Unfamiliarity with Black Liberation Theology is only part of what’s fueling this controversy.
Has the Rev. Jeremiah Wright created a racial storm that now surrounds Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination? Is the soon-to-be-retired pastor of the 6,000-plus member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago now chained to Obama throughout the campaign, as was Sidney Poitier to Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones?
I heard in its entirely, along with questions afterwards, Rev. Wright’s April 28 National Press Club speech in Washington, D.C. Wright spoke on the Black religious experience, telling the journalists that by using his past sermons and distorting what he has said, they are attacking the Black church.
“The Black religious experience is a tradition that, at one point in American history, was actually called the ‘invisible institution,’” he said, adding that the U.S. does not fully understand the Black church, paraphrasing a 1963 quote by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After a speech at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Dr. King was asked if integration could start first in the Christian church. “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America,” King responded.
“At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. If the church had taken a stronger stand [on integration] all along, we wouldn’t have many of the [race] problems that we have,” said King.
Wright explained how Liberation Theology, which focuses on Jesus Christ as both the Redeemer and Liberator of the oppressed, is a school of theology that first emerged in post-World War II during the decolonization of Africa and Asia, then spread to Latin America, and then to North and South America. The reverend also explained Black Liberation Theology, which became popular in the late 1960s and ’70s and which he and others continue to preach.
“Black worship is different from European and European-American worship,” Wright pointed out. “It is not deficient; it is just different. Black preaching is different from European and European-American preaching. It is not bombastic; it is not controversial; it’s different.”
Based on the questions afterwards, the journalists didn’t want to hear about Wright’s theological beliefs. They wanted instead to grill him on his past remarks and his relationship with Obama.
“I came here to talk about prophetic theology of the Black church,” Wright reminded the moderator. “I’m not talking about candidates or their positions or their feelings or what they have to say to get elected.”
But that wasn’t happening.
University of Minnesota journalism professor Dr. Catherine Squires questions why Rev. Wright would accept the Press Club’s invitation, “taking a flurry of questions from a bunch of mostly White reporters who have no experience with Black churches, who have no understanding of the term ‘Liberation Theology’ or even heard it. It is all going to be about how he hurt Barack Obama and whether or not [Wright] is patriotic.”
As one disappointed journalist admitted later, Wright wasn’t contrite or apologetic as he answered all questions, sometimes in a straightforward manner but often punctuated with rhetoric. He was humorous, but not once did he back down from anything he said in the past.
Nonetheless, Wright’s responses again made news, which later prompted Obama to speak out against his former pastor. “He does not speak for me,” Obama said as he distanced himself from Wright.
Dedrick Muhammad, a senior organizer and research associate at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., wrote in an April 30 op-ed that Obama is playing political games by distancing himself from Wright. The senator is “trying to be a post-racial candidate in a racially divided nation,” Muhammad later said during a phone interview with the MSR from Washington, D.C.
Has this latest flap proved Rev. Wright’s contention that the Black church is being attacked? At best, the Black church is misunderstood by the mainstream media.
“When it comes to the Black church, we [as pastors] always try to interpret not only preaching but also the Gospel for our people to relate to,” says Rev. Alphonse Reff, Sr., pastor of Wayman AME Church in North Minneapolis.
“We just don’t come to talk about God and religion, but we talk about a whole being and [a] way of living,” adds Rev. Gloria Roach-Thomas, pastor of St. Paul’s Camphor United Methodist Church.
“I wouldn’t frame [the reaction to Wright] as so much an attack on the Black church, [but] rather much more an attack on the tradition of Black Liberation Theology,” Muhammad suggests.
“They [the media] don’t understand a minister [like Wright] who is speaking prophetically, and do not distinguish between what might be called religion and what might be called politics,” says Dr. Herbert Perkins, a seminary student who attends St. Paul’s Cherokee Park United Church of Christ (UCC), adding that Jesus Christ was not afraid to talk about oppression and the need for liberation.
The predominately White UCC denomination “always had the willingness to speak out and act out on issues of justice,” points out Perkins, who conducts anti-racism workshops. “The issues that he is talking about are important issues, and America needs to look at that.”
“A prophet always will say things that people will feel are condemnable,” notes Reff.
“How God guides me to talk, I will say something, whether it is politically correct or not,” admits Roach-Thomas.
Is the pastor as controversial as 30-second clips of past sermons seem to suggest? The mainstream press was caught unprepared when Wright’s sermons first surfaced on YouTube, Squires argues. “I don’t think they understand how to understand people’s reactions to Jeremiah Wright. I don’t think they have any language to speak to Barack Obama’s knowledge of the Black church. It’s like [the media thinks] the Black church is this one big thing where all Black people come on Sundays.”
Instead, the media is practicing a double standard, she adds. “There are many religious leaders who endorsed John McCain [the presumptive Republican presidential nominee] and Hillary Clinton [the other Democrat running for president] who have said equally foul things about people who are Jewish, Catholic, people in the Middle East, gays and lesbians.”
For example, televangelist John Hagee, who in the past has expressed some controversial views, endorses McCain. Squires asks, “Why can John McCann take the endorsement of someone [Hagee] who says many anti-Catholic things, but be able to say that [he] doesn’t agree with many of those anti-Catholic things?
“But when Obama gives a huge speech, and then has to keep repeating over and over that he doesn’t agree with specific things that Jeremiah Wright has said, no one seems to believe that he can take some of what Rev. Wright said in the past about Liberation Theology and disassociate from the things he doesn’t like,” Squires points out.
Are Wright’s words or misuse of his words being used by some as a convenient excuse for not voting for Obama? “If it wasn’t Rev. Wright, it could be Sen. Obama’s connection with attending the Million Man March, or a host of things,” Muhammad says.
“I think it continues the cultural disconnect [in this country],” Squires surmises. “It clearly is not a good [national] discussion [on race].” The mainstream press “still has this idea that when a Black man speaks in public, he must be saying something that most, if not all, Black people agree with,” she points out. “No one assumes that White people and White candidates are in lockstep with someone on the fringe.”
However, Squires disagrees that Wright is seeking headlines and publicity. “The media always likes to act as if they didn’t help create the story. That’s why he got invited to the National Press Club.”
As Obama continues his campaign, Wright and his comments will continue to be a part of it, says the U of M professor. “If [Obama] makes it to become the [Democratic] candidate, it’s going to come back. Whether it is going to matter to voters is another matter.”
To see transcripts of Wright’s National Press Club speech, go to http://elections.foxnews.com. Information from other sources was also used in this article.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, or read his blog: www.wwwchallman.blogspot.com.