Visions of Liberation

As of late liberation talk seems to have entered into the lofty ranks of a "top ten list" of public enemies in American politics and popular culture. This development began roughly two years ago, during the most recent presidential election. It was then that Sen. Barack Obama publicly severed ties with the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, as the former pastor of Chicago's Trinity UCC Church was reduced to angry, out-of-context, sound bites on countless cable television news shows.

More recently, however, this phenomenon reemerged in a concerted effort by Fox News' Glenn Beck to attack Dr. James Cone, the academic father of black liberation theology. Cone is a longtime member of the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he has trained scores of dedicated religious leaders over a period of several decades. Together Wright (a preacher) and Cone (a professor) are two of the most prominent proponents of liberation theology in their respective professions. Yet despite long track records of quality service, both men were all too quickly cast aside as the embodied relics of the radical ethos and racial excess of the 1960s, aka, the decade of "black power."

Sadly, some readers probably clicked away from this reflection the moment they saw the words "liberation" in its opening sentence. Liberation has, unfortunately, become a code word for "communism," or "social justice," and countless other presumably undesirable ideologies. However, to relinquish the language of liberation from our religious lexicons would be to rob our spiritual lives of one of its most valuable resources. After all, at the core of black liberation theology is a simple scriptural message: The gods are preeminently concerned with precisely those whom society seems least concerned -- "the least of these" identified by the gospel writer Matthew. As so much in our contemporary culture of spirituality emphasizes the importance of our individual and interior lives, this passage draws us out of ourselves into those areas of our worlds that we would rather ignore.

The language of liberation insists that we prioritize persons living at the margins, rather than those who occupy the plum seats of privilege, which we so often covet. Whether we find ourselves in a valley or on a mountaintop, it is worthwhile to remember the ways that ideas about liberation are essential to all of our lives.

A fair reading of liberation theology reminds us that faith runs along a delicate rhythm between the inward and the outward, piety and politics, personal and public, individual and collective, the one and the many. This is the stuff of the spiritual life. We are always encountering pressing social demands, and our spirits are ever pushing to transcend their impositions. For instance, our nation so quickly runs away from any candid discussion of race (that ever-pressing social reality), content to caricature sermons and speeches. Is this is a spiritual malady? Perhaps. Yet there is so much in the history of race in the U.S. that speaks to the contemporary soul of this country. Countless men and women, including James Cone and Jeremiah Wright, have attempted to deal honestly with this history, but also to unload some of the burden that it still rests on our shoulders.

Perhaps Howard Thurman, the great theologian, pastor and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., was on to something. As he wrote brilliantly about the relationship between Jesus and "the disinherited," he diagnosed social problems as spiritual ills that required a rich inner life. And even as he reflected on the solitary nature of this inward journey, Thurman insisted on returning outward to the deep, difficult work of building inter-racial communities. This, for Thurman, was in a world deeply fractured by racial divisions that too many now find difficult to even fathom. His work and words remind us today that the social and the spiritual must be inextricably linked in our visions of liberation.

Thurman also got it right when he pointed out that the Negro spirituals spoke to the deep issues of life and death. They were evidence not just of the particulars of the black experience. They bore witness to the universality of the human predicament -- our desire for liberation. This is why I continue to draw inspiration from the wells of black artistic traditions. Writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen, and Toni Cade Bambara and James Baldwin, John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison all confirm the truth in Langston Hughes' claim that "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

This tradition has cultivated a vision of liberation as simultaneously spiritual and social. Across the years black artists have battled -- with their voices, pens and paintbrushes -- against the constraints and demands imposed by race and racism. Yet they have also held firmly to the desire to be completely free, all racial qualifiers aside, as human beings.

This is why in 1926, during the height of one of America's most storied artistic movements, the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes set his sights above what he identified as "the racial mountain." According to Hughes, artists were on a spiritual journey in a world over-determined by social concerns. So, in the absence of any postracial utopia, they had to look inward for renewed vision and strength. In the final words of his liberation manifesto, Hughes exclaimed: "We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

As we sort through the myriad confusing messages that saturate our contemporary worlds, we cannot afford to let go of the language of liberation, or the visions and good work it inspires. And we would do well to remember that these visions are so much more than any single sound bite, sermon or story line. They are what sustain us as individuals when our social circumstances seem anything but liberated. And they are what hold us accountable when we forget that our spiritual lives are measured according to the service we render to others. Let us hold fast to a vision of liberation; both for ourselves, and for "the least of these."

Josef Sorett is an assistant professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University. He is currently at work on two book projects: the first is a monograph that offers a religious history of debates regarding racial aesthetics; and, the second, an edited volume that explores the sexual politics of black churches. You can find more about Josef here.