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Black Liberation Theology, in its Founder's Words

The Rev. James H. Cone founded black liberation theology, which has roots in 1960s civil-rights activism. In an interview with Terry Gross, he explains the movement — and comments on controversial sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's longtime minister and a black liberation theology proponent.

13:14

Other segments from the episode on March 31, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 31, 2008: Interview with Reverend James Cone; Interview with Dwight Hopkins; Review of Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel "Unaccustomed earth"

Transcript

DATE March 31, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Reverend James Cone on black liberation theology
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the coverage of the controversy surrounding Barack Obama's former pastor,
James Wright, you've probably heard references to black liberation theology.
Dr. Wright says the vision statement of his church, Trinity United Church of
Christ, is based upon this theology that started with the 1969 publication of
James Cone's book "Black Power and Black Theology." We wanted to get a better
sense of what black liberation theology is and where it fits into American
religion and culture. A little later, we'll hear from one of Cone's former
students, Dwight Hopkins, who's now a theology professor, a member of Trinity
Church and the editor of an anthology about the black theology of liberation.

First we'll hear from Dr. James Cone himself. He's an ordained minister in
the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He's a distinguished professor of
systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. His books
include "A Black Theology of Liberation," "For My People," "Black Theology and
the Black Church" and "Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of
Liberation, 1968 to 1998."

Reverend Cone, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Reverend JAMES CONE: Thank you.

GROSS: Since black liberation theology is new to so many people and it's been
in the news, and since you're its primary creator, let's talk about its
history; but let's start with how you would define it now.

Rev. CONE: Mm-hmm. Well, I would define black liberation theology as mainly
a theology that sees God primarily as concerned with the poor and the weak in
society. And since this theology comes out of the black community, we call it
black liberation theology; but it's not just for black people in a narrow
sense of that term. It is for black people in the sense that it focuses on
the concerns of blacks who are living and who are voiceless in this society.
That makes it black liberation theology. But it is concern about the gospel
for everybody, and if everybody is for the gospel in this society, then they
are for the poor and the weak. And if you are for the poor and the weak, you
are also concerned about the liberation of black people, too.

So black theology is an understanding of the gospel which sees justice for the
poor as the very heart of what the Christian gospel is about and the very
heart of what God is doing in this world. God is taking sides with those who
are voiceless and weak, and he is empowering them to know that they were not
made for slavery, not made for exploitation, but was made for freedom like
everybody else in the world.

GROSS: Well, when you started black liberation theology in the 1960s, you
were inspired, among other things, by Martin Luther King and by Malcolm X.

Rev. CONE: Yes.

GROSS: Martin Luther King was a reverend. Malcolm X left the church and
converted to Islam.

Rev. CONE: Right.

GROSS: Talk a little bit about how they affected your theological thinking.
Let's start with King.

Rev. CONE: Yeah, King gave black theology its Christian identity. And in
that sense, I'm a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Now,
Malcolm X, who was not a Christian, as you say, he gave black theology its
black identity. And this is important, too, because we were black before we
were Christian. And in a white supremacist society like America has been--246
years of slavery, 100 years of segregation and lynching--in a society where
white domination is so powerful and the minority group and where black has
been defined as evil and as negative, then we have to turn that understanding
of black on its head and see ourselves as loving ourselves and not hating
ourselves. So black is black self-esteem. It says, while King told us to
love the enemy--which is right; I think we should love the enemy. Because if
you're going to be a Christian, you have to love the neighbor. But before you
can love anybody, you have to love yourself.

So I wanted to bring Martin and Malcolm together so we can fight for justice
as Martin King said, but love ourselves as Malcolm X said. And as Malcolm
said, the worst crime white people have created is to teach black people to
hate themselves. That's why we kill each other. We kill each other in the
ghettos and etc. So who we don't love is ourselves. And so black theology is
bringing Martin and Malcolm together, teaching us how to be both
unapologetically black and Christian at the same time.

GROSS: When you started developing black liberation theology, what
disappointed you in the church as it was at that time in the '60s?

