insanity, James Cone, liberation, obama

A Cautionary Tale: No Beck, You Aren’t Intelligently Addressing James Cone

Edit: For more than what is below, see my essay at The Other Journal: “Everyone in This Room is Now Dumber for Having Listened to [Him]” : Setting Straight the Insanity of Glenn Beck on James Cone and Black Liberation Theology.

I have found that Glenn Beck is often best left ignored. What helpful things he says are derivative and rare. However, he has again stepped well beyond his competency and this time directly into an interest of mine: liberation theology, specifically James Cone. I find it fitting that Terry Eagleton’s assessment of Richard Dawkins describes Beck as well: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

Beck asserts in the video below that he is trying to give a reasoned, measured, and intelligent narrative and analysis on liberation theology. However, this is patently false. He does not give an accurate narrative and analysis of Black Liberation theology. It seems that intelligence is a luxury that Beck has yet to buy. What he does do is make numerous, broken connections that simply do not follow — one would not be wrong to question his synaptic connections as well.

Lets get a few things straight: Beck here is constructing a narrative that seeks to be a revealed secret — a secret given to his listeners, who are also the oppressed faithful that keep true to the geist of the state. The progressives are the enemy, therefore, in Beck’s mind, it is his duty to inform his following about the secret machinations of the forces that seek destruction of his way of life. It does not seem far that Beck may see himself as a prophet dispensing revelation. In reality, he functions far more like a gnostic with their theology of secrets.

Beck’s narrative has a central ideology: his first concern is the continuation of the “republic.” His hermeneutical lens begins with the state. This he established in the first few minutes of at the beginning of the show and maintained it to the end — and the key point here is that if anyone is guilty of politicizing religion for explicitly American political ends (for the Republicans-Right Libertarians), it is Glenn Beck: his starting point is first the concern for the nation. He has instrumentalized theology for politics against Obama. While he says his point is all about God, and that people shouldn’t make it about race, the point of his entire rant is to make a political jab. He has done the exact opposite of what is good political theology. It is because of the sort of thing that Glenn Beck is doing that political theology has a bad name to so many.

Lets also get some other things straight: Beck is making sophomoric mistakes left and right. Mistakes that no knowledgeable person would make. Or to put it another way, his mistakes are so fundamental, it is like looking down the barrel of a gun to see if it is loaded. Cone is not the founder of liberation theology, and nor is he the founder of black liberation theology — Cone is simply one of the early, major voices. Also, black liberation theology is not something that could be tied to the Catholicism’s economic liberation theology in Latin and South America until very recently. For quite a few years, black liberation theology and Latin and South American liberation theology were at odds because they perceived different problems, thought the other group couldn’t deal with the ‘real’ issue, and as a result, it took awhile to reconcile the two. Hell, Cone and Gutierrez did not converse about their projects while both were at Union Theological Seminary decades ago. For Beck to make the connection that they informed each other early on, and conflate the two at times, is profoundly ignorant — as it is profoundly ignorant to relate the rantings of an angry man outside of the voting booth, the weather underground, and Dr. Khallid Abdul Muhammad to Cone’s work. Beck cannot be taken seriously much like a two-year old sitting in the cockpit would not be mistaken for piloting the plane.

As for the moment of victory on the cross — which Beck harps on — for Cone the cross is of course victory in a way, but victory in weakness, which Beck clearly doesn’t get. It isn’t about victimhood. Cone actually spends much time on the cross; indeed, Cone is very suspicious of rushing too quickly to the resurrection, because the weakness is key. Beck clearly hasn’t read Cone well — or he simply is not being honest here. Cone is not represented faithfully by Beck in the same way that Amway’s commercials cover up the corporation’s pyramid architecture. The notion of blackness for Cone is quite specific — he doesn’t mean simply black skin because we’re also talking about ontology — never mind that Beck is drawing from a decontextualized text to warp beyond recognition the point that Cone is making. And then there is the whole issue that the relationship between the oppressor and oppressed isn’t the binary that Beck makes it out to be. Indeed the binary exists, but it exists because it is a reality and liberation theology seeks to save both oppressed and oppressor from the violation of their humanity: in doing violence, the oppressor are harming themselves as much as they are harming the oppressed. Liberation theology seeks to heal the dysfunctional relationship, not re-establish it. This Beck clearly did not get — the notion that salvation extends to relationships seems beyond him. Also, to complicate the binary further, no one is simply always an oppressor or always oppressed. For a guy who rants about context, Beck certainly didn’t read Cone in context.

The rest of the show is characterized by the same pitiful misreading: that Cone has no concept of grace; salvation should only, ever understood as highly individualistic; Cone is a marxist; the Bible has no concept of making just the social reality; Beck has no concept of structural evil; liberation is obsessed with the victim so as to grab power; liberation theology and philosophy are synonymous; etc. All wrong. All painfully false. One should certainly wonder if Beck is familiar with the prophets denouncing the economic system (called Mammon), the years of jubilee, Jesus and the early church on sharing, etc. Beck isn’t worth the time to keep analyzing — I’ve got better things to do. My point here is to show how impoverished Beck is in simply the first segment of his show. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on — his narrative and analysis are just as true as The Da Vinci Code.

