Voices of Liberation and Struggle: A Conversation with Dwight Hopkins
We were so impressed by Dr. Hopkins thinking on the dynamics of globalization that we asked him to provide the keynote address on the second night of Film, Faith & Justice 2007. The title of his insightful lecture was, “The Race of Globalization: Liberation and Identity in the World Market,” and if you were there (and we hope you were!), then you know as well as I do that he rocked the house—making way for one of the most interesting and provocative panel discussions of the weekend.
We are immensely grateful to Dr. Hopkins for joining us for Film, Faith & Justice 2007, and all the more that he took the time to answer some burning questions we had for him, illuminating us on the relationship between black theology, globalization, and the topic of our current issue, “Pop Revolutions!” Our conversation took place on a sunny April day in the U-District in Seattle, WA.
The Other Journal (TOJ): First, let me say how delighted we are that you have made time to speak with us today. You are widely recognized as one of the most prominent and prolific contemporary black theologians, a position highlighted by the fact that you have published the first ever introduction to the field of black liberation theology. So, for our readers who may be unfamiliar with black theology, and for all of us who could gain from learning more about it, please introduce us. What is black theology, what is its story, and what are its concerns and goals?
Dwight Hopkins (DW): Well, black theology is one of the rare indigenous American theologies that actually began not in the academy, but in churches. As many of us know, the Civil Rights movement and Black Power movement of the 1960’s raised profound questions not only for the black church, but for American culture and society as a whole.
And so, in June of 1966, when Stokely Carmichael launched the slogan, “Black Power,” black churches were also challenged to talk about a new understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ…what it means to be church…and what it means to respond to one’s calling. In response to the Black Power charge, or cry, from the student movement, the Black Power movement, and the Civil Rights movement, the church responded!
More specifically, on July 31st 1966, a group of black pastors and black church administrators wrote a statement called “The Black Power Statement,” which was published that same day, July 31st 1966, in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times newspapers. Instead of them condemning Black Power, they basically said that the Christian gospel was compatible with Black Power! One of the often-quoted phrases or sections from those LA Times and NY Times newspaper publications is, “In the United States today, white communities have a disproportion of power and little morality, and African American communities have disproportion of morality and little power.”
So, here we find Christianity interpreting Black Power as a positive reality for America in the 60’s. That was in 1966, but actually it wasn’t until March of 1969 that James Cone wrote the first book on black theology, entitled, Black Theology and Black Power, in which he lays the basis for a liberation theology, again indigenous to the U.S.A, different from those in Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and of course, different from Latin America.
In a nutshell, black theology is really a movement that emerged out of communities and Christian churches, particularly the African American community and black churches in America. Only later did it move into the academy and become part of a systematic development of a body of knowledge with successive generations—first, second, and third generations. Yet, throughout its history it has always been concerned about what the gospel message of Jesus Christ has to do with the issues of justice, freedom, and liberation in the real world of people, where people hurt, and where people matter the most!
TOJ: You mentioned that James Cone’s, Black Theology and Black Power, distinguished black theology from other theologies of liberation at the time. What are the significant differences between black theology of liberation, and say, Latin American, African, or Asian liberation theology?
DH: Yes, there are some differences, but first let me address the commonalties. Independent of each other and unbeknownst to them, liberation theologies began throughout the world separately, in Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, and of course, the United States. It was only later when they began to meet as graduate students, post-doc students, or part of various Christian denominational conferences (interestingly enough in Europe!) that they began to say, “Oh my goodness, we have a common basis here!” So, there are profound commonalties.
One is the belief that theology begins first of all not with doctrine but with social analysis of poor people’s practice, which is radically different form mainstream theology…where one basically learns a system of thought of a thinker, a community, an era, or a church. So, in mainstream theology one begins with ‘ortho-doxy’ [right-dogma/theory]. In contrast, all forms of liberation theologies began with ‘ortho-praxis’ [right-living/practice]. That is to say, we begin with an analysis of what’s happening with people in the real society. And based on our involvement from an analysis of what is happening to ‘real people’ in ‘real society’, we then begin to think about how theology relates to the reality of the world, particularly the world of poor people, or people who are marginalized!
Some of the differences were much more prominent in the beginning of liberation theology’s existence…in the late 60’s and early 70’s. In the U.S., for example, black theology of liberation was focusing heavily on race, and understandably so, given the reality of African Americans being brought to the United States since August 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia, primarily on the basis of race—as laborers, but, more specifically, a ‘racial-laboring’ group. And so, ‘race’ was underscored initially in black theology of liberation in the U.S.
Latin American liberation theology began with a heavy accent on ‘class’, because that had been the historical and sociological reality for Latin American people. That is to say, the first wave of missionaries to Latin America were from the Roman Catholic church, and the second wave of missionaries were from European Protestant churches, but class was the underlying construct, or foundation, much more than gender and race, linking the colonialism of the Catholic church, and the neo-colonialism the Protestant church. And so, ‘class’ was a major factor for the rise of Latin American liberation theology.
The other reason that class was a large part of the initial launching of Latin American theology, in addition to the historical and sociological reasons, is that unlike any of the other liberation theologies around the world, Latin American theology was greatly impacted by socialism and Marxism. Cuba being there…also all the different socialist parties and Marxist student groups throughout Latin America, during that ‘heroic’, if you wish, or chaotic period of the 1960’s in Latin America. And so that too is a major factor in why class is such a large aspect of the origin of Latin American theology.
African theology was primarily interested in the issue of ‘faith’, as it pertains to African indigenous cultures. That is to say, they were concerned about how it is possible to be a Christian and at the same time maintain one’s African identity—pre-colonial, pre-missionary, or pre-contact identity…before European discoverers and missionaries made ‘contact’ with the African continent. And so, ‘culture’ played a large part in the development of African theology.
