparing African-American children with European-American children and she started comparing the pedagogical methodologies of African-American children to African children and European-American children to European children. And bingo, she discovered that the two different worlds have two different ways of learning. European and European-American children have a left brained cognitive object oriented learning style and the entire educational learning system in the United States of America, back in the early '70s, when Dr. Hale did her research, was based on left brained cognitive object oriented learning style. Let me help you with fifty cent words.

Left brain is logical and analytical. Object oriented means the student learns from an object. From the solitude of the cradle with objects being hung over his or her head to help them determine colors and shape to the solitude in a carol in a PhD program stuffed off somewhere in a corner in absolute quietness to absorb from the object. From a block to a book, an object. That is one way of learning, but it is only one way of learning.

African and African-American children have a different way of learning. They are right brained, subject oriented in their learning style. Right brain--that means creative and intuitive. Subject oriented means they learn from a subject, not an object. They learn from a person. Some of you are old enough, I see your hair color, to remember when the NAACP won that tremendous desegregation case back in 1954 and when the schools were desegregated. They were never integrated. When they were desegregated in Philadelphia, several of the white teachers in my school freaked out. Why? Because black kids wouldn't stay in their place, over there behind the desk. Black kids climbed up all on them. Because they learn from a subject, not from an object.... They have a different way of learning. Those same children who have difficulty reading from an object and who are labeled EMH, DMH and ADD -- those children can say every word from every song on every hip hop radio station half of whose words the average adult here tonight cannot understand. Why? Because they come from a right-brained creative oral culture like...in Africa, who can go for two or three days as oral repositories of a people's history.... That is a different way of learning. It's not deficient, it is just different.
You see: It is oppressive for left-brained whites to insist that right-brained blacks learn in accordance with white-brained learning styles. It is oppressive to insist that blacks adapt their learning to the white mind. So you see, desegregated schools are as oppressive as segregated schools, just in a different way. They are oppressive because although they may be segregated, they are not (using Wright's terminology) integrated. Yes, blacks and whites go to the same schools, but if right-brained kids are going to be made to learn as if they are left-brained then that is just as oppressive as leaving them in segregated schools.

There is something else one can pick up from Wright's brief excursus on learning styles. It makes sense, when you think about it, that people with different learning styles will not only learn differently but see the world differently. From there it is a small step to understanding that they might also have different understandings of oppression. The left-brained understanding of oppression will be (what?) clinical, formal, positivistic: there is no oppression because there is no institutionalized oppression; there is affirmative action, equal opportunity, reverse discrimination; we’ve had blacks on the Supreme Court; we’ve had two black secretaries of State. On it could go.

The right-brained understanding of oppression will be (one can only suppose) an oppression which will be difficult to discuss, since right-brained thinking is not “logical and analytical”, but rather subject-oriented. The black will experience oppression which, for want of left-brainedness, the existence of which he will not be able to demonstrate to left-brained whites. According to Wright, blacks don’t have the tools to demonstrate that they still are being oppressed. Indeed, insistence on the part of whites that blacks demonstrate logically and analytically the existence of this oppression is itself a form of oppression. (That’s quite convenient.)

It goes without saying, I think, that left-brained and right-brained will also have different ideas of what liberation looks like. For the left-brained, the past oppression was embodied in the law. Blacks were slaves in the past because the law permitted it. They were segregated because the law required it. They sat at the back of the bus and yielded seats to whites because the law required it. They had separate water fountains and restrooms because the law required it. And on it goes. Things are different now. Not only does the law not require these things, it forbids them. Not only is the state prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, so are private citizens. In most instances under the law, a hotel owner, for example, would be permitted to decide what sort of clientele he wanted to cater to. He still can, but not on the basis of race. For the left-brained, the symmetry indicates that liberation has been achieved; there is no legal boot keeping blacks down.

For the right-brained any set-back, any perceived injustice is evidence of oppression. If, for example, a group of police officers are put on trial for attempted murder of a black man named Rodney King and found innocent of attempted murder, that is evidence of oppression, of injustice. Had they been charged and found guilty of use of excessive force, perhaps things would have been different. But the right-brained is not interested in such fine distinctions. As Reverend Wright has informed us, the black mind, being right-brained is not logical and analytical; superficial similarities will therefore suffice for the destruction of a neighborhood. And the left-brained will simply have to understand the right-brained rage.

So, in addition to being always oppressed because one is a member of God's people (and God is God of the Oppressed) one can always be assured that the oppressor (the left-brained, logical, analytical white) will never really understand just how it is that the oppressed (the right-brained, non-logical, non-analytical black) actually and genuinely experience that oppression, or why they do not feel liberated. And that, naturally, means the white oppressor will be powerless to cease being what he cannot understand himself to be. If I can't understand the ways in which I'm oppressing you – despite my best efforts – because I'm powerless to think like you, to experience reality in the way that you do, then I can't stop doing it. I would have to be able to understand that oppression from your perspective in order to stop it. But I can't understand it from your perspective because I'm left-brained and you're right-brained. And never the twain shall meet.

