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Sunday, March 16, 2008

American nationalism collides with black liberation theology.

Barack Obama is in the unenviable position this week of trying to distance himself from his own pastor and from a theological tradition that has strongly informed his Christianity. ABC News reported Thursday on statements that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has made in the course of his impressive ministry on Chicago's South Side — including "God damn America" — wondering whether Wright was a "liability" for Obama. Fox News flogged video of part of a sermon Wright delivered at Trinity United Church of Christ in which Wright compared America's white ruling class to the Roman Empire in Jesus' time and all but endorsed Obama from the pulpit. ("Hillary ain't never been called a nigger" is perhaps the most provocative statement in the clip, although it's probably true.) Obama quickly did the politically expedient thing and denounced Wright's statements and removed Wright from his campaign's group of spiritual advisors, although he tried not to repudiate Wright himself, whom Obama has called a father-figure.

Saturday's Times gave an overview of the whole two-day media frenzy about Wright, helpfully providing a bit of context around Wright's Afrocentric Christianity and briefly introducing black liberation theology. I can't stress enough that anyone who is trying to understand Wright's theology and its roots must read Jason Byassee's profile of Trinity UCC in the May 29, 2007, issue of the Christian Century: "Africentric church: A visit to Chicago's Trinity UCC." But the black church, liberation theology, and the social gospel tradition aren't the only branches of Christianity that don't line up neatly with American nationalism or rah-rah celebrations of American political power and mainstream American culture. The New Testament itself is shot through with denunciations of political structures that oppress people — and its apocalyptic texts (especially Revelation) can get pretty wild-eyed about it. (Even the nativity story, James Carroll writes, has a strongly political dimension that we often overlook.)

Now perhaps earlier generations of preachers would have condemned the nation's sinfulness in slightly more orotund ways than Wright's "God damn America," but that's hardly a new sentiment from the pulpit. Wright said God damns America for its violence, its oppression, its racism. Republican-aligned or right-leaning pastors routinely say God damns America for a different set of "sins" ranging from legalized abortion to gay marriage to liberalism. Sadly, what will probably startle many white Americans is the discovery that resentment and anger about white racism is very much alive and well in the black church, and in the church that Obama belongs to.

That's not to say that Wright's sermons and speeches aren't problematic from a political perspective — but I don't think Wright was speaking politically. He was preaching, in ways consistent with his church's theology, the broader tradition of black liberation theology, and with the gospel itself. And the goal of his preaching, I assume, was to emphasize God's sympathy for his audience, which has a strikingly different experience of American life than the pundit class. (Or than I do!) One could disagree with parts of what Wright has said, but I find it disturbing that much of the outrage focused on him is targeted at the true and defensible things he has said.

Obama's political problem, in other words, is not necessarily Jeremiah Wright's problem. Most of us hear messages in church that we don't always agree with. And if there's a certain degree of political paranoia in some of Wright's sermons, well I'll be damned if there isn't a degree of political paranoia in some of the preaching you're likely to hear in conservative, moderate, and liberal churches all over this country.

But even discounting the demagoguery that preachers sometimes (or often) lapse into, there's a stronger point to make about sermons: If you're not hearing something you disagree with in church, I'd say you're attending a shallow, narrow church. The church has to take an oppositional stance (as best it can) toward aspects of our own behavior and toward aspects of our cultural and national life; otherwise, what's its point? Giving benediction to the conventional wisdom and the dominant ethos of the country is not what Jesus had in mind, even for life in a liberal democracy. A point worth keeping in mind during Holy Week.

("Obama's spiritual mentor may put church in hot water," Jeff Goldblatt, 3.12.08; "Obama's preacher: The Wright message?" ABC News 3.13.08; "On my faith and my church," Barack Obama, Huffington Post 3.14.08; "Obama denounces his pastor's statements," Jodi Kantor, New York Times 3.15.08)

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 16 March 2008 at 6:35 PM

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Jeff W.:

March 16, 2008 07:54 PM | Permalink for this comment

I guess at least Fox News and their viewership will come out of this with the final realization that Obama is indeed a Christian, not a Muslim, even if a Christian whose former pastor said things they'd take extreme offense at.


March 16, 2008 08:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

Nicely said, Chris -- this is what I was trying to say in my post on the subject, but you have better language and actual scholarship. ;-)

h sofia:

March 16, 2008 09:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

Yeah, this is rough for Obama. The thing is, many white folks (part. the ones who watch Fox) just don't understand why black folks can be angry about America The Monolith.

But it reminds me of a conversation my brother had with a white woman several years ago. They were watching Pres. Bush on the news as he was talking about WMDs, and my brother said, "I don't believe anything that man says." The woman said, "What?! The President of the US would never lie to his people."

And my brother looked at her. "You're joking right?" She insisted the US government always acted in the people's best interests - even after my brother brought up American Indians, slavery, Jim Crow, etc. Her response was, "If slavery hadn't happened, black people like you wouldn't be here watching tv right now; you'd be in the jungle somewhere."

Somehow, she thought that everything the government did was in the best interests of its people. She didn't even see the false promises, the betrayals, and acts of terror toward marginalized people in society as problematic; instead she saw those actions and outcomes as "better" than whatever else those folks would have had somewhere else.

This woman is 50 years old - not old. She went to college. She married a black man and had two children with him (they are long divorced). She has a black grandchild. But I don't think she has any understanding of "the people's history" in America.


March 17, 2008 01:02 AM | Permalink for this comment

I agree that Rev. Wright's comments on 9/11 are very similar to comments by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. I am mystified that a UU would consider this a powerful argument in favor of Wright's point of view.

I also don't believe that "political paranoia" is necessarily discomfiting to congregations. Left and right wing congregations often appreciate paranoia that fits their preconceptions.

There is not a shred of evidence that Wright is preaching anything that offends his congregation.


March 17, 2008 02:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

More on Jeremiah Wright:

  • "Obama pastor's fiery sermons part of long prophetic tradition," Adelle M. Banks [Religion News Service], Beliefnet 3.14.08.
  • "Political perceptions: Why Rev. Wright's comments exploded," Gerald F. Seib and Sara Murray, Wall Street Journal "Washington Wire" 3.17.08
  • Via Faith in Public Life's "Daily Faith News" email newsletter, 3.17.08.


    March 17, 2008 03:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

    One more on Wright:

  • "Damn you rich! (Luke 6:24)," Daily Kos 3.16.08.
  • Dan:

    March 20, 2008 11:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

    Well, I have to say that I would never preach a sermon saying "God damn America" -- but that's because I'm a Universalist and I know God wouldn't damn anyone. Aside from that, I'm with Jeremiah Wright all the way.


    March 21, 2008 03:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

    Here, by the way, is Trinity United Church of Christ's YouTube page, where the church is posting Wright videos that offer a broader perspective than the clips that ABC and Fox News broadcast.

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