Putting a pastor’s words into context
On the Sunday in 2003 when Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. shouted “God damn America” from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ, he defined damnation as God’s way of holding humanity accountable for its actions.
Rattling off a litany of injustices imposed on minorities throughout the nation’s history, Wright argued that God cannot be expected to bless America unless it changes for the better. Until that day, he said, God will hold the nation accountable.
And that’s when Wright uttered the three words that have rocked Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
Not long after a Democratic front-runner emerged from the pews of Wright’s church, the pastor’s long-winded oratory found itself at odds with the sound-bite culture that feeds the 24-hour news cycle and YouTube. Thirty-second snippets of 30-minute sermons led pundits to question how Obama could remain a member of Wright’s flock.
Examining the full content of Wright’s sermons and delivery style yields a far more complex message, though one that some will still find objectionable. For more than 30 years, Wright walked churchgoers every Sunday along a winding road from rage to reconciliation, employing a style that validated both.
“He’s voicing a reality that those people experience six days a week,” said the Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Trinity member. “In that sense, he’s saying they’re not insane. That helps them to function the other six days of the week.”
Wright preached his final sermon at his “unashamedly black, unapologetically Christian” church in February but does not officially retire until May 31. Wright had been scheduled this week to speak publicly for the first time since debate erupted this month over his remarks, but those stops in Florida and Texas were canceled over security concerns.
Efforts to interview him for this story were unsuccessful.
Obama has denounced Wright’s most provocative remarks, but in a speech on race this month he defended Wright as a person and refused to disown him as his pastor.
Wright’s preaching, which mixes theology with the often troubled history of race relations in America, is in the “prophetic” tradition, one of many that have evolved in black pulpits.
Shocking phrases like “God damn America” lie at the core of prophetic preaching, said the Rev. Bernard Richardson, dean of the chapel at Howard University.
“The prophets in Scripture -- their language wasn’t pleasing to hear, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that,” he said.
Some pastors and scholars criticize Wright for not moving beyond the struggles of the civil rights era. Others say his messages are too divisive and political. Some say he just goes too far.
Wright “goes beyond the bounds. That’s why it’s so hard to translate and why excerpts don’t do well,” said the Rev. Martin Marty, a retired professor at University of Chicago Divinity School. “In today’s world, where you can debate these things instead of blast away like the prophets did, it’s sort of an alien language for most people.”
But while the rhetoric may come across as harsh, experts say its goal is to convince bitter skeptics that reconciliation is indeed possible.
“The anger comes from compassion,” Richardson said. “It can feel hard. It can sound hard. It’s cutting. It cuts to make you whole and bruises to heal you.”
Wright’s sermons closely follow the prophetic formula. Taking a biblical text, he analyzes the history and language, highlights the personal pain likely shared by people in the pews, calls out similar injustices in today’s society and emphasizes that God always provides. His delivery is often provocative, sometimes even raunchy.
But the most provocative passages often don’t convey the entire point.
For example, on the Sunday after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Wright preached on the “brutally honest” final verses of Psalm 137, which he said “spotlight the insanity of the cycle of violence.”
The sound bite taken from the sermon is something Wright on that day termed a “faith footnote,” in which he used the phrase “chickens are coming home to roost” to sum up what U.S. diplomat Edward Peck had said in a TV interview. Malcolm X used the same phrase after President Kennedy’s assassination. But a critique of foreign policy was not Wright’s central topic.
In January, shortly after former President Clinton referred to part of Obama’s campaign pitch as a “fairy tale,” Wright told his flock: “Bill did us, just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was riding dirty.”
Beyond that racy dig, however, the sermon sought to admonish members inclined to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton because they thought a black candidate couldn’t win. Wright likened their doubt to the doubt of Jesus’ disciples who did not believe he could feed a crowd with five loaves and two fishes.
Wright’s recent comment that Hillary Clinton will never know what it feels like to be called the N-word also touched nerves.
But Wright had his reasons for using that term, said the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, a Wright protege.
“People need to understand how profoundly painful that word is,” he said. “It speaks to an experience. He came from a different time.”
Wright’s fans describe his wrath as a “righteous anger.” But critics say it can cloud the Gospel message he is trying to preach.
The Rev. Winfred Neely, associate professor of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute, said that although churches should offer social critique, Wright’s presentation is too ethnocentric.
“I don’t think some of the critiques were offered in love for people,” Neely said. “I think they were born of his own personal anger . . . and not necessarily a critique coming out of a heartbroken pain over the fact that God is being dishonored by what is going on in society and culture.”
Marty said he thinks Wright crosses a line when he equates U.S. power with white power. He also believes Wright’s credibility is damaged by his praise of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and by his stated belief that HIV and AIDS were created to destroy the black community.
But Wallace Best, professor of religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, said the HIV conspiracy theory is largely a product of Wright’s generation, which recalls experiments in which black men with syphilis went untreated in the name of science.
“If put in context of the tragic history of what it means to be black in this country, to think that a government would inflict virus on black people is not as far-reaching an idea as we’ve been led to believe,” Best said.
As for Wright’s friendship with Farrakhan, Richardson said that might be a fair litmus test for a politician seeking popular support but not for a pastor.
Best, who teaches a course on preaching in America, questions the sudden disdain for Wright’s sermons, which are part of a tradition around for two centuries.
“It’s not like people should be surprised that they peer into a church on the South Side of Chicago and the minister there -- who has the obligation to uplift his people -- would be speaking in such a way,” he said.
Last week, Best assigned his students to read an 1852 speech by Frederick Douglass on the meaning of July 4 for African Americans.
“I had my students read that and imagine that Jeremiah Wright could be saying the same things,” Best said. “ ‘There is not a nation on Earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States.’ Put that on YouTube and spin it around.”