Through the decades, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. has called me teacher, reminding me of the years when he earned a master's degree in theology and ministry at the University of Chicago — and friend. My wife and I and our guests have worshiped at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where he recently completed a 36-year ministry.
Images of Wright's strident sermons, and his anger at the treatment of black people in the United States, appear constantly on the Internet and cable television, part of the latest controversy in our political-campaign season. His critics call Wright anti-American. Critics of his critics charge that the clips we hear and see have been taken out of context. But it is not the context of particular sermons that the public needs, as that of Trinity church, and, above all, its pastor.
In the early 1960s, at a time when many young people were being radicalized by the Vietnam War, Wright left college and volunteered to join the United States Marine Corps. After three years as a marine, he chose to serve three more as a naval medical technician, during which time he received several White House commendations. He came to Chicago to study not long after Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder in 1968, the U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia in 1969, and the shooting of students at Kent State University in 1970.
Wright, like the gifted cohort of his fellow black students, was not content to blend into the academic woodwork. Then the associate dean of the Divinity School, I was informally delegated to talk to the black caucus. We learned that what Wright and his peers wanted was the intense academic and practical preparation for vocations that would make a difference, whether they chose to pursue a Ph.D. or the pastorate. Chicago's Divinity School focuses on what it calls "public ministry," which includes both conventional pastoral roles and carrying the message and work of the church to the public arena. Wright has since picked up numerous honorary doctorates, and served as an adjunct faculty member at several seminaries. But after divinity school, he accepted a call to serve then-struggling Trinity.
Trinity focuses on biblical teaching and preaching. It is a church where music stuns and uplifts, a church given to hospitality and promoting physical and spiritual healing, devoted to education, active in Chicago life, and one that keeps the world church in mind, with a special accent on African Christianity. The four S's charged against Wright — segregation, separatism, sectarianism, and superiority — don't stand up, as countless visitors can attest. I wish those whose vision has been distorted by sermon clips could have experienced what we and our white guests did when we worshiped there: feeling instantly at home.
Yes, while Trinity is "unapologetically Christian," as the second clause in its motto affirms, it is also, as the other clause announces, "unashamedly black." From its beginning, the church has made strenuous efforts to help black Christians overcome the shame they had so long been conditioned to experience. That its members and pastor are, in their own term, "Africentric" should not be more offensive than that synagogues should be "Judeocentric" or that Chicago's Irish parishes be "Celtic-centric." Wright and colleagues insist that no hierarchy of races is involved. People do not leave Trinity ready to beat up on white people; they are charged to make peace.
To the 10,000 members of Trinity, Jeremiah Wright was, until just a few months ago, "Pastor Wright." Metaphorically, pastor means shepherd. Like members of all congregations, the Trinity flock welcomes strong leadership for organization, prayer, and preaching. One-on-one ministry is not easy with thousands in the flock and when the pastor has national responsibilities, but the forms of worship make each participant feel recognized. Responding to the pastoral call to stand and be honored on Mother's Day, for instance, grandmothers, single mothers, stepmothers, foster mothers, gay-and-lesbian couples, all mothers stood when we visited. Wright asked how many believed that they were alive because of the church's health fairs. The members of the large pastoral staff know many hundreds of names, while hundreds of lay people share the ministry.
Now, for the hard business: the sermons, which have been mercilessly chipped into for wearying television clips. While Wright's sermons were pastoral — my wife and I have always been awed to hear the Christian Gospel parsed for our personal lives — they were also prophetic. At the university, we used to remark, half lightheartedly, that this Jeremiah was trying to live up to his namesake, the seventh-century B.C. prophet. Though Jeremiah of old did not "curse" his people of Israel, Wright, as a biblical scholar, could point out that the prophets Hosea and Micah did. But the Book of Jeremiah, written by numbers of authors, is so full of blasts and quasi curses — what biblical scholars call "imprecatory topoi" — that New England preachers invented a sermonic form called "the jeremiad," a style revived in some Wrightian shouts.
In the end, however, Jeremiah was the prophet of hope, and that note of hope is what attracts the multiclass membership at Trinity and significant television audiences. Both Jeremiahs gave the people work to do: to advance the missions of social justice and mercy that improve the lot of the suffering. For a sample, read Jeremiah 29, where the prophet's letter to the exiles in Babylon exhorts them to settle down and "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile." Or listen to many a Jeremiah Wright sermon.
One may properly ask whether or how Jeremiah Wright — or anyone else — experiences a prophetic call. Back when American radicals wanted to be called prophets, I heard Saul Bellow say (and, I think, later saw it in writing): "Being a prophet is nice work if you can get it, but sooner or later you have to mention God." Wright mentioned God sooner. My wife and I recall but a single overtly political pitch. Wright wanted 2,000 letters of protest sent to the Chicago mayor's office about a public-library policy. Of course, if we had gone more often, in times of profound tumult, we would have heard much more. The United Church of Christ is a denomination that has taken raps for being liberal — for example for its 50th anniversary "God is still speaking" campaign and its pledge to be open and affirming to all, including gay people. In its lineage are Jonathan Edwards and Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, America's three most-noted theologians; the Rev. King was much at home there.
Friendship develops through many gestures and shared delights (in the Marty case, stops for sinfully rich barbecue after evening services), and people across the economic spectrum can attest to the generosity of the Wright family.
It would be unfair to Wright to gloss over his abrasive — to say the least — edges, so, in the "Nobody's Perfect" column, I'll register some criticisms. To me, Trinity's honoring of Minister Louis Farrakhan was abhorrent and indefensible, and Wright's fantasies about the U.S. government's role in spreading AIDS distracting and harmful. He, himself, is also aware of the now-standard charge by some African-American clergy who say he is a victim of cultural lag, overinfluenced by the terrible racial situation when he was formed.
Having said that, and reserving the right to offer more criticisms, I've been too impressed by the way Wright preaches the Christian Gospel to break with him. Those who were part of his ministry for years — school superintendents, nurses, legislators, teachers, laborers, the unemployed, the previously shunned and shamed, the anxious — are not going to turn their backs on their pastor and prophet.
Martin E. Marty is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a panelist for On Faith, of Washingtonpost.com. His most recent book is The Christian World: A Global History (Modern Library, 2008).
Find out more about Martin E. Marty HERE