The Liberation of Reverend Wright
The notes posted on the glass doors of Trinity United Church of Christ reflect the state of siege at Barack Obama's home church: "Media must sign in at the front desk." "No cameras or recording devices allowed inside." The press has been relentless in its pursuit of church members ever since snippets of sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor, appeared on the Internet more than a month ago. Like Louis Farrakhan before him, Wright has become a litmus test for Obama with white voters. His sermons--in which he says that America is run by "rich white people" and talks about "America's chickens coming home to roost" on September 11--have been described as "racist" and "unpatriotic." As scrutiny intensified on the 8,000-member congregation, its motto, "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian," was characterized as black separatist. For many at Trinity, which I often attend, the final insult came when some journalists called the homes of sick and elderly members, whose names are published in a weekly list of "shut-ins."
Trinity's members are certainly not naïve enough to think they could escape media scrutiny. But underlying the coverage of this story, which is punctuated with words like "inflammatory" and "controversial," is a sense that something is fundamentally wrong, perhaps even pathological, about Wright and the teachings at Trinity. These accounts, however, misrepresent the black church, whose rhetorical traditions meld biblical allegory with contemporary political and racial concerns, and whose sanctuaries provide a rare space where a collective black racial consciousness can be expressed uncensored by others.
"I think that a lot of the media, particularly the mainstream media, have no experience of the everyday life of the black church...and especially what the church service on Sunday means for the black community in general," says Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a member of Trinity. Hopkins describes the black church as a "sacred and cultural phenomenon,'' a "way station" that functions as an antidote to the six days of the week where race matters. In the black church, race isn't a source of contention; it's a source of community.
Part of the cultural phenomenon Hopkins speaks of is a prophetic style of preaching. As Peter Gomes of Harvard University's Divinity School recently said in a Washington Post blog, "It may surprise many in white America, for whom Martin Luther King Jr. is the only black preacher of whom they have ever heard, to learn that there are a lot of Jeremiah Wrights out there who week after week give expression to that classic definition of prophetic preaching that is to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.'"
The Rev. Otis Moss III, Trinity's current pastor, echoed that theme in an April sermon linked to the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of King. Like the prophets of the Bible, and Jesus himself, who called out the moral failings of the powerful, King took America to task for racism and poverty, Moss said. Grasping the connection with their own embattled senior pastor, the congregation exploded in shouts of "Tell it!" and "Make it plain!"
For many black churchgoers, the attack on Wright is an assault on how they choose to worship. Though the black church is not without its flaws and shortcomings--on more than one occasion, Wright has called out the behavior of other black ministers, and the rise of prosperity teachings has
cut into the tradition of afflicting the comfortable--it has endured as a powerful cultural and social institution because it is needed. As long as racism exists, the church provides a sanctuary for many black folks.
Rooted in the secret gatherings of slaves in the South who were introduced to Christianity by "plantation missionaries," the church has fed the spirit, while at the same time organizing and tending to the most basic physical needs of its members, explains James Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary. "The black church was the only thing we owned," says Cone, an architect of Black Liberation Theology whose teaching has influenced Trinity. "It was both a spiritual and political institution."
Wright may be Obama's litmus test, but the treatment of African-Americans, brought to this country chained in the belly of slave ships, has been the litmus test for America's moral character. Historically, black preachers have taken the nation to task for its sin of racism. The independently owned and controlled black church allowed them the financial freedom to invoke the name of the Lord in the crusade for justice--from the days of Reconstruction to the civil rights movement, which Cone calls "the perfect expression" of the black church tradition.
Steeped in biblical symbolism and a belief in a higher moral authority, the church has been a fitting vehicle for social justice movements. The best prophetic preachers can turn the Old Testament narrative of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt into a parable about contemporary African-American tribulations, from the poll tax to police brutality to the 2000 election fraud in Florida. On Sunday, in the powerful allegory of the black church, the oppressive Pharaoh and President Bush could be one and the same.