(We also now understand why blacks who do well, or strive to do well, in “white”, left-brained schools are accused of acting white. They are denying their right-brainedness – denying who they really are inside – and, as the saying goes, acting white, that is, acting like they are left-brained rather than right-brained. This also loses them their status as “real” blacks.)

We come now to the reason I have titled this essay, “Black Theology and Black Impotence”. Black Theology, as a species of Liberation Theology, purports to be the theological energy behind the Black Power movement, a movement intended to liberate blacks from their continuing oppression under whites. But, at the same time, this very theology tells its adherents (even if only tacitly) that they must always be oppressed; they can never really be liberated – not if they are to remain in relationship with their Black God.

Recall that, according to Dr. Cone, “The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God's own condition.” So, as he further explains:

Being black…has little to do with skin color. Being black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are. (Black Theology and Black Power, p. 1)
And if there are no dispossessed? If there are no oppressed? What then? Do away with dispossession and one does away with God. Do away with oppression and one does away with God. And, what’s more, since there must be someone being dispossessed and oppressed, there must (tautologically) always be a dispossessor and oppressor. So blacks will never cease being oppressed; and whites will never be innocent of the charge of oppressing blacks.

As the intellectual motif behind Black Power, a motif which, by virtue of its definition of God, requires oppression, Black Theology can give no power of liberation. For all its desires to the contrary, Black Theology does not result in Black Power; it results in Black Impotence. Paradoxically, Black Theology is in the end not a theology of liberation; it is a theology of oppression. So, in fact, are all theologies of liberation. Adherents will always be liberating, but never liberated. Their theology simply won’t allow it: there is no category for it. The term liberation is in their vocabulary, but it is a concept ultimately devoid of content.

I think we also have here the answer to the question why blacks so consistently vote Democrat, despite never really getting those things that Democrats promise them. If one perceives oneself as being oppressed and dispossessed and one political party will grant the proposition that one is oppressed, while other parties will not, it is easy enough to see which party one will turn to. Again, the oppressed require an oppressor. Above, I said that given brain dominance difference (i.e., left versus right) the denial on the part of the left-brained that the right-brained person is being oppressed is itself a form of oppression. (As far as the right-brained person is concerned, anyway.) Conversely, one who will at least concede the point is your friend, even if in the end he does nothing for you, especially if he can point to some rival party as being responsible for his failure. Furthermore, a political party which by and large denies the claim of oppression is, by definition, an oppressor party, especially if it works against that party which has identified itself as siding with the oppressed, siding with God even. With the lines are drawn like that, where would your vote go if you wanted to be on God’s side?

But I have digressed.

What I’ve posted here is simply my own view of some of the logical implications of that stream of Liberation Theology known as Black Theology. Nothing here should be understood as a denial that there are oppressed and dispossessed, oppressors and dispossessors. Neither ought a Christian to deny that there ought to be concern for the dispossessed and oppressed. Having said that, one ought also to admit that not every proposed solution to a problem is truly adequate to the problem. Indeed some proposed solutions only exacerbate the problems they are intended to resolve. Such is the case with Black Theology, I think.

But although I disagree with Black Theology as a system, I do not dismiss it out of hand. I am guided in my approach by the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI),

[I]t must be borne in mind that no error could persist unless it contained a grain of truth. Indeed, an error is all the more dangerous, the greater that grain of truth is, for then the temptation it exerts is all the greater. Furthermore, the error concerned would not have been able to wrench that piece of the truth to its own use if that truth had been adequately lived and witnessed to in its proper place (in the faith of the Church). So, in denouncing error and pointing to dangers in liberation theology, we must always be ready to ask what truth is latent in the error and how it can be given its rightful place, how it can be released from error's monopoly..(Here) Emphasis mine.
There is a grain of truth in Black Theology. And had that truth been lived out and given its proper place in the life of the church, there may have been no need of such a theology. But ironically, Black Liberation Theology makes an error similar to that made by slave-holding whites. Black Liberation theologians read the Bible through the lens of their own experience in order, among other things, to comfort themselves; slave-holding whites read the Bible through the lens of their experience in order, among other things, to comfort themselves. If either one is justified in that subjective approach, then so is the other. Black Theology can hardly find “White” Theology wanting, though it desperately would like to.

The fact is, Dr. Cone could very well be mistaken. It could very well be that the God of the white men running the slave ship is also the God of the slaves down in the hold. He will, as that God, hold both accountable for their respective sins, the oppressor for his oppression (among others, of course), the oppressed for his response to oppression (among others, of course). God did not cease being David’s God when David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then suborned the murder of her husband. Indeed, it was precisely because He continued to be David’s God that He punished David for his sin. David and his descendants all suffered (for hundreds of years) as a consequence of his double sin. I suspect we have no idea what ills we have suffered and may continue to suffer because people long dead decided to limit the concept and the desire for liberty only to themselves at our nation's inception and for many decades afterward.

But I also doubt that many blacks will experience liberation because they have a theology in which God is God only of the oppressed. Desiring to be with God (as we all should) they will always be oppressed -- by definition.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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