Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Rev. Dr. Brenda Eatman Aghahowa: Barbara Jordan on the Wright-Obama Controversy

As a Barbara Jordan scholar, I have written extensively about the late Texas Congresswoman’s style of political communication, one characterized by Celeste Michelle Condit and John Louis Lucaites in their book, Crafting Equality, as that of an “egalitarian consensus builder.” While never skirting issues of race, the Congresswoman addressed these in such a way as to attempt to lower, rather than raise barriers, in a way that would bring people together, rather than divide them.

In recent weeks, the media have sought to vilify and crucify the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Presidential Candidate Barack Obama’s now-retired pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, by endlessly airing out of context a few controversial remarks he has made over the years while sermonizing. By now, we all are well aware of the caricature the print and broadcast media have proffered of Dr. Wright as a race-baiting madman. (Of note, the current pastor of Trinity, the Rev. Otis Moss III, told members during a recent worship service that persons who had gone to the Trinity website and listened to controversial sermons in their entirety have since written to apologize to Dr. Wright, now clear of media distortion of his words and ideas.)
I have sat ruminating, wondering what my “sheroe” Barbara Jordan would think of all this, if she were alive. Even as her voice of reason was so critical during the Nixon-Watergate Impeachment Hearings, such a voice is desperately needed at this juncture in our national life, even if it must be heard from the grave.

If I may speak for Congresswoman Jordan after nearly a decade of wrestling with her life, work and legacy, after studying her papers in the Barbara Jordan Archives at Texas Southern University in Houston, and after interviewing at length family members and colleagues who knew her, I humbly offer some conclusions here.
First, as a serious Constitutionalist, Barbara Jordan would defend Pastor Wright’s First Amendment right of free speech and his right to be controversial. She would point out, as others have in various columns and forums over the past few weeks, the double standard that has been applied to Rev. Wright. Specifically, she might comment that white right-wing ministers in this country have said the same and worse kinds of things since the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, and few if any media persons have castigated them in similar fashion.
Even though Congresswoman Jordan would not use the same style of expression if she were alive, she likely would defend to the death Dr. Wright’s right to express himself as God has fashioned him to express himself.
Secondly, Jordan was a consummate, balanced researcher. Her famous Statement on Impeachment, delivered before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on July 25, 1974, carefully juxtaposed President Richard Milhous Nixon’s actions with the criteria for impeachment. Given this, Jordan likely might be scratching her head as to why many Americans have not had the intellectual or emotional (indeed, as a preacher’s kid, the spiritual) maturity to do their own research with regard to Dr. Wright and the Trinity congregation – a church that some have disparagingly mislabeled as “crackpot” in the media in recent weeks. She would wonder about the knee-jerk reactions to brief sound bites that have reduced and mischaracterized 36 years of incredible ministry leadership to headship of a heretical cult. She would muse, “Aren’t Americans smart enough to investigate for themselves?” For, if those Americans who knee-jerked had gone to the Internet (even if they had to go to their local library or other location to access it) and visited the church’s website, rather than simply buying wholesale what the media have offered, they would know, “The Truth About Trinity".

As a member of Trinity for the past 12 years and as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ for 20 years, I am well acquainted with the teachings and writings of Dr. Wright, a well-respected theologian, scholar and seminary professor who has written several books, all theologically and biblically sound. A man of letters, he has two master’s degrees, an earned doctorate, and several honorary doctorates. I also am well acquainted with the 70-plus ministries of outreach at the church that help folk spiritually and practically, offering assistance especially to those marginalized and disenfranchised ones whom Jesus called, “the least of these.” Research would reveal that Dr. Wright has grown the church from 87 members to more than 8,000 over the past 36 years. In addition, Rev. Wright has mentored and ordained hundreds of men and women to preach the Christian gospel. Of note, Trinity’s membership has included, and currently includes some white members. One of those white members was the former UCC Illinois Conference Minister, Jane Fisler Hoffman, who has taken another denominational post in California. A white male member of more than 20 years, William A.Von Hoene Jr., wrote compellingly in a March 26, 2008 editorial for the Chicago Tribune of how Dr. Wright counseled his African-American wife (then his fiancĂ©e) for four hours, trying to get her to
stick to her original decision to marry Von Hoene after Dr. Wright learned she planned to back out of the marriage because he is white.

