Rev. Wright's words put focus on his creed

Washington, USA - 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, Md., lawyer and member of Jericho City of Praise in Landover, Md., got some answers watching an interview with Wright that aired Friday on PBS.

"I really wanted to understand the context in which those remarks were made," Henry said 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 Monday at the National Press Club began the annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. The conference, named for the noted religious scholar, brings black religious leaders from across the country to Howard University. And at the center of the discussions were 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 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 his PBS interview, Wright said 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 United Church in Chicago, the church where Wright formerly pastored and 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.

The prevalence of the theology today can't be easily measured, but traces of the movement can be seen in the style and ministry of many black churches across denominations.

Some black church leaders, however, say its relevance is waning.

"The issues that we face today are more crisis-oriented: How am I going to keep my marriage intact? How am I going to keep my home? What school am I going to put my kids in?" said the Rev. Keith Battle, who heads Zion Church in Landover.

"There might be a racial undertone to the questions, but it can't just be a movement anymore about when am I going to get my 40 acres and a mule," Battle said.