There are two exceptions to this, however. One was in Cameroon, and the other is in the country of South Africa, where, in contrast to African theology’s emphasis on ‘faith’ and ‘culture’, they talked more about ‘class’.
And then Asia…which is the largest region of the world. Because in Asia, Christians make up less than three percent of the population, a large part of how they do their theology is shaped by the issue of ‘many religions and many cultures.’
Asians have no problem being a Christian and a Buddhist, a Daoist and a Christian, and so on. And you get a sense of almost a ‘Buddhist accent’—emphasizing internal harmony and balance, and correct relationship between humanity and nature, wind, and the earth—on all religions. It is a different reality because the philosophical basis of Asian cultures is so different from that of the West. Buddhism is the most significant religion in Asia, of course, at least to those of us in the West. However, when you go to Asia you realize there are many other religions besides Buddhism, and that there are all kinds of Buddhism(s).
You know, if you were to meet someone and ask, “Oh, are you a Buddhist?” they would likely say, “What kind of Buddhist do you mean?” Westerners have a strong picture of what a Buddhist is…but you have Buddhists and monks who don’t live as we might think…some are partying, marrying, and having kids! When I visited Asia this surprised me. One monk introduced me to his wife and kids right there in the temple. And I was like, “Is this a Buddhist monk?”
TOJ: A lapsed Buddhist, perhaps? [laughter]
DH: Perhaps…[laughter]. But, nonetheless, there is a worldview, or sensibility, that all the religions that come to Asia have to encounter. And so, when Asian theology of liberation began it was not concerned primarily with ‘race’ (as in black theology), with ‘class’ (as in Latin America), or with ‘culture’ (as in Africa indigenous theology).
Asian theology, in fact, combines all of these at once. The idea that one can’t be a Buddhist and a Christian, or that one can’t talk about politics, sociology, and economics, is very foreign to the Asian worldview. So it’s very difficult for them—speaking in general terms, of course—that one would pit something against the other. The world is ‘Ooooooone’.
So, those are the major regions—the U.S., Latin America, Africa, and Asia. While there are commonalties in method, each has different accents. The various theologies of liberation first met together formally in 1975 to form the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT). The founder of EATWOT was a black African priest. Many people don’t know that. A lot of people think EATWOT was begun by brothers and sisters in Latin America, but the first two meetings were actually held in Africa.
TOJ: If these theologies of liberation developed independently, as you have said, is there any explanation for why these particular theologies share a common consciousness, or spirit, and why they came about at a similar time?
DH: Right, well…most people would agree that theology is a reflection of the context in which it arises. And, as we know, all throughout the world, the 50’s and 60’s were major periods of ‘flow’. That is to say, people’s activities were in a flow…all around the world people were feeling that they should be agents in history!
Of course, many, many movements arose during this time—the Civil Rights movement, the Human Rights movement, the Black Power movement, Women’s movement, the Feminist movement, the Gay/Lesbian movement, the Student movement, etc. For example, 1968 was a major year of student and trade movements in France. People thought that they were going to strike up a revolution, literally…that’s how volatile it was…there was the possibility of revolution in France! There were struggles everywhere, with the exception of the USSR.
Take Latin America, for example…the CIA was killing heads of state, and the leaders in the struggle for national liberation, like Che Guevara. And they were killing these people because people were moving to the left. Politically, the world moved to the left!
The same thing was happening in Asia—student movements, women’s movements, etc. And then, of course, in the U.S. there was huge armed resistance and political resistance to the Vietnam War. 1960 was also the year of de-colonization in Africa, and the beginning of the anti-apartheid movement. Every portion of the world was in flow!
Now, theology basically tries to discern where the presence of God is in the contemporary situation! And so…
TOJ: I really appreciate that definition…
DH: Yes, that’s exactly why James Cone’s first book, Black Theology and Black Power, says, if that is the definition of theology, then clearly, “the revelation of God today is black power!”
TOJ: Simple…and profound!
DH: That’s what he’s talking about. It’s not that complex, you know. It’s not a revolutionary definition…he just did the rope-a-dope! He took the mainstream definition and said, ‘OK, I agree with you. Now, where do see people struggling for human dignity? Where do we see people struggling for freedom and liberation? Where do we see those things that Jesus Christ calls us to be aware of, and involved in, today?’ And, for Cone, that was the Black Power movement!
And the Black Power movement wasn’t simply how it is usually portrayed…as primarily about armed struggle. It was about free breakfasts, free toys for kids, demonstrations against police brutality, fighting for housing, fighting for the de-segregation of trade unions, fighting to have more black students in traditionally white schools, trying to get more money from the federal government for poor mothers, etc. It was about all of that. Now, people are attracted to the Black Panther party and the black beret, of course, because that kind of news sells!
TOJ: That iconic picture comes to mind of the panthers standing side by side, leaning against the wall with their arms crossed.
DH: Yes…that picture of Bobby Seale and the others. Of course, the media is going to promote that because they’ll sell more papers. Now, when the majority of a movement wants to achieve a certain purpose and list of demands, they often refer to the most extreme possibility [laughter]…or at least they suggest, or hint at them, in order to get those demands met! This is where talk of armed resistance comes in.
So, when Cone refers to ‘revelation’ he is talking broadly about all that falls under Black Power, which included the Panthers and the black nationalists, but it was also about the mainstream renaissance reawakening of the ‘Negro community’ being transformed into a ‘Black community’.