Rev. CONE: Well, the main thing that disappointed me about the white church
is that it did not talk of the gospel in terms of black people struggling for
justice. I don't know how anybody can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in a
slave society or in a segregated society or in a society in which people are
lynched, unless you make that gospel stand in opposition to slavery,
segregation and lynching. And the white church did not do that. And they did
not do it when King was marching, either. They did not make the gospel
identical with the struggle of blacks for justice.

Now, I was critical of the black church for similar reasons, because many of
the black churches did not want to follow King, and because they saw the
gospel primarily as `going to heaven when I die.' And the gospel is not
primarily that at all. The gospel is what happens to you now, in this world;
and so I wanted the black churches to see that they can't preach the gospel
unless they preach about justice and peace for all people. And so that was
what I saw wrong with the churches, and I said so in the books that I wrote.

GROSS: Were there parts of the Bible that took on a new significance for you
when you started to think about your religion as black liberation theology?

Rev. CONE: Yes. Yes. And it--especially the exodus of Israelites out of
Egypt because a central theme in my theology, because it's been a central
thing in black religion. And here you have salvation of an enslaved people
being liberated. Actually, salvation meant to be delivered from bondage.
That's literally what salvation means in the Bible, to be delivered from
bondage, to be set free. And I began to see a powerful thing.

Now, I studied that in seminary, but they didn't teach it like that. They
taught it in a way as though it was unrelated to the struggle for justice in
the society today. But I also saw the prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah,
Hosea, Malachi, all of these prophets spoke for the poor, spoke for the weak.
So if you read the message of the prophets, it is a condemnation of the nation
and also of the religious practices of that time for oppressing the poor.
That's why Amos said `let justice roll down like water and righteousness ever,
ever flowing stream.'

But also I saw in Jesus--I began to ask why was Jesus crucified. He was
crucified because he was a rabble rouser , because he disturbed the
consciousness of a people. And he began his message with that focus, for he
began by saying, `The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has appointed
me to preach good news to the poor, to set at liberty the captives and the
oppressed, and to visit those in prison.' Here was a savior who was making
solidarity with the poor and the weak, and that opened my eyes to a profound
and a new way of looking at what the Christian gospel was.

So I saw something that my professors never taught me. But by reading the
Bible in relation to black people's struggle for justice and the civil rights
and black power movement, when I began to read the Bible in that light and in
the light of black people's historical experience, I began to see that it
makes a difference what context out of which you read the Bible. And so I
began to see things I never saw before and began to feel empowered to write
until like it was a fire inside me.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the church in the community where you
grew up. You grew up in a small town in Arkansas. You were born in 1938, so
you were going to church probably starting like--or being aware of it,
anyways--in the 1940s in the segregated South.

Rev. CONE: Yes.

GROSS: Describe what your church was like.

Rev. CONE: My church was that force in my life that gave so much meaning,
that transcended the racial segregation that I had to endure every day. So
when we black people came to church on Sunday, we experienced a reality that
lets us know that we were God's children and not somebody else's maid,
somebody else's janitor. See, therefore the maids and the janitors, they were
in charge at church. They were in the deacon board or on the steward board.
They were the ministers and such. So church was the place that affirmed your
somebody-ness in a society that treated you as nobodies. And that's what I
discovered as a little child.

I discovered that in my home, too, because my mother and father were really
powerful forces in my life. But I also discovered that, in a segregated
school, because my teachers told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. So
it's church, school and home, those were the forces in my life in Bearden that
helped me to know that I am somebody. And if I can do or say anything today,
I owe it to them.

GROSS: Did the preacher in your church emphasize portions of the Bible that
spoke to you in a the way that you think black liberation theology should
speak now?