Trinity is not monolithic in terms of race or culture. It has members that are Latina/Latino, that are Spanish-speaking, French-speaking, and that are from many countries, including Columbia, France, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan and England. It is perhaps one of the most diverse congregations in the country.
The usual Bible studies, choral groups, and benevolence efforts that one would find at any Christian church are supplemented at Trinity by ministries of employment, housing, food sharing, legal counseling, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS support, drug and alcohol abuse recovery, food sharing, television and radio, etc. The church’s outreach is local, national and global. As a result of Rev. Wright encouraging members to exercise faithful stewardship with respect to tithes and offerings (financial giving), the church burned the mortgage on its $12 million worship center some years back.

The Christian cross has two axes or dimensions, the vertical and the horizontal. Some Christian church leaders of conservative bent act as if issues like abortion and gay marriage, which are related to personal choice and personal spirituality (the vertical dimension of faith), are the only issues on which the church should act politically. Dr. Wright, however, is spiritually clear that Christians ought to pay attention as well to the horizontal dimension of faith, that is to issues of sociopolitical significance that affect more than one individual at a time – matters such as institutional racism and global warming that, when acted and legislated upon, positively impact millions and billions of persons at once.
His is a holistic approach to the gospel. He is clear that the church must be concerned and vocal on any issues that affect persons’ spiritual, physical and emotional wellbeing and not just those that conservative churches have chosen to focus on.

As a minister and parishioner, when I hear Dr. Wright speak out forcefully on issues of social justice, I always hear echoing in my spiritual ear the words and stridency of biblical prophets Micah, Amos and Jesus, who also bucked the status quo while speaking truth to power. When he speaks out from a biblical perspective on issues like employment discrimination, war mongering for oil profit (be aware that Pope Benedict XVI also opposes the War in Iraq), environmental racism, racial profiling and the like, I clearly hear the paraphrased words of these biblical prophets, who have intoned:
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.”
Amos 5:24
“What does God require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
“Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”
Matthew 25:40.
Dr. Wright’s is an intelligent and spirited gospel that requires Christians (who are commanded to love God with all their hearts and minds) to think deeply about issues with impact far beyond “us four and no more.” Worshiping and “critical thinking,” as we call it in academia, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they must go together.
In short, and this is the third and final point, Barbara Jordan, who, while at Boston University Law School, sat under the erudite teaching and preaching of Rev. Howard Thurman (an African-American minister who was one of the nation’s greatest preachers of the 20th century), would be clear that Rev. Wright is in good spiritual company. For he follows in the footsteps of fiery prophets before him in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Not all prophets have a call to diplomatic consensus-building as did/do Barbara Jordan, Barack Obama, Andrew Young and other politicians of that ilk. Witness Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple because they had, in His words, made the house of prayer a den of thieves – a marketplace and a currency exchange, in effect! (See Matthew 19:45-46.) Anyone who has read the gospels knows that Jesus was not politically correct, and neither were the biblical prophets and apostles who preceded or followed him.
I ask along with Jordan, who queried an audience at a race relations conference in Dayton, Ohio in 1990, “White America, what’s bugging you?” In other words, why are some so uncomfortable with the truth that Rev. Wright speaks on issues of race and politics? Has he said anything that is not true? Of course, truth often hurts, and if we are not mature enough to handle it, we lash out at the person purveying it.
As Barack Obama noted in his profound speech addressing the controversy involving Rev. Wright, race still is a huge issue that cannot be ignored in this country. Anyone who believes the playing field has been leveled in education, housing, criminal justice and other arenas is deluding himself or herself. Ask almost anyone who lives in Black skin.

