The Rev. Jeremiah Wright's "liberation theology" received attention during the 2008 presidential election campaign and is being looked at anew during February, which is Black History Month. Anthony Bradley's just-published book, Liberating Black Theology (Crossway), examines the teaching of Wright and others; Bradley is a professor at The King's College, New York City (and a contributor at WORLDmag.com). Here are edited excerpts from an interview conducted in front of students there.
Q: From what does black liberation theology have to be liberated? Black theology has to be liberated from itself. Its primary anthropological presupposition is that humans are victims of social oppression: That is the starting point of a person's identity. I want to switch the conversation and say, "Slavery happened, injustice happened because the devil is real and the Fall is real, so you'll always have injustice. But the core of a person's identity is that of the Imago Dei, being made in God's image."
Q: Where does black theology fail? If theology emphasizes "victim status" and not something more ontological, the remedy is often short-sighted: When your theology is nothing but politics and sociology, it doesn't help you when you get cancer or your husband leaves you. If your theology of liberation is grounded in the Imago Dei, you're much more open to looking at the multiple ways in which the Fall affects human life.
Q: The narrative of oppression suggests that if you overthrow the oppressor you go back to Eden? Right. It became nothing but getting rid of The Man-and then we become The Man, and all will be well with my soul.
Q: But structures set up by the revolutionary winners have regularly been even more oppressive. I challenge the left: Is it really true that the structures you propose are consistent with the dignity of humans? This is why slavery is such an abomination, because it prevents humans from being free to use all the things God has given them to discover their vocations as human beings.
Q: You're descended from slaves . . . My family is from the Bradley Plantation in Escambia County, south Alabama. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher in south Alabama. Part of my "preachiness," which my students complain about, comes from him.
Q: You grew up in suburban Atlanta. My family was the first black family on the street in 1972 in the suburbs. Within about six months half the houses went up for sale and other black families moved in, so we started a revolution.
Q: When you were in middle school and attending a United Methodist church, your pastor, Cornelius Henderson, had a big impact on you. He picked me up in the Cadillac and took me to the mall to have lunch at Hardee's. I don't remember what he got; I know I got something with French fries, which is why I have a small addiction to them.
Q: The United Methodists didn't go in for hand-clapping, foot-stomping music, did they? No, we weren't like those Baptists next door. I actually remember my pastor saying, "We're Methodists. We have a method." But I like a lot of noise, horns and drums and stuff, I don't know, like the Psalms talk about.
Q: On to your college years: You wrote an essay called, "Clemson University Saved My Life." How? At Clemson I became a committed follower of Christ through a combination of the ministry of Campus Crusade, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Reformed University Fellowship. The Lord sent the Campus Crusade folks after me big time, knocking on my door. I was a freshman and they asked me, "If you died today, what percent chance do have of getting into heaven?" And I, with great confidence as a United Methodist, said, "80 percent." I wasn't as bad as people in jail, and I was an Eagle Scout.
Q: Then you learned about grace. Yes. My acceptance before God is 100 percent grounded in the work and person of Christ alone. My 80 percent or even 99 percent is woefully insufficient, because I'm accepted on the basis of Christ's work on my behalf, not my own. It was liberating to know that God looks at me and loves me not because of my goodness but because of the goodness of Christ that is applied to me. That really is the basis of launching someone into a really serious, dangerous mission for the Kingdom.
Q: It's imputed righteousness, not imparted righteousness? Right.
Q: After college you went to Covenant Seminary. How was that? I learned very strong lessons about the implications of grace, what it means in terms of transforming your life and embedding yourself in the narrative of God redeeming all things.
Q: That embedding is important . . . If we enter the Christian narrative we understand that we have a part in the story of God redeeming all things and using His people to those ends. We love movies and stories, and the Bible comes to us primarily in the form of a story. Some narratives are bad, and some narratives are good and a blessing. If I were preaching on the street I would say, "What narrative do you want to be in? What story do you want to be a part of?"
Q: You earned a Ph.D. at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia while working. I taught at a Christian high school for three years and was an administrator there. I would spend part of the day talking about epistemology and other multi-syllabic words. Then I would drive a mile down the hill and talk about flatulation, who likes who, "I can't believe she said that!", "Oh my gosh, I'm not going to get into Wheaton!" Things like that. All in one day.
Q: Which part of the day did you like better? For me the high school was a mountain top, and here's why: I found that my ninth-grade students hadn't learned to hide yet-you learn that in high school-and would actually ask honest questions in class.
Q: You're a strong defender of individual liberty and free markets. How did you gain those understandings? For me, the political theory and the economics started with watching Family Ties on television. Alex P. Keaton (listen, I'm a nerd) was my hero. I wanted to be like Alex, which meant getting good grades, wearing a tie every day, and having conservative politics. In high school I read Thomas Sowell. I wanted, and still want, to be like him.
Q: For a time you directed the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary. What have you picked up from Schaeffer? A heart for unbelievers, a desire to speak to the culture in a way that people can understand, a desire to see God's people not sit on the sidelines but actually roll up their sleeves and get really dirty, maybe bloody, maybe suffer for the cause of bringing blessing to God's world.
Q: You've written about hip-hop: how does that fit with your philosophical and economic interests? Pop culture signals a culture's moral standard. I think about why people want to hear the things they're listening to, and what that tells me about where they are spiritually. It all gets back to economics. I'm convinced that what's going to change what's produced in the long run is a change in demand, and demand will change when the church re-engages her mission to form and shape society. When people are morally formed they want things consistent with those morals. If we want good things, that's what the market will produce.
To hear Marvin Olasky's interview with Anthony Bradley, click here.