Rhetoric or Revolution? Obama Rev's Fiery Language

Wright's words strike some as less incendiary in context of the black church.

March 21, 2008 — -- 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.

"The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America."

It is a fine line for Obama, who has made a point in the election of stressing the power of words, saying "don't tell me words don't matter" when Sen. Hillary Clinton criticized him for speeches that she said lacked substance.

Trinity, with nearly 10,000 members, is a diverse place and different worshippers are going to interpret any one sermon differently, said Kameron Carter, a professor of black church studies at Duke University and the author of "Race: A Theological Account."

"Some people like Barack will say, 'that's pushing it' and others will bite hook line and sinker," Carter said. "Many, many people heard those comments on the first Sunday after 9/11 and did not come away thinking it was an unpatriotic sermon."

"The truth is black churches are filled with as varied a group of people as the pews of white churches," he said. "Some are sitting there reading levels of complexity, critiquing the sermon on certain levels and others accept it word for word. I'm not making excuses for his incendiary comments, but inside the church there is a context that you lose in a sound bite. All that historical context is stripped away and you just get a sound bite. Different ears are not trained to hear it and it reverberates in a different way."

Carter, however, was unwilling to extend the same context of culture argument to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who in the days after 9/11 blamed the attacks on "pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians."

Wright, 66, who retired last month, preached for 25 years at Trinity. The church belongs to the larger, mainline and predominately white United Church of Christ, which has stood by the veteran preacher. Wright served in the Marines and the Navy after graduating from Virginia Union University in 1961.

Wright, however, does not see himself as just another pastor preaching to his church but as a prophet preaching to the country, said Frank Reid, pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, who earned his doctorate with Wright at Union Theological Seminary in 1990.

"There is a prophetic dimension in the black church and black preaching," Reid said. "Preachers are as critical of our government and society as the prophets of the Bible were of the people of Israel. We speak truth to power and our criticisms of unjust foreign and domestic policies are biblically based."

Obama criticized Wright for being stuck in the past. "But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change," Obama said Tuesday. "That is the true genius of this nation."

But for Reid, like Wright, little has changed since the 1960s and many of the problems that face black Americans then have gotten worse or taken on new dimensions.

"How can you say we're stuck in the past, when you look at the high rate of addiction in the black community, when you look at the lack of opportunity, when you look at the incarceration rates of black men or the reasons they join gangs. What relief is there for the collective and historical pain that black people carry with them? Prophetic preachers give relief; they point the finger and say 'we must fix this.'"