Barbara Jordan, one of the most spellbinding orators in our nation’s history and one whose biography is lined with firsts, would be the first to affirm the truth of what Dr. Wright has said, although she would have packaged the material differently. Jordan’s bottom line here for Americans? “Shape up! Stop being intellectually lazy and relying on 30-second sound bites from media that thrive on sensationalism! On any given issue, do your own research and think for yourself!” It might take a little extra effort on the part of any elderly and others who are not computer savvy or who are not mobile or healthy enough to get to a library. These persons will have to rely on friends, family members and perhaps even nursing home staff to help them secure as many perspectives as possible on any given controversial issue. Since these persons constitute a major voting bloc, however, it is imperative that they make this extra effort to try to be fully rather than partially informed.
Jordan would concur with Trinity’s Pastor Moss, who told the media and Americans recently to get not just a “bite” of Trinity, but “the whole meal.” Amen,

Amen and Amen!

Brenda Eatman Aghahowa, Ph.D., D.Min., is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Chairperson of the Department of English, Communications, Media Arts and Theatre at Chicago State University. Her book, Grace Under Fire: Barbara Jordan’s Rhetoric of Watergate, Patriotism, and Equality, is due out from Third World Press, Chicago, in May.


iheartamyngai said...


You write that the national media has "caricature[d]... Dr. Wright as a race-baiting madman." In my opinion it has, and, perhaps not without reason. Dr. Wright has been quoted as preaching "The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." (Yes, I am familiar with the Tuskegee experiment. It would be a logical fallacy to somehow link the two. There is simply no evidence of Wright's claim.) While this comment is plainly not the central thesis of Wright's sermon, it is more than a footnote. It is a reckless and dangerous lie which serves only to spread racial tension throughout Chicago's South Side and beyond.

The most racially hostile place I have lived in this country is Chicago's South Side. I've been threatened and yelled at and called a "white MF'er" for being on a bus that an angry black man didn't think I should be on. And as I sat there, listening to his hatred, not really knowing how to reason with such prejudice, I realized that none of the other twenty or so fellow riders on this bus, all black, cared to speak up. Until one of them did. An older woman came up and said to him "You tell him. Keep fighting. Be proud."

Racism is very alive in Chicago. I hold Dr. Wright's thoughtless remarks partially responsible.

MsDay7 said...

I don't know who the person is that posted their comment, but I am eternally grateful to you, Dr. Aghahowa for your patient, academic, and well written response with regard to the mischaracterization of my pastor, my church and Black Theology from the posthumous perspective of the great Barabar Jordan. Thank you for your concise rethoric and for your reverence to a true scholar, a compassionate leader, a well reverenced theologian. The word, as we all must agree on where and how and who started HIV is still out. It is only myth and conjecture to presume it started in Africa. Of course, the first documented case may appear to be from there, but should we forget that the doctors who pronounced and discovered the disease were foreigners doing other medical studies in Africa? Oh! I'm sorry, we don't want to discuss that. Thank you again Dr. Aghahowa. You have truly blessed us with your argument and your elocution! Blessings to you.

truthToPower said...


I usually don't respond to post but again I must point some things out.

1. Dr. Wright isn't the only preacher who's accused the government of being complicit in genocide against African Americans. McCain's spiritual adviser has said similar regarding government funds going towards abortions of black babies. I posted the story some weeks ago with the video you should check it out. Also I posted information about the book Medical Apartheid about medical experimentation on African Americans in the past and present day.

2. When black people criticize the government they aren't criticizing white individuals although they may feel that whites in general are apathetic about black issues. It's never dangerous to criticize the government and we have the right to do so especially when the government goes against the principles it's supposed to stand for

3.Regarding your 'South Side experience' I would say that Chicago is the most racially segregated city in the country this is a fact. My daughter goes to a majority white school and there's been racial graffiti and threats (kill the n*ggers) and such. There are ignorant people all over the world in every ethnic group. Dr. Wright doesn't defend or encourage terrorizing or harassing people because their white.

My suggestion is to keep reading the posts (present and past). Alot of your issues have already been addressed.


Anonymous said...

