Race in America:  A Response to Rev. Jeremiah Wright

April 13, 2008

Speaker

Summary

Race in America: A Response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright

© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

April 13, 2008

Reading: A Strange Freedom by the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman

The issue then is twofold. The walls that divide must be demolished. They must be cast down, destroyed, uprooted. This is beyond debate. There must be ceaseless and unrelenting pressure to that end, using all the resources of our common life. These barriers must be seen for what they are, a disease of our society, the enemy of human decency and humane respect. In many ways, they are so much a part of our landscape that they seem to belong to the landscape and as such are regarded as germane to the American way of life. The resistance against their reversal is so rooted that it has created a new term in the current vocabulary – backlash. As has been suggested earlier, the walls seem so permanent that to advocate their removal must be conditional: those who are the obvious sufferers because of their presence must prove themselves worth of such action. In other words, the walls are sacrosanct and to tamper with them can be done only out of a mood of grace and compassion. In fine, the walls have an established right to be, even thought what this right is, is never quite clear, and he who would remove the walls must show cause. Their destruction is such a monumental undertaking and is calling for such huge costs in human lives, resources of money, time, and energy that an ever-widening weariness is apt to sweep over the land in the wake of the crumbling of the walls. And this is the danger. When the walls are down, it is then that the real work of building the healthy American society begins. The razing of the walls is prelude – important, critical, urgent, vital, but prelude nevertheless. About this there must be no mistake.[1]

Much has been made about the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, retired pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. You recall the sermon that generated so much controversy in which Rev. Wright intoned, “God damn America.” That is all that most people heard. Some have argued that his words are divisive and represent their own expression of racism. The fact that the Rev. Wright was the pastor and spiritual mentor of presidential candidate Barack Obama has created certain difficulties for Sen. Obama. The senator offered a very fine speech on race in America and he was certainly critical of the language the Rev. Wright used in his sermon. That has not satisfied everyone and some question why Sen. Obama has not further distanced himself from his minister. Sadly, the depth of Sen. Obama’s speech has faded into the background and shallow minded journalists continue to harp on the Rev. Wright’s sermon.

Many people have been critical of the Rev. Wright’s language. It has been described as deplorable and offensive. I do not need to say what has already been overstated. It is certainly not the kind of language that you would defend from this pulpit.

What I am wondering this morning is if we could set aside the language and emotion that the Rev. Wright expresses and try to understand the content of his meaning. I do not think that the Rev. Wright’s intention was meant to be divisive or racist. I hope that we can move beyond his preaching style and rhetoric and see that he represents a deeper expression of black liberation theology. It is my intention this morning to try to understand just a piece of that tradition, with one major caveat. A twenty-five minute sermon cannot possibly offer a full treatment of race relations in America or offer in-depth expression of black theology. So this sermon is one tiny piece of the conversation that we need to continue in America about race.

To begin with, and in fairness to the Rev. Wright, I think we ought to open our ears a little bit more and take in the larger context. In his sermon of 2003 he said,

“The government gives them drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. God damn America, that’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”

Again, I understand that some might find his language offensive. It is a level of passion that most of us are not used to hearing, especially from the pulpit. We may not agree with his rhetoric but we cannot in all honesty totally dismiss his assessment of the moral dilemma that America has faced since Europeans landed on her shores and continues into the twenty-first century.

On the issue of slavery and the oppression of black people in the United States, listen carefully to these words from President Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address.”

“The Almighty has His own purposes, ‘Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that many by whom the offence cometh!’ (Matt. 18: 7) If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this might scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”[2] (Psalm 19:9)

In both cases President Lincoln and the Rev. Wright appealed to the Bible to claim the judgment of God on America for the abuse and oppression of her black citizens. It is the testimony of the Bible that God’s judgment falls on any nation that presumes moral supremacy and the indignant treatment of human beings.

Now many people do not like the idea that any of us stand under God’s judgment. We argue that such a theology only creates a disagreeable image of God and poor self-esteem in God’s creatures. We would rather like to think that we mean well and really have the best intentions. We associate judgment with fundamentalist preachers who rail against sin and condemn us all to hell.

What we forget in this convenient self-assessment is that our best intentions are often self-serving and self-preserving. They follow our comfort levels to the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. We become blind to the price that others pay for our self-indulgence. We lose sight of the bondage those excessive lifestyles exact on workers and their families. Most importantly, we forget that personal ease or abundance has never been the moral engine driving the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Black liberation theology begins with the premise that God is the agent of human freedom. Thus black liberation theology is cradled in the story of the Exodus. You know that story. God commanded Moses to go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” God may be many things to many people, but God is always the course of freedom. No human being is to bow his or her knee to any person or thing on the face of this earth. As soon as we lift a man, woman, possession, or ideology above human freedom we have worshipped the idol of our own destruction.

Now what we need to begin to understand is that I am not reminiscing about a Bible story. Black liberation theology claims that not only is God the agent of human freedom, God has made the conditions of the oppressed God’s own condition. God has made slavery God’s own being. That is why you hear so often in the black church, “God is black.” God has taken on the condition of oppression, tyranny, and all forms of social-political-physical abuse. The essence of God is God’s identification with and action on behalf of the oppressed. As theologian James Cone declared:

“Black theology says that as Father, God identified with oppressed Israel participating in the bringing into being of this people; as Son, he became the Oppressed One in order that all may be free from oppression; as Holy Spirit, he continues his work of liberation. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and Son at work in the forces of liberation in our society today.”[3]

This suggests to us that God is at work in the black community. In other words, God is at work in human history. God is expressing God’s self in the actions of men and women who identify with those who suffer and work to bring them to freedom and wholeness.

