Friday, March 28, 2008

Dianna Bass : Putting Rev. Wrights Preaching Into Perspective

The current media flap over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, strikes me as nothing short of strange. Anyone who attends church on a regular basis knows how frequently congregants disagree with their ministers. To sit in a pew is not necessarily assent to a message preached on a particular day. Being a church member is not some sort of mindless cult, where individuals believe every word preached. Rather, being a church member means being part of a community of faith—a gathered people, always diverse and sometimes at odds, who constitute Christ's body in the world.

But the attack on Rev. Wright reveals something beyond ignorance of basic dynamics of Christian community. It demonstrates the level of misunderstanding that still divides white and black Christians in the United States. Many white people find the traditions of African-American preaching offensive, especially when it comes to politics.

I know because I am one of those white people. My first sustained encounter with African-American preaching came in graduate school about twenty years ago. I had been assigned as a teaching assistant to a course in Black Church Studies. The placement surprised me, since I had no background in the subject. But the professor assured me that "anyone with experience teaching American religion" would be able to handle the load.

The subject matter was not, as the professor indicated, difficult. The emotional content, however, was. To prepare, I had to read literally thousands of pages of black preaching and theology covering the entire scope of American history. While the particulars of preaching changed through time, one thing did not. Throughout the entire corpus, black Christian leaders leveled a devastating critique against their white brothers and sisters—accusing white Christians of maintaining "ease in Zion" while allowing black people to suffer injustice and oppression.

Typical of the form used by black preachers is Frederick Douglass' address, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" first delivered on July 5, 1852. The address, a political sermon, forcefully attacks white culture. "Fellow-citizens," Douglass proclaims, "above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wails of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them." He goes on to calls American conduct "hideous and revolting" and accuses white Christians of trampling upon and disregarding both the constitution and the Bible. He concluded his sermon with the words, "For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival."

This was very hard to take. I confess: nearly everything I read that semester pained and angered me. But four months of listening to voices that I wanted to reject made me different. I began to hear the power of the critique. I came to appreciate the prophetic nature of black preaching. I recognized that these voices emerged from a very distinct historical experience. And I admired the narrative interplay between the Bible and social justice. Over time, they taught me to hear the Gospel from an angular perspective—the angle of slaves, freed blacks, of those who feared lynching, of those who longed for Africa, those who could not attend good schools. From them, I learned that liberation through Jesus was a powerful thing. And that white Americans really did need to repent when it came to race.

Learning to listen was not easy. It took patience, historical imagination, and lots of complaining to my friends—even my African-American ones. Eventually, I figured out that even if your ancestors had been the oppressors, you can enter into the world of those who had been oppressed with generosity and a heart open to transformation.

As MSNBC, CNN, and FOX endlessly play the tape of Rev. Wright's "radical" sermons today, I do not hear the words of a "dangerous" preacher (at least any more dangerous than any preacher who takes the Gospel seriously!) No, I hear the long tradition that Jeremiah Wright has inherited from his ancestors. I hear prophetic critique. I hear Frederick Douglass. And, mostly, I hear the Gospel slant—I hear it from an angle that is not natural to me. It is good to hear that slant.

That is not, of course, comfortable for white people. Nor is it easily understood in sound bites. It does not easily fit in a contemporary political campaign. But it is a deep spiritual river in American faith and culture, a river that—as I had to learn—flows from the throne of God.

Diana Butler Bass holds a doctorate in American religion from Duke University. She is the author of six books including Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperOne, 2006).


MsDay7 said...

Dr. Diana, thank you for your candid, honest and clearly articulated perspective about the integrity of my Senior Pastor's preaching style as well as the worship experience of the Black church. Sharing your testimony from academic studies in theology has really been helpful. It is my sincere hope that folks are listening and learning to understand that a political candidate is not responsible for the messages that come from a pastor whose responsibility is to the upbuilding of an entire flock. As a part of a greater community that reflects and perceives the American society from the view of the oppressed, I cannot help but feel affirmed by your honest critique of our experience and the legitimacy through which you have learned to perceive even your own historical experience in juxtaposition to our own. Thank you again.

Limmy said...

Why does politics even enter into a preacher's sermon during worship hour, in the presence of children especially? What is its relevance in a place of GOD?