Rev. CONE: Yes. Because the preachers in the church in which I grew up,
they always let us know that segregation was against God's will. I don't know
anybody who believed that. And when they went to church, they focused on
those passages in the Bible that emphasized that. For example, they would
say, `In Christ there is no male or female, no slave or free. We are all one
in Christ Jesus.' That's Paul in Galatians. But also in Acts 17, where it
says that, `God, out of one blood God has created all people.' Those kinds of
passages and those kinds of inferences were made in order to let black people
know that we're segregated but that's not what God intended.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Rev. CONE: All right. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: James Cone is considered the father of black liberation theology.
He's a distinguished professor of systematic theology at Union Theological
Seminary of the city of New York.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Dwight Hopkins discusses black liberation theology
TERRY GROSS, host:

We're talking about black liberation theology. Barack Obama's former pastor,
Reverend Jeremiah Wright, says his church's vision statement is based on this
theology. We just heard from Dr. James Cone, who's considered the founder of
this theology. My next guest, Dwight Hopkins, was a former student of Dr.
Cone. Hopkins is now a professor of theology at the University of Chicago
Divinity School and an ordained Baptist minister. He's the editor of a book
about black theology called "Black Faith and Public Talk," and is a long-time
member of Trinity Church, where Reverend Wright has been the pastor.

Dwight Hopkins, welcome to FRESH AIR. How would you describe black liberation
theology?

Professor DWIGHT HOPKINS: Black liberation theology for me can be described
in a couple of ways. First, I usually break down the meaning of each of the
three words. For example, the theology part speaks to the rootedness in the
Christian message and the Christian tradition. The liberation part speaks to
the mission and words of Jesus--that is, Jesus came primarily for liberation,
liberation from internal oppression and liberation from external systemic
oppression. And then the black part of black liberation theology basically
says that, rooted in the Christian faith, focused on Jesus' message of
liberation, how do these things express themselves in African-American
culture? So hence we have black theology of liberation.

GROSS: And how do they uniquely express themselves in black culture?

Prof. HOPKINS: The black theology of liberation goes back to the period of
slavery in this country, roughly 1619 to 1865. And as we all know that
history, lots of Africans were brought over through the slave trade to the
southern part of the United States and to the North, to a certain degree. And
these Africans who were enslaved, who eventually became African-Americans,
were given Christianity as a way to be spiritual and to be religious. But the
type of Christianity that was introduced to them did not speak to, really,
their spiritual or their material needs. In fact, the Christianity that was
introduced to them said that, `Well, your bodies are enslaved on earth but
your spirts are free.'

So what they did was they use to hold secret meetings late at night after
work, and they began to combine various parts of their memory of African
spirituality, on the one hand with, on the other hand, the type of
Christianity that was introduced to them. And so in these underground late
meetings, secret societies, they forged this thing called black religion in
America and the black church as an institutional manifestation of that.

There's a couple of things that are important about the origin of black
religion and the black church is that the church was a reality for the whole
community. It wasn't just for one segment. So the church was the center and
the hub. And, two, the black church in America was born under slavery and
held together issues of faith and politics, issues of spirituality and civic
life, you know, religion and public policy. In other words, the very
foundation of today's black church, originating from a period of slavery,
never separated sacred and secular or politics from the pulpit. That's very
important.

What's happened now is that many people don't, apparently don't really have an
understanding of the history and the origin of the black church and the
specific tradition of linking religion, faith, politics and public policy.
And I think that's something that's a story that needs to be retold over and
over again for contemporary America.

GROSS: Now, the black theology of liberation gets started in the late '60s at
a time when a lot of African-American activists, particularly in the era of
the new black consciousness, were thinking that the church wasn't really a
place for them because it was the religion that the slave owners gave to the
slaves. And it was a period, I think, when some African-Americans were
turning to Islam--Malcolm X, as an example--because of this. Could you talk
about that a little bit, about the feeling of alienation from the church
during that period and how you think the black theology of liberation
addresses it?

Prof. HOPKINS: Yes. I think, of course we know that the civil rights
movement begins December 1st, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, with the boycott
and Dr. King leading that boycott. And the black church, particularly in the
South, is the leadership of the civil rights movement, is the leadership of
voting rights and human rights movement there. In the North there's a
different reality; and a lot of the issues that blacks in the South and their
allies were fighting for, did not resonate in a big way with blacks in ghettos
and the nitty-gritty intensity of being black in the North.

But even when the black church was leading struggles in the South, it came to
a point where a younger generation of Negro youth, which eventually became
black youth, became very dissatisfied with the pace of the black church, with
some of the theology and interpretation of Christianity of Dr. King and his
lieutenants and his organization, Southern Christian Leadership Council. So
the pace of the struggle, the message of the struggle and even how Dr. King
and some of the black clergy in the South were relating to the federal
government, all these things came together when the youth wing of the civil
rights movement, particularly led by Stokely Carmichael, became very
frustrated with what they were experiencing. They wanted their justice. They
wanted their civil rights. They wanted their power now. And so they came out
up this phrase, "black power,' in 1966.