In conclusion, Glenn Beck has not been honest. He has tried to smear Cone like he has tried to smear other people. Beck traffics in attempting to create guilt by association. This should not surprise anyone. This was far from well reasoned, measured, and intelligent. If he submitted this in a class where I am the instructor, he would get a failing grade for not engaging well with the source material (too limited in scope), not displaying an accurate understanding of Cone’s over all project, and cheap and incorrect criticism. He has not demonstrated a grasp of Cone’s thought and not engaged it well. This is simply a hit job. It is propaganda. For a guy who sees Hitler everywhere but himself, he oddly follows the same tactics. In light of this, Beck should be likened to a puppet, and the question then is, who is up to their shoulder inside him?

If you really want to know what Cone’s project is about, watch his interview with Bill Moyers.

obama, R. Niebuhr

The Reinhold Niebuhr Critical of Obama

Perhaps old Riennie, one of Obama’s favorite philosophers, would be quite critical of Obama’s speech — that war brings peace:

Regardless of whether his country was at war or between wars, Niebuhr was rarely insensitive to the sins of nationalistic hubris, chauvinism, or jingoism. The United States had barely entered the war against Japan when he began to complain that American Christianity’s pro-war pronouncements were nearly as insufferable as its earlier isolationism. ‘Many of the sermons which now justify the war will be as hard to bear as the pervious ones which proved that it was our “Christian” duty to stay out,’ he warned. From thousands of pulpits, American pastors were already proclaiming that the war had to be fought to secure a new international order in which war would be abolished. Niebuhr retorted that Japan’s attach changed nothing in the moral content of the situation. ‘If defeat of Japan can contribute to the building of a better international order, we ought to have declared war upon her and not waited for the attack,’ he argued. But if it was important not to fight with Japan for the sake of building a new international order, America should have refrained from striking back.

Niebuhr allowed that Americans needed the gospel’s idealism to be saved from cynicism and complacency. At the same time, however, whether in peace or at war, Americans also needed Christianity’s realism to be saved from sentimentality. For Americans, the dangers of a ‘perverse sentimentality’ were always more potent, in his view — even in wartime — than the perils of cynicism. American Christianity could go to war only if the war promised to bring about international harmony and peace. But this was not what war was about. Niebuhr struggled throughout the war to teach the church this lesson while maintaining a balance between realism and idealism. He opposed America’s insistence on an unconditional German surrender, argued against the Allied obliteration bombings of German cities, and worked to defeat the Morgenthau plan to make postwar Germany a greatly weakened power. Niebuhr equivocated on whether the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, but at the end of the war he urged an organizational meeting of the World Council of Churches to adopt a policy of forgiveness toward the defeated Axis powers.

From Gary Dorrien’s Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity, 117-118.

obama, R. Niebuhr

About the Obama Speech…

… anyone else get nervous when Niebuhrians (you know, Christian realists) talk about morality? This isn’t to say that morality should be ignored by Niebuhrians (in fact they must reckon with it), but just war and morality weren’t exactly fast friends with Niebuhr — he was too pragmatic for that idealism. When Niebuhrians invoke just war and morality, I can’t but wonder how much of that is rhetoric, if not a way of baptizing the realism. The question that drives this is: Where is morality in Niebuhr?

Gary Dorrien, obama, R. Niebuhr

R. Niebuhr in Our Time

From a Professor of mine when I was at Union, Gary Dorrien on Reinhold Niebuhr and Barack Obama:

In 1952 Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History, “We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the ‘happiness of mankind’ as its promise.” In The Structure of Nations and Empires, in 1959, he put it ruefully: “We are tempted to the fanatic dogma that our form of community is not only more valid than any other but that it is more feasible for all communities on all continents.” Niebuhr inveighed against his country’s innocent view of itself as the redeemer nation that invaded only to liberate. America was overdue for a dose of realism about its imperial ambitions, he urged. Any moral idealism not chastened by its own selfishness and that of others is pathetic and dangerous; at the same time, any realism lacking a moral dimension is corrupt.

By the latter standard, most realism is corrupt. For Hobbes, Machiavelli, and other founders of the realist tradition, the whole point of realism was to divorce politics from ethical factors. Niebuhr’s attempt to fuse realism to ethics, much less the love ethic of Jesus, constantly courted the danger of selling out the ethics. To hold together the worldly cynicism of the realist tradition and the theocentric morality of Jesus and the biblical prophets, one needs a very high tolerance for ambiguity and paradox. Even to try, as Niebuhr did, one has to be terribly serious about the scriptural injunctions to lift the yoke of oppression and build a just society. Otherwise the ethical part of Niebuhrian realism becomes mere window dressing for nationalistic will-to-power.

To many of Niebuhr’s critics during his heyday, that was exactly his legacy. After he was gone, liberation theologians said the same thing more forcefully and with greater effect. In the 1970s Niebuhr lost his high standing in theology after liberation theologians charged that Niebuhrian realism was too nationalistic, middle-class, white, and male-dominated to be liberating. Repeatedly Niebuhr’s thought was dismissed as an ideology supporting the economic and military interests of the United States.

