How Wrong Was Jeremiah Wright? (Jul-Oct 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Gerald Britt
July – October, 2008

The current spasm of “righteous indignation” concerning Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor, smacks of embarrassing ignorance. Such a critique of Wright is ignorant of black preaching rhetoric and the practice of liberation interpretation. It is also disturbingly ignorant of the prophetic traditions of the Bible that regularly expose the failures of society in savage rhetoric. I am grateful for the ministry of Wright, a colleague of mine in the United Church of Christ, who for a very long time has been a faithful pastor and a daring prophetic figure. It is odd when right-wingers misconstrue this belated Jeremiah as they do the original Jeremiah, who knew about God’s passion for truth-telling in risky places.
~ Walter Brueggemann – professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary

Earlier this year Barack Obama resigned his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ. As sermon excerpts and public comments by his former pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleagler, found their way onto YouTube and television, the twenty year official relationship between the Obama family and the Chicago church became politically and personally untenable for him.

Whether or not the decision was purely personal, or whether it was an attempt to separate himself from a situation that would hinder his presidential bid, the apparent nominee of the Democratic Party has endured scrutiny regarding his church membership that no other candidate has ever endured. No other presidential candidate in history has been held accountable for his pastor’s sermons.

Equally interesting is the reaction by pundits and the public at what may be the first glimpse at worship and preaching in the Black Church. Although it is only a glimpse, there are those who have concluded this is the unique nature of the ministry of Trinity Church, while others have surmised that this is characteristic of worship in nearly all African American fellowships.

Unused to the emotionalism expressed in Sunday morning worship, offended by the remarks and hearing the shouts of affirmation at what was considered to be unpatriotic ‘hate speech’ and personal public derision of Hillary Clinton, there are some who have literally questioned the Christianity of Wright in particular and the validity of the African American church in general.

The nature of ministry of the African American church, its authenticity and the role of its influence in the Black community is complex when viewed from the outside in; but the complexity need not obscure its relevance and value not only to Black people, but to our nation overall.

Far more divisive and hateful speech has come from some white churches (some more prominent, some more obscure), while for centuries the lid on Black frustration and anger has been the Black church. To be sure, there have been white churches and clergy who have sacrificed tremendously, because they recognized the spiritual solidarity and the Divine mandate for love and brotherhood. But the African American church has been for its community, member and non-member, the ‘all-comprehending institution,’ which has sought to provide voice and vitality to a people whose presence in this country has been thickly laced with afflictions of oppression and injustice.

To understand the Black Church, one must understand that its presence falls into basically two categories: priestly and prophetic. Whether or not white American believers consider the African American church an authentic expression of the Christian faith, hinges upon their acceptance and appreciation of both roles.

Why is that important? Because if the African-American church is not considered ‘real church,’ then it means that the faith of its members is not taken seriously. The old bromide, that the eleven o’clock hour is the most segregated hour in the country has been repeated quite often since the nation has been introduced to Rev. Wright. Our nation still has not been able to transcend this religious racial divide. In spite of protests to the contrary, there is a Black church and there is a white church. The real question is not whether two churches exist; but how do they regard one another?

There is much about the African-American church that is admired despite limited familiarity with it. The Black church is generally admired for its ability to reach its community. Even in the 21st century, no other institution has the capacity to communicate with more of its constituency and beyond than does the Black church. The church is almost envied for the emotional freedom of its worship and for the charisma of its pulpit. But beyond these few characteristics, the Black Church is a near unknown phenomenon in America.

Carter G. Woodson is considered ‘the Father of Negro History.’ In his classic work, The History of the Negro Church (1921), he delineates the difference between the Negro (Black) Church and its white counterpart: “The latest development in the socialized church is its service as a welfare agency. The Negro in his religious development has not yet gone so far as the white man in divesting Christian duty of spiritual ministration and reducing it as a mere service for social uplift; but he gradually realized the necessity for connecting the church more closely with the things of this world to make it a decent place to live in. In other words, if man is his brother’s keeper, the church, the important institution in the community, must be the keeper of other institutions. If it would build in men Christian character, it must influence the more or less direct control of the forces in the community, which prevent the attainment of such an end. If men are to be saved, they must be saved for service, not merely for their refuge at the last hour. The church then must not let a man destroy himself and accept him when he is no longer useful because of the loss of physical and mental power through depravity, but by preaching the gospel of prevention it must save man from himself.”

In other words, the great challenge always faced by the Black Church in America was not only to offer spiritual salvation, but also to offer a salvation that preserved Black people, mentally, physically, socially and politically. The Gospel preached in the African American churches, at its best, has hardly ever been a Gospel preached against anyone or anything – but for the preservation of the dignity and humanity of all men. In a real sense, the American ideal of freedom and justice is the ideal, which gains a peculiar relevance in the churches of the sons and daughters of former slaves. The prophetic nature of its preaching, teaching and worship urges its members in particular and the world at large to accept the urgency of the Biblical truth that God, “… hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth . . . ”(Acts 17:26).