Then the question became, OK, if the black church is discredited in the North,
and if the black church is discredited in the South, then what is the role of
Christianity or religion in social justice for the Negro revolution, as it was
called, eventually the black power consciousness revolution.

Now this is where Dr. Cone comes into the picture and begins to try to
articulate how one can still be Christian, on the one hand, and also be
relevant to the new movement of black power and black consciousness. And
hence he wrote his first book, "Black Theology and Black Power," which said,
`Ah-hah. There is no contradiction between the social justice movement of
black power and civil rights on the one hand, and on the other the message of
Jesus Christ. In fact, black power is for liberation. Jesus Christ is for
liberation. And not only is Christianity not anathema to black power, black
power is contemporary expression of Jesus Christ in America.' And one could
imagine with that conclusion that all hell broke loose.

GROSS: What do you mean by that?

Prof. HOPKINS: Well, Dr. Cone was attacked by academics and universities
and seminaries. Mainstream media came out attacking his book because they
felt that black power plus black theology denoted violence. It meant, you
know, it meant an attack on the gospel. It was, you know, not turn the other
cheek; and it was mixing politics with religion. And it was just an
ideological movement on the part of this young radical Jim Cone with a huge
afro and, you know, this is not the true black church and, you know, look at
Martin Luther King.

So the problem that the mainstream professors in the academy and the
mainstreams churches and the broader US society had with black theology is
that it combined the word black with theology.

GROSS: Dwight Hopkins will be back in the second half of the show. He's a
professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're talking about black liberation theology, which inspired Reverend
Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor. Let's get back to our
interview with Dwight Hopkins, who has written extensively about black
liberation theology. He's a professor of theology at the University of
Chicago Divinity School, and is a long-time member of Trinity Church in
Chicago, where Wright has been the pastor.

Black liberation theology was created in response to the civil rights
movement. When we left off, Hopkins was explaining that using the word black
in black liberation theology alienated many church leaders because the word
black was associated with black power.

Prof. HOPKINS: In fact, Dr. King mentioned that perhaps it should have been
Negro power, or Negro theology, and he spoke specifically to Stokely
Carmichael about this. He said, you know, `Stokely, why do you have to put
black in front of it? And why not Negro or something like that? You know,
it's important for Negroes and blacks to have power, but why do you have to
juxtapose those two words so closely together?' We have to remember, in the
1960s, a lot of people in the United States, including black people in the
black community, were just getting the N capitalized in the word Negro. So
they were just getting used to even using the word Negro, the previous word
being colored. And now Stokely Carmichael and the youth wing of the civil
rights movement just said, `We're going to skip all that. We're going to go
right to black. And not only are we going to go right to black, we're going
to put power to this.' And, of course, power, does that power mean Malcolm X?
Does it mean militant underground movements? Does it mean some alliance with
Africa? What is this power and then why does it have to be black?

GROSS: Well, I'll be a lot of people were wondering, too, at the start of
black liberation theology, is this the "hate whitey church"?

Prof. HOPKINS: Mm. Yes, yes, yes. Yes, this is a very important
observation. Because black theology arose out of the civil rights movement
and even more so out of the youth wing, Stokley Carmichael and the black
consciousness and black power part of the civil rights movement, people said,
`Well, OK, there's this sort of, you know, militant madness of Carmichael, and
now this militant madness of Carmichael is now entering the black church and
its theology. So if black power is against white people, then black theology
must be against the white church, exactly.

GROSS: And was it?

Prof. HOPKINS: No, black theology and black power was never against
individual whites or even against individual blacks. It is consistently, in
the main, spoken against various policies and consequences of powerful people
in the US as they pertain to the everyday plight of black people, poor people
and working class people. It's been more or less consistent on that. I mean,
one of the things that most people don't know is that even in Cone's first
book, which came out in March of 1969, "Black Theology and Black Power," he
has a section on there criticizing the black community and the black church.
So black theology has both been an external critique as well as a very
trenchant internal critique of the black community itself.

