An article in Friday's New York Times reports on the revival of the controversey over liberation theology that briefly arose in 2008 in the wake of the arguments about Jeremiah Wright's preaching at Trinity United Church of Christ, which was at that time Barack Obama's church. Apparently the failure to leverage that as an issue in '08 still bothers some conservatives, who want to bring it front and center for the current campaign:
Last week, about four years exactly since the last liberation-theology scare, it was reported that the billionaire Joe Ricketts was considering a plan to financean anti-Obama advertising campaign, focused on Mr. Wright and those same video clips. The campaign prospectus was incendiary and demeaning — it recommended that the backers “include an extremely literate, conservative African-American in our spokesman group” — and Mitt Romney quickly said he rejected any such campaign on his behalf.
First of all, credit to the Romney campaign for not wanting to take the low road on this particular issue. But it may not matter if an outside expenditure group wants to pick up the ball and run with it.
The Times article gives a good overview of how liberation theology is understood by its practitioners, which is worlds away from how it's portayed on Fox News:
While Mr. Wright has said his ministry is inspired by James H. Cone, the author of “Black Theology & Black Power,” the founding text of black liberation theology, Dr. Cone’s 1969 book is far subtler than any one sermon, no matter the preacher. Contrary to the simplifications of the past four years, liberation theology, which has become hugely influential, teaches not hate, nor anti-Americanism, but a renewed focus on the poor and the suffering, as embodied by Jesus.
“Liberation theology, at its most simple, is the Sunday school Jesus who healed the sick or took care of the poor people,” said Shannon Craigo-Snell, a theologian at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “It’s what your Sunday school teacher taught you if you grew up in a church. It isn’t something people should be afraid of, unless they’re invested in poor people not getting fed or sick people not getting healed.”
Dr. Cone, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York, defines liberation theology as “an interpretation of the Christian gospel from the experience and perspectives and lives of people who are at the bottom in society — the lowest economic and racial groups.”
To the right, this sounds dangerously radical. And it is, if you're part of the 1%, since it begins from the premise that Jesus Christ did not come to save the 1%, but to save the poor, the oppressed, the outcast and the dispossessed. This is most clearly expressed in Jesus' words in the Gospel of Luke (4:18-19):
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This is a message that insists that God has, in a phrase common in Liberation Theology, "a preferential option for the poor." And in the United States, that means in particular that God sides with those who are marginalized and victimized within American society. A the time James Cone wrote A Black Theology of Liberation and at the time that Jeremiah Wright was training for the ministry, that quite clearly meant that God was on the side of the African American struggle for justice against oppression. And despite the fact that we now have a black president, one need only look at the Trevon Martin case to understand that we still have a long way to go before we can say that this is no longer true of American society.
What God Jeremiah write in so much trouble, of course, was his use of the phrase "God Damn America." But what Wright was attempting to do in that sermon, whether you agree with him or not on the substance or the rhetoric, is no different than what the prophets of ancient Israel attempted to do in their prophetic utterances against Israel and Judah: To point toward the ways in which the nation failed to live up to its highest ideals.
The problem on the right now is that the possibility that America may not be living up to its highest ideals is considered to be heresy, and anyone voicing that possibility is an enemy of "American Exceptionalism".
But that this is an article of faith among modern conservatives doesn't in any way make it true. And any attempt to draw us as a nation closer to our highest aspirations as a nation will only be possible to the degree that we are willing to entertain the possibility that improvement is necessary.
And this involves repentance, a turning away from how we've lived in the past to embrace new possibilities. This is the message that is at the heart of liberation theology, and its a deeply Christian message, one that deserves to be heeded in modern American society. Those who wish to make it a campaign issue want to use it as a weapon against Barack Obama, but properly understood, it is the heart of any search for a just society.