Black Power was a holistic movement…from dance, clothing, speech, architecture, literature…to armed struggles, in the case of the Panthers, which was basically armed self-defense! It was a whole gamut of things. That’s what Cone meant by Black Power as the revelation of God. People think that Christianity and Black Power is Bobby Seale. Well, it was that, but Black Power was also much more than that. And, of course, it had its down side like any other movement, particularly with gender issues.
It took awhile, but there has been a big critique of the gender piece and the subordination of women. But, interestingly enough, the prophetic and progressive part of the Black Power movement with respect to gender was the Panther party. All the other groups were pretty bad.
TOJ: It’s very interesting that the concern for women’s liberation within the Black Power movement can be traced back to the Panthers.
DH: Yes…when Bobby Seale was in jail, and Huey Newton was either underground or out of the country, Elaine Brown took on the Black Panther party. A woman ran the Black Panther party! I mean, we all know women do the real work anyway, but she was the formal chairperson, the official leader of the party!
TOJ: Now that you have told us the story of black theology, what about your story? What peaked your interest in black theology, and how did you become the theologian that you are today?
DH: Well, I was born in February of 1953 into segregation in Richmond, Virginia, which was semi-urban. And that was the time of segregation, so all the things that you read about…that’s what we were born into.
TOJ: How vivid is the memory of the experience of segregation for you?
DH: Very! I came from a working class background, and my family tried to protect me, but they couldn’t always do it. My older siblings were more threatened. I am the youngest in my family, so by the time I came along they were able to protect me from much of it. But you heard things…and you did eventually see things. I mean, if you had to stop and get water, you had to use a separate fountain, and you couldn’t protect someone from that! We also went to segregated public schools. And in the south there were two religions—one was the Baptists, the other one was Football…
TOJ: Did they make you choose between religions or could you do both? [laughter]
DH: No, both! Sure! [laughter] So, we grew up with family, faith, education…the classic American story under segregation. Then I won a five-year scholarship to a New England boarding school, Groton. You know, you read something where two-hundred families own seventy-five percent of the wealth in America—well, this is were their kids go. So, that impacted me about ‘class’.
The academic piece wasn’t the issue. Maybe this wasn’t the case for all black schools under segregation, but my segregated school over-prepared us. And so, the academic piece wasn’t nothing, but the class piece was! Wheeew, oh my God…I could tell stories about what I participated in with them.
The other piece that impacted me was ‘cultural.’ This was my first experience with northern-white brothers and sisters, New England blue-blood primarily, except for those who were sons of governors from southern states or leaders from other countries. So, that impacted me in terms of class, and in terms of opening up a global perspective on life.
In our school there were two-hundred boys, and only twelve were black. That’s exactly two in each class—the unspoken quota [laughter]. Couldn’t stand more than two Negroes in one class there!
So…class, culture, global issues…all of these became very, very clear to me existentially. And with class, the distinction between income and wealth came to the fore. The difference between income and wealth…big difference!
TOJ: Could you please explain that difference to me?
DH: Well, I always use this example with my students in class. Let’s say you have John D. Rockefeller and a black woman from the ghetto working in the post office making thirty-thousand dollars a year. Then you have cut-backs and they are both laid-off…what happens? Well, hopefully the woman can get unemployment or live off some savings if she has any. In contrast, John D. will say, “Well, which island will I and go hang out at for awhile?” If you don’t have wealth, then when income stops, what happens? That’s the issue!
In addition to opening me up to issues of class, culture, globalization, and the wealth/income distinction, the move to Groton also helped me to leave the church as I had understood it…God died! Because ‘their church’, and more specifically, ‘their God’, was radically different than what I had been taught back home in Richmond, it was a dying of ‘an old god’—but not my ‘faith in God’—which really opened me up to cross boundaries.
For example, in the South under segregation, Christianity was linked to how the slave plantation worked. This is more clear to me now that I am studying it and writing about it. ‘God’ was an old tyrant, and even if you were by yourself, He, (and I do mean, “He”) would still see you and punish you. God is the slavemaster, and this is the slavemaster’s Christianity!
So, one thing that black theology has to do is not only to talk about systemic issues of injustice, but also to go deeply into the psychological self-hatred that many African Americans have, and that they are not even aware of.
In that sense, the slavemaster’s Christianity was successful, because the worst thing that can happen to a person is for them to self-shackle their own imagination. That’s the bottom line!
Now, Groton helped me break out of my own self-shackling, and so it was the slavemaster’s God that died! Now, our household wasn’t totally like that because there were certain customs one had to be socialized into for the sake of survival. You know, if you happened to be downtown and a white person wanted you to get off of the sidewalk, you got off of the sidewalk. Or, as an African American boy, whatever you do, don’t deal with white women. There were things you had to do, and things you just didn’t do! Our parent’s did what they had to do to help us survive and to get where we are today, but that has its down side too.
So, you can see, from the structural level to the inner psychological level, the old God was very thorough. And it depends on what day it is and how I feel when I wake up whether I think it is the ‘external system’ or the ‘internal self-shackling’ that most affects oppressed peoples today.
TOJ: That struck me when you spoke about the slavemaster’s Christianity being “successful”—diabolical, to be sure, but successful! You describe the slavemaster’s Christianity, and the self-shackling it produces, as a religion of murder—encouraging black people to shut themselves down internally…to slowly kill themselves over time.
DH: Yes, it is…and its victims are still walking around dead inside!
Then I went on to Harvard where I majored in African American studies and political economy. Though we had to do a lot of hard academic work while we were there, we were also involved in a lot of student activities.