So by your logic: if jerry farwell jumps off of a bridge then the highly educated and intelligent wright should jump off a bridge too?

regardless of the climate, in a place of worship, responsibility should be taken NOT to further fan the flames of racial intolerance with careless wording albeit not the basis of his overall message. to whom much is given, much is required. the bottom line is that some of his sentiments are dead wrong. as the head of the church he has a responsibility to take people into the light and must be very careful with the affirmation that he offers.

calling italians "garlic noses" is equivalent to calling blacks "fried chicken heads". i mean, black folks must continue to hold high or higher standards on combatting racism (or reverse racism), its not enuff to say well because black folks are subject to racism that it makes it okay to be retalitory, racially or culturally insensitive, or justified to be racist or bigoted also.

face it, black anger is real and is justified but the divide will not be healed if black people fail to own up to the fact that it is not okay to be racist or racially insensitive in return. the institutional, past or individual racism that a black person may feel and experience should not be transferred to an innocent person of another race (or same) or culture.

and it goes both ways - but pointing fingers and saying "he did it first" will not take us all to the progress we deserve.

truthToPower said...


I'm saying that if Jerry Falwell has the right to criticize the government and the morality of the american people and not be turned into a political football, then the same should be so for Rev. Wright

As far as 'fanning the flames of racial intolerance' how is he doing that in your opinion? by criticizing the government? by calling out he corporatist class who's sending your jobs to Guatemala? Could you expound....

I think that alot of white people, just like alot of them did in the 60's, feel that addressing racial disparities == fanning the flames of racial intolerance. They said the same things about king and other people who addressed these issues. They accused them of 'stirring up the good negres'

I haven't heard or read Rev. Wright referring to anyone as 'Garlic Noses' and you haven't' either. At this point, the media can say just about anything negative about Rev. Wright with no proof and the masses will accept it.

MsDay7 said...

please do some homework on your own before continuing this endless exchange of illogical ideology that you are spewing. You have clearly fallen prey to the twisted innuendo of our media devices and you are refusing to give credible integrity to the verity and context from which Pastor Wright's message was originally given. Truth has responded twice to your ignorance giving you more time than you truly deserve. Please calm your spirit and simply do some research. The real issue is not that my pastor preaches from a perspective from which you will never be able to understand, but that my pastor is being villianized simply because he is the spiritual leader to a candidate running for President in a country that has never ever presumed and believed that someone of his stature, his ethnic history and his intellect would be able to achieve. Falwell can be Olstead, Robertson or anyone else for that matter. The issue is that within the context of media investigative reporting, never has a church been demonized and completely villainized with the level of scrutiny and disruptive behavior as what is happening right now at Trinity by all of the national news networks. Church bulletins, prayer services, calling our sick and shut-ins for quotes, attending our funerals . . . GIVE ME A FREAKING BREAK!!!! Who is really being terrorized now?

iheartamyngai said...


in response to your last condescending post, here's all i'm saying:

propagating the lie the white united states government gave the black citizens of this country AIDS spreads racial intolerance. it does so in two ways - it makes blacks suspicious of and threatened by our government, and it makes whites view blacks as uninformed and preferring to blame others for their condition.

regarding falwell: the venom he spewed forth was of an especially virulent type, and this country is better off without him. if you recall, he was excoriated by the media for his ridiculous comments (such as saying the gays caused 9/11). his church was not as closely focused on because he obviously did not make those comments during an election year while serving as the spiritual adviser to a media-darling candidate.

is trinity church unfairly being harassed by the media? by your own accounts, very much so. this is regrettable.

are some of jeremiah wright's comments incendiary and without merit? yes, very much so. and this is what brought the attention on the church in the first place.

regarding truthtopower's comment: i agree that criticizing and challenging our government is one of the most important civic duties we have. it's not that "addressing racial disparities = fanning the flames of racial intolerance." it's that saying that an organization of white individuals (the government) gave black people aids is so offensive that it poisons any hope of having a meaningful dialogue about race.

truthToPower said...

iheart trinity is not a cult. you don't have to agree with everything the minister says... you have a right to disagree but the sentiments surrounding the AIDS thing is no more inflammatory than white families believing the government is purposely giving their children autism causing vaccinations..
I mean my post on Medical apartheid it will help you gain some understanding surrounding black mistrust of the medical industry.
Also.... I don't think the government is trust worthy .. time and time again they've lied to all of us black and white. I don't think anyone should trust the government .. you pay attention and hold them accountable when they do things like lie us into wars

truthToPower said...

iheart thanks for the thoughtful comments keep visiting we have much more to share

MsDay7 said...