I know, I know, again my comment will not be shown. My other 2 or 3 were allowed either - these are questions I NEED answered - since all the RIGHT answers can ONLY be found here.

This is no time for games in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of Almighty God - creater of MANKIND of EVERYKIND in his image!

Anonymous said...

Jimmy: If Christianity is a lifestyle or way of living (as it should be), and not just a "religion" put on when it is convenient, then every aspect of our lives should be touched by our faith. The words of Jesus heard on Sunday morning, if we believe them, cannot and should not, be separate from the actions that we take and the decisions that we make every day of our lives.

To mention a "political" example in the midst of preaching is not unusual in the Afro-American worship experience. Neither are the "real life" connections and examples (liturgical dance, contemporary music), used in an attempt to "keep it real" and relevant to the hearers of the word.

MLK spoke not only of a "dream" but he spoke out -- even in churches -- against the Viet Nam war. The civil rights movement was born in the church. Jesus did the same with the issues of His time. He himself might have been considered impolitic by some, when he preached against the "viperous" Pharisees and Scribes of his day. And turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple was DEFINITELY a political act -- upsetting the economics of those in control.

Lastly, God's house is not a building. And if we are to be counted among His, He lives in each of us, and we carry Him with us wherever we go and whatever we do.

So, although this may seem a bit strange if you've not experienced this type of worship before, please know that: 1) it is not unusual—it happens all over America every week; 2) it does not confuse the role of church and government in the lives of the country’s citizens, but rather allows people of faith to connect rather than to compartmentalize their lives – even on Sunday; and 3) it is okay to love God with all your heart, and to love the country you live in (note: two separate though important things), and still comment on issues around you that affect your daily life. Hope this helps!

Limmy said...

Thanks Phil. It is not that your words do not help, but that I just find it very hard to understand why Rev. Wright "preaches" the way that he does - as per the tapes which have recently been aired on national television. I also listened to Rev. Wright's sermon about 1 week after 9/11 and to be honest I as a white person was still very saddened by "that" whole sermon. The undertone (and hidden messages) was very clear. Rev. Wright has a problem with white people and the excuse of his age in the year 2008, at least 50 years after segregation does not rest easy on my ears. That means that throughout all his years of preaching the word of God to his flock and to teach them to love thy neighbor as thyself he has failed himself to listen to his own words because NOW (2008) he obviously is a hypocrite. "Do and I say and not as I do" is that he has been preaching all these years.
Perhaps if this is indeed how alot of "black" church preachers preach than no further explanation need be sought for how and why race relations between black people and white people in the year 2008 is STILL in such a bad state of affairs.
On the religion and politics, I can see no real relevance for the mixing of the two in church, especially in the 21st Century America to where a member of the congregation would benefit and in order to try and achieve peace and harmony with their fellow man (white, black, red or yellow - and any other color in between). Rev. Wright's comments about "black Jesus", the bashing of Hillary and Bill Clinton and especially to bring up the Monica Lewinsky ordeal (and to even add the body movements to show the "dirty" that went on with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky) is just pathetic during a church sermon - at which children of all ages were present.
Rev. Wright and any other preachers of his like should be counting their blessings every single day from "all" that they get bestowed upon them by their devoted church members. Shocking to learn about ALL that has now been given to Rev. Wright upon his retirement - a million dollar home etc. could have gone to much better use I am sure in the communities where he has been held in such high esteem all these years. I only hope and pray that Rev. Wright DOES NOT think he is GOD - Jehovah God, that is.

Note: Unless a Shepherd trains his flock in the manner in which they ought to live and roam - there will always be strays and lost little sheep amongst them!

Anonymous said...

I've read your words, and those of Martin Marty, and they sound great, and I buy into it, and I feel better--until I see that tape again.

No, honey. That (Wright's "sermon") is hate speech. If that is what is going on inside the black church, it goes a long way toward explaining the violence in the hood. If this angry, vengeful, sexually explicit, politically polarizing, anti-personnel (Clinton) "sermon" is Christianity, then everything Jesus taught is not Christianity.

Wright's congregation are not going to go forth and love their neighbors. They are going to go forth and vote for Obama, for no reason at all other than the fact that he is not white. They are also going to sling that "racist" epithet at anyone who fails to vote for Obama. Hate speech, political speech, theater, yes. Christianity, not by a long shot.