We were part of a generation that felt that education should serve the people! That was part of the language, culture, and spirit of the campus—“Education should serve the people! Education should serve the people!” Actually, that goes for a lot of campuses at the time—the Big Ten, the Ivy League, the Black universities, and of course, Berkeley and UCLA. I don’t know, maybe not Idaho and some others [laughter], but we took it seriously.
So, when a group of us graduated, some went to work in Roxbury in Boston, and some of us, including myself, went to work in Harlem, where I worked for five years as a community organizer focusing on housing issues. Because we had all this elite education—boarding school and prep school education, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton education, Dartmouth, Brown, etc.—we thought we needed to go serve the people. And that’s what we did!
Now, just because that old God had died, it didn’t mean that my faith in God had died. I mentioned this story briefly in my book, Heart and Head, but I had this friend in Harlem, who was working on electoral issues, who gave me an article, “Why the White Left Must Deal with Racism,” by James H. Cone, founder of ‘the black theology of liberation’. I read it, and then I picked it up about three weeks later and read it a second time. At that point, I was like, ‘Wow, I need to call this guy’.
Now, I had never heard of James Cone, I never heard of black theology, and I never heard of Seminary…it just wasn’t part of my reality. Nobody in my family had ever been ordained or gone to Seminary. Then I came to find out that Union Theological Seminary was about four blocks from where I had been working for the past five years. So, I called him up on the phone, and lo and behold, it was during the summer and he actually picked up the phone. We talked for three or four hours and then he said, “Come on, yeah, come on,” and invited me to start studies in theology in the fall. So I was like…
TOJ: So, you didn’t know enough to be intimidated by him yet [laughter]?
DH: Exactly, exactly, you’re exactly right [laughter]. I was a community organizer and I had been in battle for the past five years organizing against police brutality, against the government, against absentee landlords, etc. I mean, I came out of the movement with the people, but I didn’t know what black theology was all about.
But what intrigued me about the article is that I said, “Ah ha, finally a black guy who is ordained in the church, who is also serious about justice!” That’s the thing that initially got me when I read the article. It’s very short, just a couple pages, and I still keep it with me.
TOJ: With each issue of TOJ we strive for contemporaneity, to address current trends and hinge issues from a theological perspective, and to have our finger on the pulse of ‘what’s happening now’ culturally, politically and artistically. So, in the interest of contemporaneity, what’s currently happening…what are the hot issues and/or developments in black theology today? And, along those lines, what are your current research interests?
DH: We’re currently in the third generation of black theology…some say the fourth, but I note three. Cone’s generation was the first generation, running from 1966 to 1979, and the second generation ran from 1980 to about 1994.
When generations come along that are further away from the founding generation, they begin to raise questions that challenge the initial premises of the founding generation, and also try to chart new exciting, pioneering, and ‘un-thought-of charted ways’, as they say [laughter, and said with a pirate voice…a convincing one too].
So, you have a whole variety of issues that have come up. One is around sexuality, which, as I have said, is very important. And, of course, globalization and issues surrounding the international situation are being discussed.
But the third generation is also asking questions with reference to being what they call a “post-soul generation.” It’s like, “You all had to struggle in the first and second generation, and now we have the freedom to think and write about whatever is interesting to us.” There is a lively debate about where the justice edge of this broadening worldview is, and we have meetings every now and then to discuss this.
Also, some in the third generation are asking questions about ‘black church’ and other concepts taken for granted in both the first and second generation, like, ‘black culture’ and ‘folk culture’—they are asking what we actually mean by these concepts. And, of course, issues of hip-hop and rap are very important to the third generation.
Coming back to sexuality…those in the first generation wouldn’t touch it, and there were only one or two of us in the second generation who would write about it. I make a distinction between when you talk about something and when you write about it.
When you say something you can always re-contextualize it later. But when you write something, people have a yardstick. And they’ll question you…and they’ll catch you…and they’ll wear your butt out! For example, in my book, Heart and Head, I have an article, “The New Black Heterosexual Male,” in which I say, “Any black man who treats black women as a secondary status is the antichrist.” And my wife [also a theologian] has reminded me of that sentence many times [laughter]!
TOJ: That page is well-worn in her copy, huh? [laughter]
DH: It is well-worn…underlined, with lipstick, everything [laughter].
TOJ: And your current research projects?
DH: Well, the book, Being Human: Race, Culture and Religion, is more or less a conceptual, theoretical, foundational approach to what it means to be human—what are the key terms, what’s the major issues at stake, what’s the history of the discussion?
Now, having that out of the way, I want to actually get into constructing a positive statement of what it means to be human. And the sources I am using for this ‘constructive positive statement on what it means to be human’ are African American folk tales—black folk tales.
So far I have come up with four models: the “conjurer,” the “outlaw,” the “trickster,” and the “Christian hero/heroine” for Christian witness. And I am going to use these models to show how complicated and layered the discussion of what it means to be human is, not only from an African American perspective, but also more generally.
Basically, I don’t see any distinction between sacred and secular. Nor do I see a hard divide between inter-religious dialogue. So, while each of the four can be seen as a religious paradigm, I am not just going to pick one. Rather, I’ll take all four models and filter them through a Christian perspective. So, if Being Human, which laid the theoretical groundwork, was step one, this book, which is a more constructive and positive statement of what it means to be human, will be step two.
TOJ: That’s a very interesting framework. I look forward to reading it when it’s finished.
DH: Yeah, I look forward to finishing it too! [laughter] So, that’s a major single-authored project. And then I was asked by Cambridge University Press in the U.K. to edit their Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, which is part of their stellar “Cambridge Companion Series.” I said I would do it only if I could choose a co-editor, so I chose a friend of mine to be a co-editor. So far we have major pieces from the USA, South Africa, Cameroon, India, Brazil, Cuba, UK, Australia…all talking about black theology.