GROSS: Where do you see black liberation theology now as fitting into the
larger community of black churches in America?

Prof. HOPKINS: I think that black liberation theology is a very strong trend
within the larger community of African-American churches today. I think we
have to put this in historical perspective--that is, the last eight years. In
the last eight years, America has seen the face of one very small group of
perhaps maybe five, no more than six prosperity gospel black preachers.
They've had access to the White House, they've met with President Bush. We've
seen them on television. They've had, you know, full page spreads in The Wall
Street Journal. And so people sort of get the impression that the black
church has shifted to this prosperity gospel, `name it and claim it, the
purpose of Christianity is to make wealth for me and my family.' That's the
prosperity gospel movement. But those five people have overshadowed the
everyday reality of those unrecognized black clergy men and women who still
deal with the issues of both survival in the black community and social
justice. They just talk...

GROSS: Can I ask who those prosperity preachers are that you're referring to?

Prof. HOPKINS: You've got Creflo Dollar, you've got Eddie Long, you've got
T.D. Jakes and a couple of others who are carrying out their interpretation
of their call as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think the point I
was really trying to make was to say that because the president and the
Republican government have promoted them in the last eight years, somewhat
overshadows these, you know, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of black
folk who are on the ground as pastors, male and female, who deal with the
issues of everyday survival and also social justice and social gospel
movement.

So I think what's happening now is the recent outcry or firestorm around
Senator Obama and Dr. Wright, this firestorm has brought back a
re-examination of contemporary black church. And then when we talk about the
overall black communities across the US, we will see the overwhelming majority
of those who have to deal with issues of how do you keep the lights on and how
do you fight for social services for our people in the downtowns of America.
That's the root and really the foundation of black theology liberation.

Now, there's also a smaller group of people in the black churches who are even
much more intentional about prophetic theology, and there you have people
like, you know, Dr. Wright, he would fit in that, and a whole host of people,
particularly from his generation.

GROSS: Now, black theology has added as part of its mission equality for
women and gays and lesbians. Has that been a hard sell, particularly the gay
and lesbian part, in the black church?

Prof. HOPKINS: Yeah, I think some parts have been a hard sell, and it's
uneven, so it's hard to make a generalization. However, I think of the two,
you know, the human rights and human dignity and the fact that God loves all
people, it's been a harder sell on the gay and lesbian part. But we don't
want to move too fast and say that women's equality in the black church is a
soft issue. No, no, no, that is still a big struggle because even when black
women are ordained, the question is, one, will they get a church? Two, are
they always sent to the churches that are dying? Or three, or they always get
the churches that are in the high crime rates and the gang banging area. So
there, we still have a struggle for equality of women in the black church.

But, yes, I think that the harder one to bridge across is in the black church,
how does one justify affirmation of the human dignity and created nature of
God's children for gay and lesbians with how a lot of black churches see with
the words in the Bible.

GROSS: My guest is Dwight Hopkins, a professor of theology at the University
of Chicago Divinity School. We'll talk more about black liberation theology
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dwight Hopkins. He's a
professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He's an ordained
Baptist minister. He's written several books and edited a book about the
black theology of liberation, and that book is called "Black Faith and Public
Talk." And we're talking about black liberation theology.

Since you're a member of Trinity Church and you've known Reverend Wright for a
long time and you teach black theology of liberation at the Chicago Divinity
School, I'd like to ask you to share your impressions of Reverend Wright's
more controversial remarks, the passages of his sermons that have been
excerpted so frequently lately on the news. Most Americans have heard the
excerpts as opposed to the full sermons. Do they sound any different in the
full sermons? Does the context change the meaning?

Prof. HOPKINS: They sound radically different when they're put in context of
a church made up of people who live on the far side of Chicago in urban areas.
They sound radically different when we hear the full 30 of 30 minute sermon.
That is to say, what preceded these excerpts and what came after. They also
sound radically different if a person was actually there and was able to
experience the energy of the people and the thirst of the people and the, you
know, both sorrow and celebration of the people. So on various levels, it
sounds radically different.

