Monday, April 28, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, MLK, black theology & Obama (2)

Given Obama’s situation, he handled the Wright “scandal” well. Obama's speech on race tipped me in his favor, but only out of alarm at how easily he could be jimcrowed out of the presidency. Obama’s speech was not one for the ages, but he delved deeper than the average politician, declining to relinquish an aspect of his previous social identity, while pandering to white people more than they deserve.

This was not enough for Caucasian talking heads concerned with whether Obama had sufficiently distanced himself from Jeremiah Wright. A few were put off by his reference to his grandmother exhibiting the questionable attitudes of a "typical white person". Imagine that! And then there was the question of Wright himself. White journalists grappled with the allegedly shocking and horrifying remarks of Wright, apparently never having before witnessed a black man in a dashiki spouting off.

Some black commentators, for their part, attempted to contextualize Wright’s “inflammatory” soundbites, in many cases defending him tout court and placing him solidly within a black tradition of political “prophetic speech”. In several instances, Wright was legitimated by a linkage to the civil rights movement and even to Martin Luther King, Jr. One typically obnoxious example is:

Ralph E. Luker, Jeremiah, History News Network, March 17, 2008.

Before we examine any specific linkages, let us note the objectionable assumption that no one in the news media (mainstream or “progressive”!) has questioned: why should the theological interpretation of secular social issues be considered legitimate under any circumstances? It is one thing to use cultural or symbolic metaphors as ingredients in one’s rhetorical appeals; it is something more to convert a political argument into theologically legitimated metaphysics. Luker, for example, is blind to how thoroughly ridiculous it is to argue politics on a theological basis.

True, Luker’s defense is not quite as ludicrous as the overblown white response to Wright, who exemplifies a fairly commonplace social type and hardly a shocking novelty. To be shocked and scandalized reveals how poorly white Americans still apprehend the social reality of their own society. The black response is disappointing in a different way. It too is "mainstream"—or maybe I should say conventional—in another sense. This is a highly anti-intellectual country and one with a very restricted ideological discourse, a discourse which excludes not only the left but freethought and secular humanism (i.e. Obama's mother!). As such, the real problems with Wright's rants and with the defense of them cannot be publicly discussed, because in so doing one would have to challenge the current theocratic temper of American politics and the entire tradition of Protestant preaching, black and white.

The problem is not with this or any preacher's specific comments, but of the very genre of prophetic discourse, especially in the mouth of a religious leader with a claim to a special authority. Like it or not, a “civilian” may damn America as he pleases, but by what right does a clergyman claim divine authority to utter such a pronouncement? That is the authority to be challenged, denied, and ultimately obliterated.

Theology and liberation have been intertwined since slavery days, but does this imply that every black preacher that has combined the two has participated from the same perspective in the same category—a construct known as black liberation theology? The blowhard pop intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on Meet the Press lumped Wright and King together in the same tradition, evidenced by the fact that at the time of his assassination King was scheduled to deliver a sermon about America being damned to hell. I would like to read the text of this sermon, if it has been preserved, to determine just what he planned to say and how he planned to say it. Even the similarity cited fails to convince me that King’s message was at all the same.

What kind of authority did MLK claim for himself? Was his invocation of religious language identical to that of his contemporaries or of ours? How did he see the role of religious discourse in a society presumed to be more secular in the '60s (at least outside of the South) than ours is today? Did King resort to demagogy and mystification in making his political points?

These are the questions that no one has posed, as they lie outside the boundaries of the visceral thoughtlessness and ideological superficiality that saturate every corner of the popular media.

Furthermore, is it valid to classify MLK under the rubric of a socially recognized ideological movement known as "black liberation theology", formulated by McCone and others in the '60s and after? King’s engagement with theology should by all means be studied so that his precise commitments can be ascertained, but the liberation theology of the black power movement strikes me as fulfilling a purpose not envisioned by King. Black liberation theology does not merely exploit religious metaphors, it squanders much mental energy in the construction of a racial metaphysics, which I can’t see as being useful to King. Black people are like the children of Israel, but then who isn’t? King was aggressively militant and became ever more so after the initial aims of the Southern civil rights movement were attained, but while solidly rooted in his Southern black heritage, he remained a universalist to the end. That is a principal reason he is not with us today. He was not the first militant black preacher and he won’t be the last, but few are of King's caliber.

Now, here are a few essays on MLK’s relation to black theology:

Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Theology—Black Church” by James H. Cone, Theology Today, Vol. 40, No. 4, January 1984

The Word That Moves: The Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Richard Lischer, Theology Today, Vol. 46, No.2, July 1989

Preamble to A Critique of James Cone” by Stephen C. Rose,, April 2, 2008

Is Reverend Wright a Black Liberationist?” by Clare L. Spark, History News Network, April 7, 2008

Cone, an architect of black power theology, argues that King belongs to the tradition as he construes it, Cone does raise an interesting point about a putative difference between King's pitch to black and to white audiences, but otherwise I find his argument unconvincing.

Lischer downplays the influence of the thinkers King studied in seminary and argues for the primacy of the oral tradition rooted in black culture. Lischer nonetheless admits that King balked at fundamentalism and expanded on the traditional repertoire of black preaching. King’s amalgam of different influences was pitched to all of his audiences, not neatly segregated into black and white, but a different mood can be detected in his relationship to black and white audiences. In the wake of the landmark civil rights victories, as a rift grew between political strategies and the possibility of a transracial political consensus, King’s synthesis of diverse elements was strained to the breaking point. King’s preaching becomes more visibly “blacker” in the last phase of his life. Lischer, however, does not extrapolate the implications of this logic beyond a celebration of King as black America’s prophet. However “black” King’s discourse, it seems to me from this description that King did not aim at constructing a metaphysical doctrine for black people, but that he combined improvisation tailored to circumstance (a practice, incidentally, much explored in the work of Zora Neale Hurston) with ideas borrowed from the world beyond the segregated culture in which King was reared.

Suppose King’s ideology died so that Cone’s could live. Is that a good thing? If we are all the products of historically delimited circumstances, what are we to say for ourselves when we run up against our historical limitations? Cone outlived King physically, but suppose he failed to elevate himself ideologically? Whose path is then a dead end?

Rose claims contact with both MLK and Malcolm X, claims that both moved beyond race, and argues that Cone’s theology, which purports to synthesize both, is entirely misguided. As a theologian himself, he should know that much.

Spark’s underlying agenda as well as several particulars of her exposition are questionable, but let’s focus on the relevant points: Spark distinguishes the universalist claims of MLK from the particularist world view of cultural nationalists and the irrationalist basis of Cone’s ideology in particular (i.e. the rejection of logical reasoning and accountability).

Can any theology withstand the test of critical thought? There is another permutation in the domain of black liberation theology—that of religious humanism, most notably exemplified in the work of William R. Jones (featured in two blog entries here). Religious humanists work within a theological framework though they dissent from established theism and theological traditions. It’s an odd enterprise but useful as far as exploring the logical possibilities and implications of various doctrines goes. A black religious humanist more recently on the scene is Anthony Pinn, author of Why Lord? and other books.

Now that Jeremiah Wright in the flesh has the media spotlight, I shall continue to explore these issues in a follow-up entry.

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