TOJ: Well that’s two books we’ll be looking forward to now…no pressure [laughter].
DH: Take your time [laughter].
TOJ: One of the questions we are exploring in this issue of the TOJ is the relationship between Christianity and revolution(s)—social, political, cultural, racial sexual, etc. In your view, to what extent is Christianity revolutionary…to what extent does it aim at the transformation of this present world? Further, to those who might be suspicious of Christian efforts not specifically directed at the ‘salvation of souls,’ what biblical texts or theological themes would you highlight to persuade them otherwise?
DH: Well, the Bible is the primary resource for Christians, and for those of us who want to think through this question from a Christian perspective. I think that Jesus Christ, or at least the witness we have of him in the bible, was a revolutionary on many levels! He was definitely a social revolutionary, who contradicted, transgressed and challenged the established normative social relations…and that to me is what revolution is all about…challenging and changing the status quo!
I start off with the ‘social,’ dealing with materiality, because of the prevailing attitude within the U.S. of Jesus Christ as something of a little barefooted hippie, Ohmmm chanting, turn the other cheek type. However, he was social revolutionary, first of all, because he challenged, transgressed, and disrupted the status quo of social relations. He totally revolutionized how people related across religious, cultural and sexual difference. We know he did this in terms of women.
For example, he had women friends that he never had sex with. Hello…a man can be friends with, intimate with, and maybe even be sensuous with a woman, and not have a sex with her…that’s a revolution, a deep revolution! So yes, on the issue of gender and sexual relationships Jesus Christ was a revolutionary.
He was also a revolutionary in terms of the way he followed his vocation even when it meant challenging the Roman Empire. This is a bold point! People don’t often understand that the Roman Empire felt threatened by Jesus. The Roman Empire actually felt threatened by him—that’s why they took him out!
You know, people think of revolution as an underground army or suicide bombers. Jesus didn’t go this route, of course, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a revolutionary. That’s our conception today, but we are talking about the Roman Empire.
Perhaps the parallel today would be the Iraq situation, which is really a colony of the U.S. government. If some preacher, mystic, or some spiritual person began to stand up and say, “There is a better reality, or kingdom!” (Now I’d say ‘kin-dom’, or ‘commonwealth’.) “There is a better reign we can bring in!” Now, the Empire knows what that means. The Empire would know! The White House would know!
If some guy or gal said, “Look, my Parent is not of this world, and I get my authority from somewhere else,”—the Empire would feel threatened. So, people ask, was Jesus a Marxist, a Leninist, a Maoist, or for armed struggle? No! But, once again, this doesn’t mean he wasn’t a revolutionary. What did the Empire think…what did the status quo think?
You see, revolution is always in relationship to a status quo. No revolution is going to happen unless that which is going to be overthrown feels the threat of being overthrown. That’s the definition of a revolution! [laughter]
You and I can sit here and talk…and that’s good…but if the government of the country that we are in doesn’t feel that we are being revolutionary, then there is not going to be a revolution! Hello, I mean, to me it is so commonsensical.
For example, irrespective of people’s perspective of Tiananmen Square, remember that famous picture that CNN always showed of that guy standing in front of the tank. That government felt that he was revolutionary…and he didn’t even have a party or a following! Now, of course, if he had gone on to get a party, or to get a following, like Jesus did, then of course they would have taken him out.
The other example…take Fidel Castro, or Che Guevara…they challenged the Batista and the U.S. government. For me, you’re not involved in revolution unless the power reinforcing the status quo feels threatened by what you are doing and by what you are talking about—that’s the revolution…otherwise you are not a revolutionary!
So, Jesus was a revolutionary in a ‘political’ sense (by posing a threat the Roman Empire), he was a revolutionary in a ‘social’ sense (particularly with respect to gender and sexuality), and he was a revolutionary clearly in a ‘religious’ sense…at every single level he was a revolutionary! And what this says is that one doesn’t necessarily have to have an army to have a revolution. Rather, one has to capture people’s imagination and their hearts.
To me, those were two things Jesus did that marked him as a true revolutionary. Revolution isn’t an individual thing…revolution is about the people. You have to have the hearts and imagination of the people!
This brings us back to what I have been saying about black theology. Black theology challenges the systems of white supremacy, and the self-imposed shackles of black folk—both of which are still in effect in 2007. I do a lot of work in the black community, with black students, and in black churches, and it is amazing to me how people’s hearts and imaginations are shackled by self-imposed chains!
TOJ: Is that part of why, as a theologian, you are also interested in psychology?
DH: Yes…I am not trained, but I am very much interested. That’s why I say, if there were four of me, you know, if I were a quadruplet, one would be a theologian in Hawaii saving the Hawaiian monk fields…and surfing! Another would be a psychologist really getting at the inner revolution of the self. The third would be doing exactly what Dwight Hopkins is doing, which he loves to do…teaching and writing. And I won’t tell you what the last one would be doing [laughter].
TOJ: I am always interested in what those who locate themselves outside the Christian community have to say about the Christian religion, whether it be positive or negative. On this note, the Jewish Marxist Atheist philosopher, Ernst Bloch, once commented that, “Christianity was unique in that it began as a religion of the poor and oppressed.” Further, he used this account of Christianity’s beginnings (in oppression) to explain the ‘revolutionary spirit’ of Christianity. As Bloch also wrote, “You can’t have a revolution without the bible!” Bloch’s account of the origins of Christianity and its implications for its penchant for revolution, strike me as similar to your own comments in, Down and Up the River, regarding the significance of locating black theology’s origins in the slave period. How does this unique and tragic history continue to inform black theology today? Or, more specifically, how significant is the concrete link to the slave period for explaining why, among American theologies, black theology continues to champion ‘the liberation of the poor and oppressed’ as essential to Christianity?