Now let us stop for just a moment and ask ourselves how often we think of God as active in history, or in our white community, or even in our church. Frankly, I think that most of us, even in the progressive Christian tradition, do not imagine that God is at work in the world. We will very quickly argue that if God is active in history why are not things better? What has God done about poverty or war or child abuse? Our image of God, you see, is typically of some super power that stands outside of history and intervenes when God is so inclined.

But listen carefully to what I said about black theology. God is moving in the beloved community. God’s essence is palpable in the homes of mothers raising children; parents working multiple jobs to put their children through college; politicians working to expand medical care for the uninsured; pastors and churches shoring up human dignity and demanding that every black face is beautiful. Every work of human liberation is God’s own work. For many members of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Rev. Wright’s passion for freedom and justice is the very movement of God in the midst of God’s people.

This is difficult for those of us who worship in the Anglo-Saxon mainstream protestant tradition. As we listen to a sermon we are checking the preacher’s use of grammar and sentence construction. We are critiquing the preacher delivery style. We will go to lunch with fellow parishioners and analyze the preacher’s theology. It seldom occurs to us that the Holy Spirit of God is moving through the preacher and the congregation inspiring God’s Word and work of liberation.

I think of my friend, the Rev. Dr. Isaac Hudson, former minister of the Vernon Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa, OK. Dr. Hudson is a large man who looks like he ought to be a linebacker for a professional football team. He has a beautiful voice and could easily have had a career in music. But Dr. Hudson has a vocation as a preacher of the gospel. And when you would go into the Vernon Chapel you would encounter a life-size poster of Dr. Hudson, dressed in his pulpit gown. And at the hem of his gown were these bold words, “Called of God!” I was never sure to whom this message was directed. I don’t know if it was a reminder to Dr. Hudson that he was called of God, or if it was a reminder to his congregation. Perhaps it was a reminder to both.

Now some people might be wondering about all that has been accomplished in these United States since Brown vs. the Board of Education. And indeed, we can point to the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act as benchmarks of progress in race relations. We have a growing number of black Americans who serve in public office, assume corporate leadership, and find themselves at home in middle or upper class neighborhoods.

And this is where Howard Thurman’s warning become important to us. Arguably, many of the walls of segregation have come down. Jim Crow laws are now in the dustbin of history. When I talk to young people about the forces of segregation I witnessed in the south they do not believe me. They cannot imagine a time black people could not eat in the same restaurant or swim in the public pool. They think I am making up stories about water fountains for “whites only.” Yes, that kind of segregation seems to have receded from our everyday lives.

What we cannot say is that such blatant forms of racism are erased from the experience and memory of millions of black Americans alive today. The fear and shame that pressed on the hearts of black Americans is still tender. I have black friends whose feet were ruined because they were not allowed to try on shoes at the department store. They bought shoes that were too small and damaged their feet. I have friends who fought in World War II and came home to terms like “boy” or “coon.” Trust me when I tell you that racism is ever a part of their American experience and still haunts their vision not only as citizens but also as human beings.

I also think that we cannot honestly say that racism is a thing of the past. Think of more recent stories of hanging ropes that have appeared on school and college campuses. Xerox has just settled a lawsuit with 1,100 black sales representatives. Investigations are ongoing into some real estate companies that use voice profiling to distinguish persons of color. Financial institutions do not have sterling records when it comes to home mortgages for minority people. People of color disproportionately populate our prison system. While we claim that we have overturned “separate but equal” school systems, urban schools with large student populations of minority children are often inferior with dismal graduation rates. The consequences of four hundred years of racial discrimination in American history are deeply embedded in our society and all of its institutions.

In the mind and heart of black liberation theology these and other forms of discrimination stand in sharp contrast with the God of freedom. Every expression of indignity and oppression stands in the judgment of God. And I think there is something fundamentally wrong with us when we are more offended by the Rev. Wright’s words than we are by the vestiges of racism that haunt and scar America’s children of color.

As Congregationalists we can look back to our history and find many fine examples of our parents in faith who sought to overturn slavery and served the Civil Rights movement. Many walls of racism have come down because Congregationalists hammered for human liberation. I do not think they all have come down. And as Howard Thurman reminds us, where they have come down the real work of building a healthy American society remains before us. One of the tasks is the continual searching of our souls for the last rags of fear and hatred. I struggle with that almost daily. Another task is taking the time to listen to the black conscience and to learn its language. And of course, whenever and wherever we can join the efforts of freedom we must lend our hand. What social policies do we need to revisit? What budget priorities and community projects need our shared attention? How can we sit down together and break bread with our brothers and sisters of color? What finally does it mean that we are the body of Christ and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is our brother?

Now just to let you know that I am not blowing smoke here, let me tell you what I am willing to risk this week. On Tuesday I will be meeting with some clergy to talk about immigration. I know that there will be black and brown pastors involved in that conversation. I will give each of them a copy of this sermon and invite them to respond. I will invite them to a deeper dialogue. My hope is that it will not be just another conversation amongst the preachers. I hope that one day it will be a broader and deeper conversation with lay leaders like you. For you see, Barack Obama was right. We need a conversation about race in America.

Finis

[1] Howard Thurman, A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 243.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings – 1859-1865 (New York: Library of America, 1989), p. 687.

[3] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1970), p. 122.

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