But today Niebuhr is back in public discussion because he symbolizes, notably to Barack Obama, the possibility of a progressive realism that defends America’s interests more prudently and advances the cause of social justice. Niebuhr, like Obama, blends liberal internationalist and realist motifs, contending that multilateral cooperation is compatible with the power-seeking clash of nations. The case for a strong international community has a realistic basis, that the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs and risks of not working together. All parties are better off when the most powerful nations agree not to do everything that is in their power and nations work together to create new forms of collective security.

The early Niebuhr played up the irrelevance of Jesus’ love of perfectionism to politics, stressing that Jesus never talked about the realistic limits or consequences of social ethical choices. The later Niebuhr realized that the love ethic kept him and many others in the struggle, whether or not they succeeded. That was its political relevance. Justice could not be defined abstractly; it was a relational term that depended on the motive force of love. The meaning of justice could be determined only in the interaction of love and situation, through the mediation of Niebuhr’s three principles of justice—freedom, equality, and order.

Holding to a moral center while exercising power is notoriously difficult. President Obama is likely to find, while struggling with the difficulty, that he needs the counsel of Reinhold Niebuhr more than ever.

H/T: Ry.

obama, political theology

Defamation? Fun!

I’m the kind of person who is frustrated with the “now that its the end of the year, lets look back…” nostalgia. Its kinda annoying and reaffirms a specific kind of calendar, not to mention that it teaches a halting and poorly categorized view of history. I much prefer the Christian calendar, although I am have spent precious little time studying it.

Still, when “Christian News agencies” act as loud voices for NGOs with a considerable lack of theological competency, I do a little more than worry — like Christian News Wire (what seems like a Christian version of Fox News) with sources like the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission considering the “Top Ten Instances of Christian Bashing in America, 2008”:

INSTANCE #3: Barack Obama Defames Christianity
According to research into President Elect Obama’s own statements about faith, and an examination of Obama’s position on moral issues, CADC has determined that by any biblical and historic Christian standard, Barack Obama is not a Christian, although he claims he is a “devout Christian.”

INSTANCE #2: Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin Is Attacked
Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, came under sharp attack by some in the mainstream media because she self-identifies as a Christian. The Washington Post published a cartoon by Pat Oliphant mocking Palin because she has a background as a Pentecostal/Charismatic Christian. A suspicious arson fire at Sarah Palin’s home church recently caused over $1,000,000 in damage.

Personally, I love self-appointed, Bill O’Reilly justified crusaders, fighting to keep Christianity respectable in the face of “Christian bashing.” Especially when this list of fear mongering is followed with a call to support the NGO.

This is persecution?? Barack Obama isn’t a Christian? Palin was criticized for being a Christian? Wow. You’ve really done your homework. No, this isn’t persecution. Yes, Obama is a Christian. No, Palin was criticized for her anti-evolutionary, six-day creationist stance.

We need a bigger movement to get back in touch with the Christian calendar, merely for the sake of professing Christians who don’t understand what they’re professing. Apparently they need a reminder of what Jesus did.

obama, political theology

Obama on Faith, and His Faith

Obama in Time back in 2006:

For one thing, I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change. Out of necessity, the black church had to minister to the whole person. Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation. It had to serve as the center of the community’s political, economic, and social as well as spiritual life; it understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities. In the history of these struggles, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it was an active, palpable agent in the world.

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship, the grounding of faith in struggle, that the historically black church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts, or that you relinquish your hold on this world. … You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not apart from it; rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away–because you were human and needed an ally in your difficult journey, to make the peaks and valleys smooth and render all those crooked paths straight.

It was because of these newfound understandings–that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved–that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

He says so much more in the essay than what is above, especially focusing on faith, church, the public sphere, and the state. In fact, he seems at time to be talking directly to “liberals” and arguing for the legitimacy of faith, rather than merely waxing on what one might assume from the title, “My Spiritual Journey.” Its an interesting read and worth the time.

H/T: Per Caritatem

black theology, Cornel West, J. Kameron Carter, James Cone, Jeremiah Wright, modern nation-state, obama, political theology

The Recent Posts on the Media Fiasco and Race and Theology

I figured it would be good for readers to be able to see all the posts I’ve done recently on this whole fiasco surrounding Wright and Obama. Heres the list so far in chronological order:

1. Obama, Race, and Theology: A theological analysis of Obama’s speech.

2. Cone on CNN?: A rumor that hasn’t seemed to have panned out unfortunately.

3. A Humble Suggestion: Suggesting a book along the title of Religion Still Matters for Cornel West.

4. Wright’s Sermon: A longer video of Dr. Wright’s sermon where he utters the infamous phrase “God damn America.”

5. Understanding Wright by Understanding Cone: Black Liberation Theology from Cone: A very short introduction to reading Cone.

6. Carter on Obama: Citing J. Kameron Carter’s response to Obama’s speech.

7. Cone Explained: How the Media, Politicos, and Others Like Them are Stupid as a Brick and Got it All Wrong: Explaining the significance of Tillichian symbolism in Cone’s work, how one should rightly understand what Cone does say, and a link to Carter’s critique.