DH: Well, yes…the aspect of freedom, the aspect of struggle, the aspect of justice, liberation and salvation, that black theology continues to follow, giving it, even today, a revolutionary emphasis (though of course revolution changes in each social context and historical moment) is largely due to its origins in the slave period.
Black people in the slave period understood that Christianity was akin to the Exodus movement in the Hebrew scriptures. There wasn’t any debate over this. It was very clear to the people under slavery that the purpose of God, Yahweh, was to liberate slaves! It’s pretty transparent hermeneutics and exegesis.
So too, when they saw Jesus in the New Testament they saw him as a further development of Moses, which again is linked to the Old Testament theme of liberation. Black theology is motivated to a large degree, both historically in its origins and even today in its continuation, by slaves and slave theology, which are the ancestors of black theology. And that gives it a certain grounding with the reality of the people who need to be delivered.
Let me try to put it anther way. First, black theology did not emerge in the academy. This is a very major issue. So, it has never seen questions like, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?,” as the primary focus of theology.
That is not to say that black theology doesn’t have a philosophy, epistemology, ontology, pedagogy, or scientific methodology. It is not that it doesn’t deal with all those things, but it knows that those are important to discuss—if one wants to discuss those things—in relationship to a larger system of people and people’s relationships in society and throughout the world. That’s the big difference from mainstream theology!
Black theology started outside the academy…it started in the churches…it started within a context of movements of people struggling for human rights and justice. Second, black theology of liberation started differently from Latin American liberation theology, because it started out of the churches in the black community. Only then did it move towards Marxism in its search for tools of analysis to make sense its struggle.
In contrast, Latin American liberation theology began with Marxism. That is to say, Marxism shaped it from the beginning. This is a big distinction. For example, in the Fall of 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed, and in 1991 when the USSR decided to realign itself (or, as the White House said, “implode!”), Latin American liberation theology was rocked because Marxism and Socialism was such a part of it. Black theology was not rocked because its interest in Marxism came as result of being involved in the indigenous materiality of this country, these people, these churches, these movements…when it found Marxist analysis helpful in its search for justice.
So, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Wall came down, when Capitalism was on the rise in the People’s Republic of China, and when there was uncertainty as to what is going to happen with Castro…when you are rooted where black theology is, then a shift in the tools won’t lead toward a disillusionment with the movement.
Because we are rooted more in the history of our own ancestors in slavery, the radicality of their theology kept us moving forward even as these larger global shifts took place. So, we can see how Marxist analysis can still be used, but again, filtered through our experience as a people linked to the slave period. And I think that’s what makes black theology all the more subversive. As opposed to being imported, it’s indigenously rooted, based on the fiber and the soul of the people!
TOJ: As you’ve pointed out, James Cone’s, Black Theology and Black Power, was the first book of American theology to link Christianity with the liberation of the poor and oppressed. This is as much a compliment to Cone, as it is an indictment on mainstream theology for overlooking the biblical theme of liberation. Further, my hunch is that to whatever extent the message of liberation has been picked up within mainstream American Christianity in recent years, Cone (and black theologians in general) fail to receive due credit. How would you explain mainstream American Christianity’s resistance to black theology, and to the message of liberation? And what gifts, if received, could black theology provide to Christian theology at large?
DH: I think it’s very difficult for mainstream theology to appreciate the gift of liberation that black theology brings to the world Christian family.
One reason is racial. I think it’s very hard for American culture to accept leadership from Afro-Americans…and I mean leadership on the fundamental issues of society. That is to say, the United States sees itself as a Christian country. So, the idea of black people providing leadership and giving re-definition for what Christianity means for America is seriously resisted.
For example, this is what mainstream America says about Martin Luther King: “Oh, he was a great preacher.” “Oh, he was a historic figure.” “Oh, he sacrificed his life.” However, we are talking about theology, which is the thinking of the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Nothing is said about Martin Luther King as a theologian.
There’s a difference between black preachers leading demonstrations, and then them thinking theologically about the faith that causes them to do what they do. You see, that’s the difference. That’s why the public doesn’t see Martin Luther King as a theologian. Although, in my opinion he is the greatest theologian in the history of the United States. Yes, even better than Jonathan Edwards…sorry [laughter].
So, one level is racial. Once again, it’s hard for American culture and Christianity to appreciate or accept that black people can think deeply about the nature of the faith—that is, “do theology”—in a way that would impact, if not change, what Christianity means for America.
Second, I think that it’s hard for mainstream Christianity to accept the liberation thrust of black theology because I think mainstream Christianity has a wrong theology!
I think the majority of mainstream theology, Christianity, and churches, see Jesus Christ as simply an individual historical figure, a God-figure of course, who came to pay a price for the sins that I have committed. That has nothing to do with liberation. That has nothing to do with justice. That has to do with individualism…with me…with my sins…and what I call ‘the right to be me’: “I have the right to be me, I have the right to do this, I have the right to do that, because Jesus paid the price for me.” Whereas for me, it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and—‘salvation’ of the individual that is linked to the ‘liberation’ of structures. You can’t have one without the other.
I just don’t know why mainstream Christianity doesn’t see that. I mean, I know how they don’t see it… they just proof-text! They take a little text here from Paul, and a little text there from Jesus and the Gospels, and simply piece them together. However, it seems to me that as a whole narrative it is relatively clear that the Hebrew scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) are about a people being freed by their God, and about the establishment of a covenant that this God will continue to be a liberating God with them, for them, and in them.
