As a longstanding member of Chicago’s clergy community, there is nothing surprising to me about the words of Jeremiah Wright. His sermons about being black in America; about black-Jewish relations, and about those who participated in the oppression of black people in this country may be new to 21st century America. But its old hat to anyone who is familiar with the ministry of Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
The questions raised about Dr. Wright’s sermons and sentiments since he came to prominence during then-Sen. Obama’s presidential campaign are especially valid for those Americans whose lives are not informed by any sort of ‘race consciousness.’ This is not an indictment. Instead, it is a statement of fact that depends on your geographical and/or social location. Chicago, however, is unique. Most Americans have no idea what it means to have grown up or lived in a city that serves as the home of two of the major matrices of black consciousness: The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and the Nation of Islam.
That is: Chicago, especially the South Side, has for decades been home to three of the major figures involved in black America’s Second Emancipation: Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad.
Rev. Jackson, of course, represents the southern, “Kingsian” vein of the Civil Rights Movement: Christian – willing to love ones enemies, change bad laws, and redeem and integrate the soul of a nation.
Farrakhan/Muhammad represents the consciousness of retaliation and separation: Black Nationalism – the oppressor’s nightmare.
These two branches of black consciousness were always welcoming to the “least of these” from the black community. Sure, there were the educated and liberated (e.g. Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali). But their followers always included and recruited the poor, the uneducated, the harassed and the left out.
Separate from the movements represented by Jackson and Farrakhan is the position of the black accomodationist. Trinity Church represents those black persons who are successful, educated and functioning seamlessly in the accommodation of mainstream values. Afro-centrism aside, this model does not represent those who seek to change the system, but rather that the system would accommodate their presence. This is not the marching, boycotting, or protesting congregation because the members have worked too hard to profit from the present system to then go out and change it.
On Chicago’s South Side, Dr. Wright’s sermons weren’t considered as dangerous or as radical as Jesse’s boycotts and Farrakhan’s black nation. His sermons never made the front page of Chicago newspapers before the 2008 Obama campaign (even when he sent busloads of men to Farrakhan’s Million Man March in 1995).
Dr. Wright has been preaching the same content for decades. This is a city whose broad shoulders support the firebrand of Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, as well as the monarchical pronouncements of a big city boss named Richard J. Daley, who declared – with absolute contempt and impunity- to “shoot to kill” during the 1968 Democratic Convention. In other words, Jeremiah’s pulpit was just too bourgeois and high up for blacks on the low end, and disinterested whites, to hear.
Blunt, raw and inflammatory speeches about race, religion and ethnicity in Chicago have always been colorful, and – in your face. Am I apologizing or defending Rev. Wright? Not at all. He has the country’s ear. Whatever he needs to say will always be heard because he will have always been President Obama’s pastor.
The hard truth of the matter is that Wright grew up in America’s apartheid. Comments like his about white America have for years been private conversations by those who participated in civil rights marches, or just minorities dealing with social injustice. Of the many things to his credit, Dr. Wright, before anyone else in Chicago, gave voice to the issues of Mandela’s imprisonment, South African apartheid and divestiture. And he did it from his pulpit. He gave the next generation of freedom fighters a new lexicon and passion.
Lastly, there is the dimension of black religious consciousness: prophetic leadership vs. pastoral leadership.
Anyone who has read the Old Testament, or considered the path of Jesus to be real, knows that the black church’s tradition draws its identity from these texts. As such, the church always expects their prophet/preacher to speak the unspeakable, and to spare not his voice against the oppressor of the poor and disadvantaged.
I remember having a conversation with the author Taylor Branch a few years ago. We were talking about Dr. King in reference to one of his books on the Civil Rights Movement. Branch felt that King thought he could, “preach America whole.” Branch’s opinion is that King failed because of this approach. My response was that what he called failure we (the black church/community) called assassination. The death of Dr. King was not brought on because he brandished a gun, but rather because he spoke truth to power.
To those offended or made to feel uncomfortable by Rev. Wright – your best bet is to continue to live above the fray and/or prove him wrong.