I think that we are really looking at 30 seconds of sound bites of sermons
being looped over and over again, compared to 36 years of preaching. So it's
a little unbalanced. And, you know, people have to put Trinity in context;
it's almost 8500 members, and there are three services every Sunday. And he
preaches three different sermons every Sunday. So, you know, when Senator
Obama said that he hadn't been there for those 30 second, you know, sound bite
sermons in the media, to me being a member there and also one who travels, I
can appreciate the fact that--I mean, you could come at 7:00, that could be
one sermon; could come at 6:00, so literally there are three different
sermons, three different services every Sunday. We--sorry, go ahead.

GROSS: I was going to say, let's talk about a couple of the sound bites and
see what context you would put them in. How about, `God bless America? No,
God damn America.'

Prof. HOPKINS: Right. We have to understand that, if we look closely at
that particular sermonic sound bite, we will observe two things. One, when
Reverend Wright says "God damn America," he says--the intonation is "God damn
America." That's different from our popular use of the phrase--excuse my
English--"Goddammit." Goddammit is sort of a vulgar popular usage of language
in America as a curse. But if you listen, he's saying "God damn America."
That's a different intonation. That's one thing we need to observe.

The second thing we need to observe...

GROSS: What's the difference?

Prof. HOPKINS: I'm going to go to--that's the second thing.

GROSS: OK.

Prof. HOPKINS: The second thing we need to observe is, when he says God damn
America, if we listen closely or look closely, he says, `I'm in the Bible.
It's in the Bible.' Well, actually, he's in the Bible. Damn is in the Old
Testament if you look at original word study. It means righteous indignation,
it means cursing but on the part of Yahweh God, it means judgment on the
people and the people of God. So, actually, as he says, he's in the Bible.
It's just that we don't see what came before that, which was an extensive
study of the biblical passage, the word study, the words that were used on
that passage, the personalities of the people portrayed in the passage, the
culture context in the passage. And then he applies that to the situation in
America.

GROSS: Why is he suggesting in that line that God should be damning America?

Prof. HOPKINS: OK, in the biblical passage tradition which he's referring
to, there's a covenant or relationship between God--Yahweh--and the ancient
people of Israel. And God calls on them to be a special nation, a blessed
nation. But if they break the covenant, then the prophets, you know, Jeremiah
and Amos, etc., they will come and speak truth to power and God will condemn
this nation until it wakes up and then turns toward the original path of
justice and peace and positive relationship with all nations in the Middle
Eastern region, historically. So what we don't hear is what happens before
that God damn America, not God bless America. And we don't hear what happens
after. That is, `OK, USA, if you heed the word of God, you will be able to
move through this righteous damnation on the part of God.'

It really is the prophetic task of moving the nation from where it is to the
glory that it can be. And a prophet, you know, in the Bible gets impatient
and can express some anger.

GROSS: Well, what is it that Reverend Wright is criticizing America for that
he thinks God should be condemning America for, too?

Prof. HOPKINS: Well, I think that there're some examples where he, you know,
listed, you know, foreign policy issues about bombing countries and things
like that. You know, I think there were some issues around racial issues, how
they treat the African-American, other citizens, and I know there's been a
campaign to help workers organize in Wal-Mart across the country, which is
something a lot of people don't realize about Trinity, that it has a strong
working class, labor union ministry, both in Chicago as well as nationwide.

So basically he's saying `I'm speaking as a prophet--that is, Wright--for the
word of God and its judgment on America because, A, America hasn't used its
resources to help, you know, black folk; B, you know, America hasn't helped
working class people; C, America has not used its foreign affairs policies and
strength and leadership to bring about peace, rather, to bomb people.' So on
various levels, he feels that, as I hear him, he's talking about how the
nation needs to be brought away from that wayward path toward a more just and
peace-loving path.

GROSS: One of the lines from Reverend Wright's post-September 11th sermons
that's been quoted over and over again is `the chickens have come home to
roost,' or `the chickens are coming home to roost.' And that resonates with
something that Malcolm X had said, and if you hear that in context, what is he
saying?