Then Jesus Christ comes and says, “These scriptures are fulfilled before your eyes today!” The Hebrew scriptures are the one’s he is talking about here! And he says that his way of being is about liberation, justice, and wholeness of the individual and the collective, the one and the many.
Once again, I don’t know why mainstream Christianity doesn’t see this! I mean, I have my speculation…perhaps the problem is that mainstream Christianity in the U.S. equates itself with American Capitalist culture! You can see this when you travel around the world. If we could take all 300 million Americans and just do a global immersion for a year then they could see that their Christianity is ‘American Capitalist Christianity’…you know, the heavy individualism, the prosperity gospel, a consumerist outlook on religion, etc.
TOJ: Short of a global immersion, which I agree would be good for all of us, me included [laughter], what evidence or phenomena would you point to in order to help American Christians see that their Christianity is ‘American Capitalist Christianity’?
DH: Once again, in a nutshell, I think that Christianity in the U.S. equates the gospel of Jesus Christ with American culture and values. This operates on various levels.
Perhaps the clearest level is the contemporary ‘neo-charismatic prosperity gospel’ (and the domestic and international missionary movements that it supports), which is characterized by, you know…“name it and claim it,” “show forth Jesus’ blessings,” The Prayer of Jabez, etc., all of which is about increasing ‘my territory’ in a consumeristic sense.
So, of course, the neo-charismatic prosperity gospel directly supports the occupation (or “colonization,” as I call it) of Iraq. For example, Creflo Dollar—a representative of the movement—had on the homepage of his website that Christians must support the American military presence in Iraq, saying, “If you have ever protested against the war or signed a petition against the war you must repent and ask God for forgiveness.” And then he had a series of passages to walk you through your repentance.
So, there is a direct link between neo-charismatic theology, and both the foreign policy of the US government, and values of American capitalist culture. That’s the more obvious case for the point I am making. Yet, I think even liberal mainstream Christianity, which would decry and theologically critique the neo-charismatic views in support of the war, also collapses the gospel of Jesus Christ and American culture and values. The simple question would be to ask mainstream liberal Christianity in America, “Do you support capitalism?”
TOJ: One of the features of capitalism that you identified in your article, “The Religion of Globalization,” is its monstrous capacity to absorb everything into its orbit, and into its service…making everything into a ‘commodity’, that is, reducing the value of anything (including people) to its economic value in an economy of exchange. This raises the question of whether it is possible to have a revolution within our current capitalist system. For, if revolutions themselves become commodities the danger is that then they cease to be truly revolutionary and end up merely supporting the present system. To what extent are revolutions possible within what you have described as our ‘global-capitalist’ society?
DH: I think there is always the possibility to disrupt the status quo, to bring about change in systems, and to bring about a revolution…because revolutions are motivated and led not by theories but by people. And people make revolutions for two reasons.
First, because they get to a point where they find they can’t live in the current structures or situation. And second, because they are able to see a better way than the current system or structure—they must have a vision. You’ve got to have both together! You can have people who are so fed up with being ‘pressed to the wall’, to use Howard Thurman’s phrase, but who lack a vision. Or, you can have a group of people who have a vision, but they don’t feel that they’re pinned to the wall enough for them to sacrifice to achieve that vision. So, I think, first, that revolutions are made by people, and second, that those are at least two conditions that need to be in place in order for a revolution to be carried out.
The other important thing to say is that revolutions don’t come from outside of systems—all revolutions take place within the current system! Now, if you are asking if the current system—economic, political, religious, gender, cultural, etc.—would allow a revolution to take place…I am not quite clear. But I will say that if a revolution is to take place it must be from within the current system…definitely!
As to the question of whether or not we are in a revolutionary period? I would say, No, we are not in a revolutionary period at this point!
TOJ: Please expand on that, as some would say that we are in such a period…
DH: Well, I can tease it out…For me, revolution has both an ‘objective dimension’ and a ‘subjective dimension’. That is to say, if the objective conditions are there for a revolution, there must also be subjective conditions—the peoples’ will, a willingness to sacrifice and die, a vision of a better reality. They must also have institutional organization, have captured the hearts and imaginations of a significant portion of the populace, and they have to have the element of force…the force element must be there.
These are all elements of the subjective dimension…and I don’t see it! I might see the objective dimension. The fact that we have the Patriot Act, and the fact that we have so many dishonest statements from national leaders of both parties, shows the fragility of the objective conditions. Even the fact that some CEO’s are making $150,000 a day is a sign of the fragility of the economic system. Because when people are confident in the system, they will give crumbs to others. It’s only the people who lack confidence that have to totally screw other people! So, I might grant the objective conditions, but it seems to me we have to have both the objective and subjective factors to have a revolution.
TOJ: Well, if the objective conditions are in place, perhaps this interview will help bring about the subjective [laughter].
TOJ: Speaking of the objective and subjective conditions for revolution…what is your attitude towards the notion that there has been “progress” for blacks, and in race relations in general, in America? And then, how do we celebrate the progress (if there has been any), without minimizing the difficulties and disadvantages that continue to plague African Americans?
DH: The issue of whether or not there has been progress… Now, my response is referring to what has been the result of the 1950’s Civil Rights movement, and the 1960’s and early 70’s Black Consciousness (or Black Power) movement.
There have been various reports on the part of political economists, particularly African American political economists, looking at all the major indices of the standard of living both prior to the 1950’s Civil Rights movement and today. And those reports unanimously concur that the majority of African American people today are worse off now than they were then.
