Rhetoric or Revolution? Obama Rev's Fiery Language

In a sometimes deeply personal speech on race in America this week, presidential hopeful Barack Obama defended the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his longtime minister, while repudiating the pastor's more inflammatory comments.

But for thousands of parishioners who fill the pews of America's black churches, the Illinois senator did not need to contextualize Wright's message of black nationalism and apocalyptic prophecy -- they hear it every Sunday.

Wright, former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, espouses a philosophy known as a black liberation theology, a movement developed in the late 1960s that advocated for a more militant approach to ending racism. The theology grounds the ideas of the black power movement in Christian doctrine.

But beyond black liberation theology, scholars and his fellow ministers put Wright in an even older tradition, in which black ministers, like the biblical prophets, used their pulpits to chide the nation into moral action.

"The church was the one institution black people always owned, a refuge where we where empowered to speak our minds," said Noel L. Erskine, a professor of theology at Emory University. "Wright is speaking to a community that understands his anger, some of whom, like Jeremiah himself, have seen lynching in their lifetimes. He came out of the '50s and '60s and much of that anger still lingers. But, and here I agree with Barack Obama, Jeremiah speaks as though no progress has been made. It is like he is stuck in '60s and is not going to let America off the hook for anything."

Historically, the church also served as virtually the only safe space in which blacks could openly discuss their persecution in the United States, and ministers preaching to a largely illiterate audience found that dramatically delivered sermons drew in the crowds and kept the collection plate full.

Wright, however, did not come under fire for comments made about discrimination or inequalities between blacks and whites. He was criticized for saying the United States deserved to be attacked on 9/11, that God should not bless America but damn it. And he referred to the United States in one sermon as the "United States of KKK-A."

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye," he told his congregation five days after 9/11. "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

It is all about context, say Wright's supporters, including Obama. Parishioners raised in the church understand that preaching is loud, physical and theatrical.

"There is a performative style that accompanies black preaching," Erskine said. "You have to act it -- take the way he was fanning himself. How you say things is more important than what you say. There is a power in words and the way they are expressed."

If whites are surprised by the rhetoric, it is only because they are not familiar with the culture of the black church, Obama said in his speech Tuesday in Philadelphia.

"Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear," he said.

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