Prof. HOPKINS: Well, I think if you hear it in context, we would have heard
that he's quoting and paraphrasing former Ambassador Edward Peck, and this
statement about chickens coming home to roost and this notion of blowback
violence--in international politics, there's a phrase called blowback
violence. That is to say, a superpower country quote/unquote "perpetrates"
violence and eventually the smaller nations will come back with the violence,
that violence blows back. And so Ambassador Peck actually gave a speech in
reference to 9/11 the day before Wright preached that sermon. We have to
remember that Tuesday, September 11th, took place and Ambassador Peck's speech
was on that Saturday. Jeremiah Wright preaches his sermon on that Sunday, I
think it was the 18th.

So if we put it in context of him quoting and paraphrasing a former
ambassador, and Peck was a former ambassador to Iraq, Peck was a part of the
Reagan administration, associate director of the anti-terrorism force set up
by President Reagan, and Ambassador Peck is white. So that sort of puts a
little different spin on it in terms of whether or not, you know, the question
of whether one was being patriotic or not. So I think that's an important
part for us to hear.

At the same time, we do have to point out that, of course, Ambassador Peck did
not say it with a certain intensity that we heard in the sermon because that's
the nature of the black church, it's the good and the bad, the up and the
down, the joy and the anger, the pain and the resurrection. It's all mixed in
there.

GROSS: In Barack Obama's speech about Reverend Wright, he said "the profound
mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our
society, it's that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress
has been made." Does that resonate with you?

Prof. HOPKINS: Yeah. I think if we just look at the 30-second sound bites
of Reverend Wright's sermon, it could give a clear indication that Reverend
Wright--and his generation that he symbolizes--are stuck at the static nature
of race relationship. But again, you know, if we look at the full sermon of
Wright and the full context of all those 30-second sound bites, we'll see that
he actually offers--Wright offers a way out of unity and reconciliation for
all of America.

And let me just quickly say that there--and I teach black church studies and
black sermonic delivery--and there usually about five developments in the
delivery of black sermons. One is the preacher, he or she takes a biblical
passage and unpacks that. They look at word studies, they look at the
personality and figures in the story, they look at the context of the
narrative. And then that's sort of step one. Step two is they take this, you
know, in-depth word study and apply to personal issues of healing, whether
it's domestic violence or low self-esteem, things don't--not feeling good
about one's self.

Third step is they take this intensive study of the Bible itself in general
and then apply it to the sort of prophetic message against powers, against
structures and systems. And then the fourth step is basically, now that
you've gone through the horrendous nights of your personal issues, the
intensity of systems oppressing you, our next step now is how do we become
holistical persons, both individually, psychically, emotionally and
systemically as a people, as a nation, as a world. And that's because God
loves us.

And at the fifth state, now that you know that God loves you and that we are
all a people, the doors of the church are open, please enter. So what we have
as we focused on the 30 seconds of Reverend Wright, which is really sort of
step four, the judgment and the static nature. But I mean, I know that the
full blunt preaching, there's always an openness to transformation of the self
and transformation of systems.

GROSS: So you're saying that the sound bites that we've heard so often on TV
are the kind of more fiery, angry parts, and then after that comes the fifth
part, which is more about getting one with God, self-reflection, community.

Prof. HOPKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that what you're saying?

Prof. HOPKINS: Yeah, the philosophy of this sort of five-, six-stage, give
or take a stage, flow in black sermons is really the life of Jesus Christ.
First you have the cross, then you have the resurrection, you know,
hallelujah. That's really what the sermon's based on. What we are focusing
on, or what's being focused on is three sermons, 10 seconds each, a total of
30 seconds of sermon that are focusing on the cross. What's not played is the
resurrection part that comes after that in Dr. Wright's sermons.

GROSS: Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

Prof. HOPKINS: Well, I just want to commend you for even taking the time to
talk about these issues because these issues are so fundamental to the
undergirding of the public talk of race, faith and religion in democracy. But
now we're really looking at, what's the context? What's motivating people?
What's the philosophy? You know, what is it that really grips them and moves
them at a visceral level? And it really is these issues of social gospel
movement, you know, black theology liberation, and these pertain to the larger
American narrative.

