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.