The theology of liberation

emancipationproclamationdecSometimes I get the feeling that reporters struggle to cover annual events. This leads to less coverage of the liturgical calendar and its festive celebrations and penitential seasons than to events marked by trend-driven church bodies. You don’t see much coverage of Pentecost, marked annually by millions of American Christians, compared to, say, the sex sermon series being pushed by some pastor in Michigan.

But I found this story about a service held in black Christian congregations for going on 150 years to be fascinating and fresh. New York Journal News religion reporter Gary Stern has the details:

Tradition holds that on the night of Dec. 31, 1862, Americans of African descent gathered in churches to await the news that President Abraham Lincoln would indeed sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

New Year’s Day came and all slaves in the states of the Confederacy were declared legally free – even if true freedom would require a long wait.

Over the next several decades, many black Americans developed a tradition of returning to church on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day to commemorate the end of slavery. The black Christian tradition held that God, not man, had delivered the slaves to freedom, so church was the right place to remember the pain of bondage and the joy of being free.

The story goes on to explain Watch Night and Freedom’s Eve services that continue to this day. In my experience, these services occasionally take place on New Year’s Day. The article explores whether the election of a black man to be president will add new meaning to the services. Stern looks at local festivities sponsored by the United Black Clergy of Westchester and speaks with the group’s president, Rev W. Darin Moore:

The AME Zion denomination was formed in 1820 – 42 years before emancipation – when black Christians fled the institutional racism of the white Methodist church. The AME Zion Church became known as “the freedom church.”

“The theme of Scripture has always been emancipation and liberation, whether it’s the story of Israel and the exodus from Egypt or the liberation we find in Christ from sin,” Moore told me. “There’s always been a social/political component and a spiritual component. Particularly in the African-American church, there has been an insistence that we not separate the two.

“That’s why this service is so important in our community,” he said. “It looks back and commemorates the liberation from slavery, using the Emancipation Proclamation as a milestone – understanding that there were many complexities to the political motivations for it. But for us, it’s bigger than that, representing a journey to complete human liberation.”

I couldn’t help but read this without remembering the whole Jeremiah Wright debacle. In large part because of the pastor in question but also because of the media’s obsession with politics, the coverage of Wright had so little actual discussion of the spiritual aspects of black liberation theology. There wasn’t much theology in the coverage, to put it mildly.

It’s so nice to see a story that plays liberation theology as it lays, with both political and spiritual aspects. The article also discusses the mega-hot-button issue of the day:

Now Obama’s getting attacked from the left for choosing Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Warren is an increasingly famous (and white) megachurch pastor who has focused on fighting worldwide poverty and disease even as he opposes gay marriage and holds mostly conservative theological views.

Baisden said he has no problem with the choice.

“I see it as consistent with President-elect Obama’s efforts to bring us together,” he said. “We have differences in many ways, but these things should be able to pull us together.”

I find the use of the word “even” to be completely unnecessary. I’m aware that many in the mainstream media are under the impression that there is some sort of intrinsic conflict between holding conservative theological views and fighting poverty and disease and yet history doesn’t exactly bear that impression out. Christian charity throughout history has coexisted with a belief in the sanctity of marriage as a heterosexual union. There’s no need to use the word “even” and quite a few arguments against it.

“Even” so, the story is great and ends with a verse from the processional hymn to which the clergy will enter the church for the Emancipation Service, “God Of Our Fathers.” Stern provides an informative, interesting, detailed and newsy account of a long-standing faith tradition.

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  • Jerry

    I mostly find the article and your comment spot on with one small exception:

    I find the use of the word “even” to be completely unnecessary.

    Since some on the political and religious right consider that the only truly important task is to oppose abortion and gay marriage, I took the word even as a comment on those people rather than a media issue although it could be one, the other or even both.

  • Michaelv

    Jerry: maybe it is a comment on this unquantified “some” for whom opposition to abortion and gay marriage is a priority. But it’s vague and whatever it is supposed to imply should have just been clearly stated – if it really belonged in the article. I don’t know if we were supposed to be taking the author’s implicit word for it that Warren’s positions are unusual, or if he only meant to make a point about the people on the religious right you were talking about. If it was the former, he should have provided evidence. If the latter, he should have explained and given an argument. Either might take hundreds of words and be straying far off topic. The alternative? Drop the word “even.”

  • Michaelv

    One more thing. It occours to me that the writer may also have been trying to confront a stereotype about conservative religious leaders. But if that was his goal I still think he was fuzzy about it. Maybe he could have quoted Warren on the matter if that’s what he wanted to do.


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