GROSS: Dwight Hopkins, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. HOPKINS: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Dwight Hopkins is a professor of theology at the University of Chicago
Divinity School and an ordained Baptist minister.

You can download podcasts of our interviews on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new short story collection by Jhumpa
Lahiri, whose best known for her novel "The Namesake." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Maureen Corrigan reviews "Unaccustomed Earth"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Writer Jhumpa Lahiri was born in England to Indian parents. She now lives in
America, and her debut short story collection, "Interpreter of Maladies," won
the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. Her best-selling novel, "The
Namesake," was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. Lahiri has just
brought out a new collection of short stories called "Unaccustomed Earth," and
book critic Maureen Corrigan says the literary prize committees should once
again take note.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Jhumpa Lahiri's characters typically have one foot in
India, the other in America and are usually on the verge of collapsing into
the cultural gap that yawns between. The automatic assumption about Lahiri's
fiction, as with any writer who chronicles the immigrant experience, is that
its appeal to a native-born American audience is primarily sociological.
Reading her work will give the untutored reader entree into the marriage
customs, cuisine and jokes indulged in by Bengalis. True enough, and yet to
read Lahiri's new short story collection, called "Unaccustomed Earth," and
only take away an experience of cultural tourism would be akin to reading
Dante only to retain how medieval Italians slurp their spaghetti.

Lahiri's fiction delves deep into the--dare I use the word?--universal theme
of isolation. Exile intensifies many of her characters' solitude, but you get
the sense that they'd be trapped in their own particular prison houses of the
self, even if they had been born and raised in Mayberry, USA. And indeed, one
of Lahiri's main characters here, in a story called "Nobody's Business," is a
white-bread guy named Paul, a lonely graduate student whose infatuated with
his lovely and indifferent Indian housemate.

Lahiri is a lush writer, bringing to life worlds through a pile-up of detail.
But somehow all that richness electrifyingly evokes the void. The final
signature words of the eighth and last story in this collection are, "You had
left nothing behind." Those words are spoken by a woman to her vanished lover,
and I'm not giving anything away when I say that when you read them in the
context of that last story, you'll feel both horror and resignation.

It's customary when reviewing short story collections to adopt a, "one from
column A, two from column B" kind of structure--you know, the title story
always gets a ritual nod, followed by a rundown of which stories are the
strongest, which have just been included for filler. But another
stereotype-confounding aspect of Lahiri's writing is that there aren't any
weak stories here. Every one seems like the best, the most vivid, until you
read the next one. The title story--yes, I'm quite happy to give it the
ritual nod--is still and restrained. It focuses in on a first-generation
American named Ruma, whose Indian-born widowed father visits her in the
echoing suburban house she shares with her husband, who's often away on
business; and son, who'll soon be off to preschool.

Ruma toys with the idea of inviting her father to move in, although the
conversational gulf between them is wide and Ruma doesn't know that he has a
girlfriend. As she often does, Lahiri switches perspectives in the story, so
that towards the end, we hear Ruma's father's deeper reason for refusing the
invitation. The narrator tells us that, girlfriend complications aside, her
father didn't want to live again in an enormous house that would only fill up
with things over the years as the children grew, all the things he'd recently
gotten rid of, all the books and papers and clothes and objects one felt
compelled to possess, to save. Life grew and grew until a certain point, the
point he had reached now.

Over and over again in these stories, Lahiri ingeniously re-works the
situation of characters subsisting at point zero, of being stripped down like
Lear on the heath. In a story called "A Choice of Accommodations," a young
father finds himself mulling over the irony of spending so much time searching
for a partner in life, creating a family with that person and then yearning in
the thick of hectic family life for solitude. The final three astonishing
stories in this collection zoom in on a man and woman who knew each other as
children in an Indian immigrant community and stumble upon each other many
years later in Rome. At last, we sentimental readers think, a reprieve from
the theme of isolation. But Lahiri is made of sterner and more exquisite
stuff.

"Unaccustomed Earth" is a shimmering short story collection. It certainly
makes a contribution to the literature of immigration, but it also takes its
rightful place with modernist tales from whatever culture in which characters
find themselves doomed to try and fail to only connect.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Unaccustomed Earth" by Jhumpa Lahiri.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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