The vociferous nature of Black preaching, currently being mistaken as anger, is a style that, again urgently conveys Gospel Truth. This is, for us, not just an urgency regarding warning against personal moral sins, but against the violation of the societal moral transgressions which also grieve the Heart of God, “Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek: and a man and his father will go in unto the same maid, to profane my holy name: and they lay themselves down upon clothes laid to pledge by every altar, and they drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god” (Amos 2:6-8). The personal responsibility emphasized by much conservative evangelical preaching, must be balanced by a collateral call for social responsibility for justice and fairness, not just for the mercy of Christian philanthropy. One need only pay more than cursory attention to Isaiah 58 to know that God looks for more than personal piety and philanthropic works to square with His standards for righteousness.

“Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.” Isaiah 58:3 – 12 (KJV)

Political engagement in the Black Church is more nuanced than the anti-white, victim-obsessed affair that some in the dominant religious culture have conjectured. Prized much more than most outsiders would believe is the idea that African-Americans are Americans, who both understand the transcendent hope of their faith, yet the realities of living in a society that always capable of devaluing their citizenship and personhood. Therefore in the Black Church, in ways reflective of Biblical instruction, both critique and criticize political and social culture in ways that remind congregations of their ultimate Kingdom loyalties.

In the book, New Day Begun: The Public Influence of African American Churches, Allison Calhoun-Brown, contributes an essay entitled, ‘What a Fellowship: Civil Society, African American Churches and Public Life,’ in which she discusses the tension between the embrace of citizenship and racial identity in the Black church as well as the prospects for the development of social capital based on the two. ‘. . . the messages presented in churches communicate civic awareness as well as feelings of racial identity and system blame. Feelings of system blame and racial identification have been associated with racial consciousness and support for greater Black autonomy. Thus African American churches generate trust and distrust in American society. This is not problematic. Theda Skopol, for instance asserts that democracies [are] a product of organized conflict and distrust more than the result of harmonious civil societies.’

The shouts of affirmation with Dr. Wright’s ‘God damn America’ comment, is not evidence of an absence of patriotism, but the capacity of Black people at worship to recognize the ideal of the country they love, but who also know that there are examples in their own history (personal and collective), which tell them that their country doesn’t live up to those ideals. This is worship by believers who are patriotic, but not nationalistic.

If Wright’s expression of that failure is not artful, if it is distasteful and offensive, and if the hyperbole is extreme and painful . . . so is a great deal of prophetic preaching.

Consider Amos’ words to his people, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria,
Who oppress the poor,
Who crush the needy,
Who say to your husbands, “Bring wine, let us drink!” (Amos 4:1).

Not the most polite to address women, but they are words, which are meant to get the attention of the hearer and to bring to mind the serious nature of the offense.

Throughout scripture, we watch as prophets and apostles embrace the ideal to which their society is called while providing the critique and criticism, necessary to offer a vision of an alternative culture worthy of the hope of those who strive to be faithful to their God. By doing so, they risk being called ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘negative.’ Moses, for instance, courted death by being seen by Pharoah as the reason for the ten plagues, which ultimately resulted in the emancipation of the Hebrews. Each plague was an assault upon a god, cherished by the Egyptians, gods who sanctioned the ambitions and imperial values the dominant culture, but which were at odds with Divine will and Divine Justice.

Who would have called Jeremiah anything but treasonous, as he cast aspersions upon the religiosity of his fellow countrymen when he cries out, “Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD!” Jeremiah 7:4 (KJV)

In Ezekiel 34, the prophet’s diatribe is against the equivalent of the political leaders of his day and he accuses them of enriching themselves at the expense of the vulnerable of Israel. Yet ultimately, the hope of salvation as a people lies in a return to the One who can make them a true nation, a vision that was born in the mind of God Himself.

The point is, the African American church, at its best, often needs to be a prophetic voice for and to its people, while at the same time, seeking to direct them to the Power which enables them to live with dignity and a sense of their own worth as human beings and as children of God. The message preached and taught, requires members to live with integrity, which means refusal to live victimized by either hatred or bitterness because of what may have been experienced as a people, or personally; a refusal to drown one’s pain in mind numbing materialism, nor self indulgent immorality and a refusal to retreat into the nihilistic comforts of a simplistic civic faith.

It has been said that history is written from the point of view of the victors. For example, it is always extremely interesting for example, to hear how Native Americans tell the story of their people in this land. It’s a perspective almost entirely different than the one most of us have been taught since grade school. Is it surprising, then, that there are times when the spiritual narrative of the descendents of the sons and daughters of former slaves differs from the religious experience of the descendents of former slave owners?

Rejected by the dominant culture in almost every aspect of social life, African Americans established their own communal existence. This includes institutional religious life. They formed not only Christian churches, but within those churches different denominational bodies. The African American Episcopal Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Primitive Baptist, National Baptists, all are the religious constructs of a people who refused to be denied the inalienable human longing to recognize God’s activity in their existence, much in the way Israel established the synagogue while in Babylonian captivity. Even within white denominations and the Catholic church, predominantly Black congregations within the United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church, to name a few, have their own flavor in worship and their own ministries which address the peculiar spiritual, social and political needs of their people. While on this strange sojourn with a faith initially taught them to ensure their subjugation, Black people in America discovered the freedom context of faith in God that would neither allow them to be content in their bondage, nor allow the nobility of their personhood crushed by the dehumanization of Jim Crow, segregation and lynching.

