The national conversation over the relationship between Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama and Pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ has benefited from the Illinois Senator’s profound and insightful speech on U.S. race relations.
It would be, however, left to clergy to weigh in on the issue of Rev. Wright’s role as a deliverer of prophetic speech and the role of the church and society. Indeed, it is providential that this has come in the midst of Holy Week 2008, a season when we commemorate the crucifixion of Christ and the vindication of God for faithfulness to prophetic speech.
The good news is that our body politic and national life is healthiest when we allow for prophetic – not prosecutorial – speech and for clergy to critique public policy. Believers and non-believers benefit from such an allowance. We all benefit when the faith community serves as a center of conscious dialogue and moral power apart from the state. Alexis De Tocqueville recognized early in the American experiment that the freedom of association that made American democracy possible was enhanced by church congregations. These were communities of conscience. Their clergy emerged as reflective voices, whose primary allegiance is to a higher power as understood and supported by constitutionally-protected free worship. The dynamic of a free clergy, directly supported by a free people, is as important to American freedom in 2008 as it was at the founding of the republic. Every great social movement and expansion of freedom has been enhanced by the spirit and courage of peoples of faith.
The ministries of Trinity U.C.C. and the utterances of Dr. Wright, like thousands of faith communities and clergy across the country, embody a thoroughly American tradition. That tradition is that our rights and freedom of thought are inalienable and inherent, and are not granted by government. At its best, government upholds what is true and transcendently righteous. The best of political speech mirrors the most truthful of prophetic speech, while church and state remain separate and un-encroaching. When the transcendent word guides politics and public policy, human society is its best and most blessed. The transcendent word, prophetic speech that is sometimes uncomfortable to the masses, is God’s gift to America and the world. His intervention on our behalf always begins with prophetic voices. God is not an American. He is the judge of the United States of America, every nation and every person that has received the gift of life.
When the ministers of a free people are free to serve and to speak, our God-given liberty to serve and speak are enhanced as well. God blesses America; for we are a blessing to all God’s children every where. Passion Week reminds us all that “truth-speaking” can never be permanently extinguished. God will always intervene on the side of truth and righteousness. Ultimately, it is only the truth that can make us free.
Rev. Hatch is pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church.