Reverend's Words Stir Debate on His Creed

Pastors speak out in support of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright at the National Press Club on Monday after the Rev. Wright delivered a theoological critique to explain his now infamous messages. Video by Hamil Harris/the Washington Post,Edited by Anna Uhls/
By William Wan and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 28, 2008

Bobby Henry was angry when he first saw the now-famous snippets of sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. playing over and over on television. He considered the uproar over Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor an attack on a man of faith and the black church.

But he also wondered: Who is Wright, and what is the religious movement, known as black liberation theology, that shaped his ministry?

Henry, a Bowie lawyer and member of Jericho City of Praise in Landover, got some answers watching an interview with Wright that aired Friday night on PBS. It was Wright's first lengthy public discussion of the debate that flared last month over his comments, which some labeled intolerant and unpatriotic. In addition, Wright is scheduled to speak this morning in the District as part of a two-day seminar exploring the mission of the black church.

In the controversy over Wright, Obama, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, found himself denouncing and defending the former pastor of Trinity United Church in Chicago. The Illinois senator and his family have attended the church for 20 years.

"I really wanted to understand the context in which those remarks were made," said Henry of Wright's sermons, adding that black liberation theology is "not something I had been extremely familiar with." But after hearing Wright talk about his religious beliefs, Henry said, "that part of it resonated with me: that different cultures come to Christianity from different backgrounds and that there has to be room for that."

Wright's appearance today at the National Press Club will begin the annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. The conference, named for the noted religious scholar, will bring black religious leaders from across the country to Howard University. And at the center of the discussions will be the powerful and provocative tenets of liberation theology.

Beyond the political debate over how Wright's words have affected Obama's campaign, the spotlight on Wright's sermons has sparked a lively discussion over the theology among the Washington area's large and diverse African American church communities. Some question whether black liberation theology's focus on race and oppression is relevant anymore, whether clinging to a philosophy forged in the civil rights era means holding on to past hurts. Others think it is needed now more than ever in the face of continuing discrimination, chronic unemployment and high incarceration rates among blacks.

In Friday's interview, Wright said that the terms " 'liberation theology' or 'black liberation theology' cause more problems and red flags for people who don't understand it." At its core, black liberation theology is an interpretation of Scripture as a gospel for the oppressed, identifying God and His promise of salvation with the plight of black people throughout history. It is akin to the liberation theology movement popularized in Latin America in the 1960s by Catholic priests agitating on behalf of the poor.

Wright explained that Trinity, the church where Obama said he embraced Christianity, is a place where members come "for encouragement, to go back out and make a difference in their world. To go back out and change that world, to not just talk about heaven by and by, but to get equipped and to get to know that we are not alone in this struggle, and that the struggle can make a difference . . . that we serve a God who comes into history on the side of the oppressed."

The black church has long been a sanctuary and source of support, dating to slavery, when it was one of the few places African Americans could gather. But black liberation theology wasn't crystallized until it appeared in the writings of a young black theologian named James H. Cone.

A graduate of Northwestern University's seminary in 1960s Chicago, Cone had encountered the anger of black power and the promise of the nonviolent protest movement, and like many of his generation, he was divided between the ideologies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

After the 1968 assassination of King, he holed up for six weeks in his brother's church office in Little Rock, pouring his thoughts into a systematic approach to black theology.

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