I think truth said it best and again, I still do not hold out my suspicion on just where did the AIDS virus really began. Africa is blamed because that's where the first case was diagnosed, but, like I've said many times before, the doctors who diagnosed the disease were not Africans studying African health, they were foreigners (German and other European scientist) performing studies in Africa. Now, maybe my pastor stated the AIDS thing before facts could follow him, but he also said George Bush was lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, LOOOONNNGGG before the war ever started. Some times, a prophetic preacher is given much more than mere "in" sight, but also "fore" sight. We may not know the truth in the next few months or years, but does that excuse the skepticism of a community of American citizens who have been mistreated, disenfranchised, lied on, lied to, misappropriated and murdered over the tenure of centuries since we first came (shackled, no less, for the most part) to these here United States? I think not!

Anonymous said...
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des52 said...


Did you ever see the television mini-series Merlin? It came on in 1996. There is a scene in which Merlin is fighting with Mab, who wants the dark world to reign. They are throwing lightening bolts and fireballs at each other destroying tables, walls, burning all in site. Then Merlin remembers how to fight Mab, he turns his back and walks away. He says, "Mab, I am just going to forget you." She loses her power. So iheart, I am just going to forget you. I will not give you any more power. I suggest everyone else do the same.

iheartamyngai said...


i started this chain of comments because i wanted to learn more about trinity church, not from the mainstream media, but from its own congregation. i was under the impression that this website was created for this very purpose.

as my comments have offended you, by all means, please continue to ignore them. but don't tell others to refuse to talk to me because you disagree with what i say. let people think and speak for themselves.

Anonymous said...

My Great-grandmother 3 generatons removed was a full blooded Cherokee this was kept a secret from us until recently before my Fathers death . My skin is white but I have every reason to take part in this discussion . I don't accept 30 second sound bites nor do I let the media or leadership spoon feed me . I read a book not long ago called , Wade In The River , The Story of the African Christian Faith by Fr. Paisius Altschul...Cross Bearers Publishing and I must say it contains inspiring stories " O Holy Land of Africa ! The blood of your martyrs has not only sanctified Egypt , but also the African Saints , Maurice and his legions , poured out their holy lives to purify the Alps while the righteous slave martyrs , Ezekiel and Martin spilled their blood and hallowed America . Now the waters run freely . Kenya , Uganda , Zaire, Madagascar , South Africa , and Zimbabwe-your time of visitation is at hand! But poor America! You say that I'm rich and have need of nothing . But you don't know that you are wretched and miserable , and poor , and blind and naked .Rev. 3:17 Your greatest treasure is neither your economy nor your technology . Your greatest resource lies in your past - your suffering past! The African sons and daughters you sought to enslave pored out their holy blood in prayers for your deliverance as they prayed ," Lord have mercy " The time has come . We have tasted the effects of divided European religion. Now it is time to come home . Home to the Ancient Orthodox Faith-the faith of Africa , the faith of the Early Martyrs , the faith passed on from Christ and His Apostles the faith passed on from Noah and his son's. Through out Christian history the Black race has been instrumental in spreading the Gospel it's contributions are most praise worthy , as a people , heroic , saintly , courageous , virtuous , Godly Christ Bearer's in whom the Holy Spirit took up residence . If everyone in America knew this proud history and were taught the truth we would see equality not just as an ideology or a theory but as a fact engraved in the heart . What those who carry the Gospel of Christ's love for all have already confirmed by His grace in their hearts . Let us come together and find this common ground He has called us to love one another as He has loved us . Amen