Why Obama’s pastor matters.
By Melissa Harris-Lacewell (March 16, 2008)
A black orator stood before a rapt audience, his voice rising to a crescendo as he made this fiery statement: “Statesmen of America beware what you do! The soil is in readiness, and the seed-time has come. Nations, not less than individuals, reap as they sow.The dreadful calamities of the past few years came not by accident, nor unbidden, from the ground. You shudder today at the harvest of blood sown in the springtime of the Republic by your patriot fathers.”
These are not the words of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the embattled minister of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ.
These words were uttered by Frederick Douglass in his appeal to the U.S. Congress for African-American voting rights. Douglass, like Wright, was speaking as a patriot and as a Christian. Douglass, like Wright, was speaking out of an honored tradition in black church life.
Douglass, like Wright, was speaking in the tradition of biblical prophets. In his 1993 text, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth, historian Wilson Moses labeled this tradition the black jeremiad. Like Rev. Wright himself, it is named for the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.Jeremiah was among the biblical truth tellers who regularly warned the government that divine destruction was imminent if the nation continued to oppress the powerless. Frederick Douglass was a master of the jeremiad.He called slavery a curse to the nation and argued that, “we shall not go unpunished.” He said it was the patriotic duty of blacks “to warn our fellow countrymen” of the impending doom they courted and to dissuade America from “rushing on in her wicked career” along a path “ditched with human blood, and paved with human skulls.”
Jeremiah Wright is a modern Douglass.
Both men are like the Old Testament prophets who condemn the injustice and corruption of the rulers of their government.
Let’s be clear. American democracy has always coexisted with vicious, state-sponsored racism. The nation’s first presidents worked to establish an innovative, flexible, radical democratic republic while simultaneously codifying enslaved blacks as a fraction human and relegating them to intergenerational chattel bondage.After emancipation, as blacks helped make America the greatest industrial and military power on earth, the country stripped blacks of the right to vote, segregated public accommodations, provided inferior education to black children, and allowed and promoted the terrorist rule of lynch-mob violence.
This week Barack Obama was pressured to denounce Jeremiah Wright. But in the hundred years following the end of the Civil War more than five thousand African Americans were lynched and not a single president denounced the atrocities. Because of this history, black patriotism is complicated.Black patriots love our country, even though it has often hated us. We love our country, even while we hold it accountable for its faults.
I understand why the Obama campaign felt they had to distance themselves from Wright’s post 9-11 comments. But I am worried that Obama has missed a chance to talk about the rich and complex tapestry of black religious life. Not all black people are Christian. Not all belong to large, urban churches. Even fewer worship with such an outspoken, unapologetically political minister.
But Trinity UCC does represent an important segment of black religious tradition. It is not scary, racist or un-American. Quite the opposite, Rev. Wright is integral to the broad prophetic tradition that informs many black churches. Prophetic Christianity allowed African Americans to retain a sense of humanity in the face of our country’s racism.
Like many people of faith, black Americans have to grapple with how an all-loving and all-powerful God can coexist with evil.For African Americans, evil takes the very specific and identifiable form of white supremacy, first through enslavement, then through Jim Crow and lynch mob rule, and into what many today experience as seemingly intractable racial inequality. Black Americans struggle to reconcile the sin of racism with the idea of a loving and powerful God. Different churches resolve this issue in various ways.
In churches like Trinity UCC, black folks read the Bible with an eye on what it has to say about experiences of bondage and oppression. In this way the Bible is both a moral guide and a political text. Even though slaveholders declared that God wanted slaves to obey their masters, black people believed that God wanted them to be free. They believed this because they read the story of Moses.Though the confederate states claimed that God instituted segregation; black Americans believed differently because they read Amos. Today many black Americans worry when our country engages in self-righteous foreign policy because we have read Isaiah.
African American religious traditions are rich and complex. The hope-filled candidacy of Barack Obama is also part of our tradition. Obama’s broad multi-racial coalition makes many African Americans feel like part of the Joshua generation finally laying claim to the American promised land. But we cannot enter that promised land together if white America refuses to acknowledge the prophetic truths of black religiosity.We cannot learn from our prophets if we denounce them. Silencing Jeremiah Wright will not makes us forget hundreds of years of racial inequality. Now is the time to listen to each other carefully.
I attended Trinity United Church of Christ during the seven years I lived in Chicago. Although I do not know him personally, I heard Rev. Wright preach on dozens of Sundays. His sermons soothed my broken heart while I divorced, they eased my mental anguish when my sister was ill, and they helped give me strength as I watched the destructive power of racism, sexism and homophobia within my Chicago community. In short, his words did what a pastor’s words are supposed to do.
I am grateful for Jeremiah Wright and for his prophetic witness.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University. She is also a seminarian at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Originally appeared in melissacharrislacewell.com and TheRoot.com.