For example, you can look at the annual national Urban League report, “The State of Black America.” You can look at the work of political science professor Ron Walters, formerly of Howard University, and now at the University of Maryland at Baltimore…the writings of the political economist, Julianne Malveaux…and Manning Marable, a socialist at Columbia University.
So, it’s not just me talking about this. These are people who are trained formally and who have been on the path of social research for 30-40 years—using social scientific methods, as well as their own political lens of interpretation—who are all saying the same thing.
At the same time, we have the largest percentage of black professionals that we’ve ever had. Basically, the result of the 50’s Civil Rights movement and 60’s/70’s Black Consciousness/Power movement is that a ‘petty-bourgeois professional class’, like myself, came about.
Other than that, most places in America are re-segregated…many in the north. The three most segregated cities in the U.S. are Chicago, Boston and Milwaukee. Isn’t that amazing!
TOJ: Yeah, I didn’t know that…I wouldn’t have guessed that.
DH: Yep. We also know the sad tale of our public schools: they have been re-segregated as well. But on the positive side, what has happened is that there is a certain consciousness that lingers from the process of having gone through the movements. So, those today who didn’t go through the movement still know that it can happen…both blacks and whites know this.
You know, the Civil Rights movement was racially integrated to a large degree. And then when black students turned toward Black Power, they didn’t run white brothers and sisters out, but said, “Look, this is a black thing, you wouldn’t understand it, so, go do your thing.”
Nonetheless there are solid examples throughout the movement where coalitions were successfully built across races and across cultures. At the same time, it is important for communities, or sectors, that are oppressed to have their own space to do their own thing…not permanently, in my view, but there is a dynamic between having one’s own space and building coalitions with others.
Another positive is that there is also much more awareness on the gender piece…which is a good thing, particularly in terms of black women’s leadership, black women’s voice, and black women’s organizations. All these are happening, even as misogyny and patriarchy continue to increase. It’s a very complex and fluent thing.
So, on the positive side there is the memory of examples that were successful—integrated coalitions and women’s leadership. But on the negative side, every indices of what it means to be healthy and to have a good economic standard of living shows that it’s worse today—income, savings, family, marriage, parental/child relationships, the extent of drug use and incarceration—at every level, not just the material and economic. It is worse! It’s pretty sobering!
TOJ: And what about the state of racism today? Is today’s racism all the more insidious and dangerous because its systemic rootedness makes it more difficult for white people to clearly identify? If racism has not lessened, has it merely changed its face?
DH: We can look at ‘the changing face of racism’ from a couple of angles. First, those who are opposed to integration and justice for black folk have co-opted the language of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement to use it against those who want justice for racially oppressed people! It’s very slick.
For example, some say, “Well, we don’t need affirmative action, nor do we need to talk about the particularity of African American kids, because Martin Luther King said, ‘we want a society where we don’t talk about the color of skin but about the content of character’.” Now, I am a man of non-violence, but…[shaking fist with a smile].
A second angle is the notion of color-blindness—where the issue of race is simply not talked about. Now, I use ‘multiculturalism’ as a point of positive, but there is also a negative way that others can use it to avoid talking about race. Not even to talk about race negatively, but simply to not talk about it…as if it’s just not there.
There is also a problem with some of the new language that is developing and being used within the black community, and to talk about the black community from the outside. We can’t just move on to some issues and leave others behind. You know, as if now that black guys can talk about gender issues we can move on to something else. I don’t think so—there’s still a lot of work to be done, brother…don’t move on too fast [laughing].
So, that’s a danger too—as we make more important breakthroughs on various theoretical and analytical fronts we need to also maintain some of those issues that are still burning! You know, race is still an issue! Dubois was right, “the color line is still there.” Now, I would say the ‘class-color line’ (not just ‘race’, but ‘race and class’)—that’s my line that I would add to the book.
In the twenty-first century, it’s more specifically the ‘black-poor’ who are most oppressed, the majority of which are black women!
TOJ: My sense from talking with you is that you are a true second generation black theologian…standing between the first and third generations and holding them and their respective concerns together. That is, you want to move with the third generation into new areas while keeping the justice and liberation edge of the first generation. That might also make you something of a prophet.
DH: That’s a fair characterization…that’s my ‘thing’. You know, I am a both/and, not an either/or, kind of person. Let’s take the Rutgers basketball team as an example. People ask, “Were you hurt primarily because you are ‘black’, or were you hurt primarily because you are a ‘woman’?” And these young black ladies said, “Well, as a ‘black-woman’…” [laughing]. Once again, it’s a both/and—both race, gender, and class.
So, to me, it’s important that the first generation did what it had to do…it laid the foundations. The second and third generations want to do their own thing. That’s natural. But, for me, what holds the generations of black theology together is this dialectic of ‘individual internal liberation’ and ‘societal external liberation’… ‘internal individual salvation’ and ‘external societal salvation’, however one wants to say it. And yes, with an emphasis on the salvation/liberation of the poorest and most oppressed people at the bottom. Because that’s how I see the Hebrew scriptures…that’s how I see Jesus!
TOJ: Alright…final words. Is there anything you would really like to say that my questions didn’t provide opportunity for?
DH: Yeah, I think that the future of all forms of liberation theology and progressive Christianity domestically within the U.S. will be greatly enhanced by linking hands with our brothers and sisters globally.
One thing globalization has done is that it allows us to draw global resources to help with domestic agendas. And we just see the domestic agenda not realizing that we have potential partners all over the world who would love to have people-to-people relationships even though they have serious critiques of the policies of the U.S. government and the norms and values of the Christian church in America.
TOJ: Dr. Hopkins, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you…thank you very much for sharing your time and your ideas with us at TOJ!
DH: Yeah…sure, it’s been fun!