Days before the Justice Conference opened last Friday, conference organizers almost cancelled the event's headline speaker, Dr. Cornel West. That's according to Stephan Bauman, President and CEO of World Relief, which sponsored the conference. Bauman said West – a prominent socialist, activist, and proponent of black liberation theology – sparked considerable protest from World Relief's conservative constituency.
"Cornel West is controversial among conservatives," Bauman said. "And, some of those conservatives were concerned about Cornel West's track record, his history . . . And, I respect that. I understand that."
During the conference, Bauman told me that he and conference organizers decided to keep West because they wanted to "have dialogue about the things (West) may see differently than others," like race relations. They also felt West was someone who is "deeply in love with Jesus."
Understandably, Bauman also expressed that he was concerned when my article in The Christian Post reporting the controversy over West and some other liberal conference speakers was published on Friday. "I was afraid that your article came across as though we have compromised the gospel by bringing in (Nicolas) Wolterstorff and (Walter) Brueggemann and Cornel West. . . . I was worried that people would come away thinking, 'Wow, the conference, the movement is compromising its love for Jesus.'"
I can appreciate Bauman's concern, though I think the piece fairly reported both sides of the debate. After attending the conference and meeting those who organized it, I have no doubt that those involved with the conference sincerely love Jesus. Even Cornel West, who drew so much criticism, talked extensively about the centrality of loving Jesus and loving one's neighbor. "I don't think there's a speaker in all five conferences who spoke more precisely and passionately about Jesus than Cornel West did," Bauman said. Similarly, Ken Wytsma, president of Kilns College and founder of the Justice Conference, said, "I think it was one of the most Jesus-centered sermons I've heard in a long time. He talked about the blood at the foot of the cross was so thick. That makes most conservatives do back flips, right?"
At the same time, West also showed his hand concerning his political leanings, stating, "One percent of the population now own 42% of the wealth," and decrying "big banks and big corporations tied to big money and politics." Similarly, the conference panel on racial justice led by Rev. Otis Moss had a noticeable Left-leaning bent. Like West, Moss is a proponent of black liberation theology – a theological perspective that sees Christianity as a means of liberating blacks from white oppression. The panel discussion focused on white privilege, and presented a very negative view of America, without offering any dissenting voices. One of the panelists, Rev. Traci Blackmon, said "Race was the evil America was founded on." And, Arloa Sutter of Breakthrough Urban Ministries said America was built on "stolen land" and "stolen labor."
Certainly, there's truth in these statements. But, there's also truth in arguments that scholars like Dinesh D'Souza have made – that every civilization before America stole resources from those it vanquished. What made America unique, though, was that it promoted wealth creation and inherent rights, which eventually made the country prosperous and free. Similarly, there's another side to liberation theology, which was implicitly espoused at the conference. Yes, this theology reveals the truth that God cares about the poor and the outcast and so should His followers. But, it also promotes a Marxist view of society, separating people into oppressed and oppressor, and seeking redemption through politics, instead of the cross.
Bauman acknowledged this point. In fact, he suggested that maybe next year, the Justice Conference could host a discussion on liberation theology, including both advocates and critics. As someone who hosts these kinds of discussions on radio every week, this warmed my heart. I think intelligent and thoughtful forums on the issues important to Christians are critically needed in the church. I would love to hear Cornel West and Anthony Bradley, author of "Liberating Black Theology," go toe-to-toe on theology. Not only would this be instructive, it also would likely be full of grace.
Bauman also clarified his personal view of liberation theology. He said he rejects full embrace of the theology because of its ties to Marxism, calling it "dangerous." At the same time, he said he doesn't believe Christians should flee from anything that even remotely smacks of liberation theology, calling that position "an equally wrong extreme." Instead, Bauman said he favors a position similar to that of Dr. Chuck Van Engen, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. He called this position a "middle road" that recognizes the context in which people are living, but doesn't allow that context to supersede the authority of Scripture.
After noting some of the conference's progressive leanings, though, I asked Bauman if there is room in the social justice movement for conservatives. He said yes, but added, "I think conservatives can be way more loving and accepting and have the dialogue and not be afraid. . . . It would be great if we're all open to changing our convictions, but to love doesn't mean that you have to change your faithfulness to your theology." Quoting Bob Goff's message earlier in the day, he encouraged Christians to "err to the side of love."
Wytsma said he believes conservatives and progressives can work together for justice if they begin with theology, not politics. "I think when we start with theology, progressives and conservatives can unite on a lot of things and then they have a framework for then disagreeing about policy. . . . But when we start with policy, without finding that shared concern for justice, then we go in circles."
I appreciate Wytsma and Bauman's perspective and the humble attitude of many I met at the conference. I especially enjoyed author and columnist Jonathan Merritt's talk, exploring how Christians can disagree with both passion and grace. He encouraged believers to be humble, empathic and brave, but suggested bravery might look different than the bold image we often hold. "I wonder if bravery might also be learning to shut our mouths for a moment – to observe rather than to opine, to let our ears carry the weight of a conversation . . . I think Winston Churchill was on to something when he said, 'Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, but courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.'"
I think Churchill was on to something too – and it's something we desperately need in the church. Listening to each other may not allay the fears both conservatives and liberals have concerning the direction of our country. Nor, will it necessarily resolve any of the differences that stand between us. But, listening humbly to each other may just help Christians look more like the Body of Christ. And, it also may help us actually accomplish the conference's stated goal – to "live justice together."