It has been my privilege to work in a number of initiatives that have involved community organizing, political action and public policy work. In each case, I have always seen it as an extension of the ministry to which God has called me. I am a third generation preacher and pastor on both sides of my family. I was asked by a very good friend of mine, which of the ministers in my family laid the groundwork for such civic engagement. After thinking for a while, I had to confess that none of them, to my knowledge had been directly involved in any type of public action. Nor do I remember any of their ministries from the pulpit solely devoted to exhortations of any political nature. My grandfather, my father, uncle and great uncle had what some might consider very ‘traditional’ ministries. Yet, as I get older, I also understand that they too were rooted in the very best tradition of ministry in the Black church. That day to day service rendered to God and His people, resulted in the building up of churches, teaching and developing leadership, helping young people discover disciplines that led to college degrees and professional careers. These are ministries, which sustained retirees, day laborers and domestic workers, young athletes and government workers, fortifying them all against the onslaught of both subtle and overt forms of racism.

The formal and informal ministries of the churches they pastored, helped people overcome addictions, find happiness in marriage, learn how to parent children and find joy in worship and serving God. Other ministers heard the call of God in their lives because of these churches incubated and nurtured them spiritually, mentally, socially and emotionally. Is this what church should do? Or do African Americans consider the type of public ministry as witnessed by the world at Trinity United Christian Church more valuable?

I would argue that both make America better. Our country needs to be reminded that God is a God of justice. Sometimes that needs to be heard from the voices of those who know what its like to experience injustice through the social, political and economic systems of our land. Michael Eric Dyson calls our nation, “The United States of Amnesia.” We teach our children and celebrate the memory of the glories of our country while calling on one another to forget that there are portions of our country that are not glorious at all. The inglorious can be found in the halls of government, commerce, and academe and, yes, even worship. We must remember so that we remain vigilant and never return to those days. We must remember so that we are always challenged to eliminate the vestiges of those aspects of our history that keep our country from being as good as its promise.

But we also need the priestly function of the Black Church. It is not merely a mirror of some imagined, preconceived ‘norm’ to be found in white churches. It is ministry to lives that have been broken by racism and injustice as well as the personal failures to which we are all heir as humans–but which can find unique expression in the lives of African Americans.

The priestly function is often triage ministry to those who have made poor choices and those who have been crushed beneath the burden of inadequately funded schools, bigotry and stigma associated with both race and poverty and the lack of joy that comes with hopelessness no matter the source of failure. Indeed the Black church in both its priestly and prophetic functions is God’s gift to our country. The Jeremiah Wrights, which we produce are, as are their white counterparts, imperfect heralds of God’s message to this nation. But, if we grow slower to take offense and look past that which we find objectionable, perhaps we will hear a message that God gives to all those who listen to Him:

“God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son…” ~ Hebrews 1:1 – 2 (KJV).

In other words, He still speaks, and there is yet time to get right with Him.

You can start or join a thread about this article in the discussion forums for this issue, At the Intersection of Church and State.

Gerald Britt came to Central Dallas Ministries in September 2004. He serves as Vice President of Public Policy and Community Program Development. Prior to 2004, he served as pastor of the New Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Dallas, for 22 years. Rev. Britt led New Mount Moriah in a commitment to organizational growth and community engagement in the areas of education, housing, neighborhood redevelopment, health care. During his leadership he led the church to initiate a housing initiative which led to the first new houses being built in the community where the church was located in fifty years and which now have been leveraged into a major redevelopment of nearly the entire area.

Since coming to Central Dallas Ministries, Rev. Britt has worked to develop a living wage job strategies focusing on training for jobs in construction, environmental remediation, culinary arts and automotive technologies; he has also worked to expand CDM’s afterschool programs and community technology center making them integral part of the redevelopment of distressed neighborhoods in East and South Dallas.

Rev. Britt is a 1997 graduate of Harvard University’s Summer Leadership Institute and was selected to teach community organizing at Yale University’s fellowship program for public housing administrators. Having attended Bishop College in Dallas, he has continued studies at Dallas Baptist University and Criswell College. In 1996 Rev. Britt was awarded the Coca-Cola African-American Heroes Award. He is also a recipient of the Mickey Leland Human and Civil Rights Award by the Texas State Teachers Association for his work in public education.

Rev. Britt is a widely respected speaker, preacher, having performed chapel services for the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox. Rev. Britt is a monthly columnist for the Dallas Morning News, and contributes to other publications, as well. Rev. Britt serves on a number of Boards of Directors in areas that include, health and wellness, community and institutional organizing as well as ministry. He is a founding leader in the local network of the Industrial Areas Foundation (Dallas Area Interfaith), as well as the African-American Pastors’ Coalition and the Baptist Ministers Conference.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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