Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Of Roosting Chickens

I've been attempting to avoid commenting on the manufactured "controversy" surrounding Trinity UCC in Chicago and their now retired pastor Jeremiah Wright. That church and its esteemed pastor have been dragged through the mud as a part of an ongoing attempt to smear Barack Obama as being of suspect religion. First he was painted as a Muslim, the new dangerous "other," and now as that is losing traction (by and large, anyway) we're back to that old dangerous other.

The controversy surrounding Trinity UCC - a controversy that exists solely because one of their members has a good chance to be the first black person elected president of the United States - is not about religion, though it is couched in religious language. Ultimately it is about race. It is about how white ears hear powerful black claims. It is about the inability of many whites to understand the prophetic tradition of black preaching, and the unwillingness of many whites to recognize the distance between white and black religious language, and to suspend judgment until they have the requisite grounding to properly interpret statements.

The best case in point of this concerns Rev. Wright's now infamous declaration just after 9-11. But, before I get to that statement, I want to echo these words from Rev. Otis Moss III (one of the key-note speakers at my seminary's recent Festival of Theology), who recently replace Wright as the pastor of Trinity UCC:

Dr. Wright has preached 207,792 minutes on Sunday for the past 36 years at Trinity United Church of Christ. This does not include weekday worship services, revivals and preaching engagements across America and around the globe, to ecumenical and interfaith communities. It is an indictment on Dr. Wright’s ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second sound bite.

I could not agree more. To reduce a 36 year preaching career to a few statements yanked entirely from their historical and textual contexts is at best unprofessional and grossly negligent, and the main stream media should be ashamed for their participation in the dumbing down of American racial and religious dialogue. What we're seeing is at best a lazy narrative, and at worst latent racism once again rearing its ugly head in American public life.

In the coming days I may offer posts on Black Theology (Rev. Wright was greatly influenced by James Cone, about whom I have written many times on this blog - to understand Wright's prophetic message you have to have a basic understanding of the theological presuppositions and commitments of the Cone school of Black Theology) and the prophetic tradition. Today, however, I want to narrow my focus to a single quote from Wright, because the way that this quote has been represented in American media illustrates my contention that this discourse is at least lazy, if not outright racist.

The New York Times (whose article is the most responsible journalistic treatment of the manufactured "controversy" I've encountered, as it interviews both James Cone and the University of Chicago Divinity School's legendary Dwight Hopkins, two leading voices in Black Theology, making it the only journalistic attempt I've seen to place Wright properly in his theological context) reports that just after 9-11, Jeremiah Wright preached a sermon that included:

We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards,


America’s chickens are coming home to roost.

That same Times article includes - very responsibly - Wright's explanation for those words, and how they functioned pastorally in his congregation. However, neither it nor any other source that I've seen mentions what many in Wright's congregation undoubtedly knew even as they were hearing this sermon from their seats in the sanctuary that morning: Wright was echoing Malcolm X.

In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X explains the controversy that served as the excuse used by Elijah Muhammad to silence him, which in turn was the mechanism by which he left the Nation of Islam. He was asked by Elijah Muhammad to give a speech at the Manhattan Center, shortly after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy:

The title of my speech was "God's Judgment of White America." It was a theme familiar to me, of "as you sow, so shall you reap," or how the hypocritical American white man was reaping what he had sowed.

The question-and-answer period opened, I suppose inevitably, with someone asking me, "What do you think about President Kennedy's assassination? What is your opinion?"

Without a second thought, I said what I honestly felt - that it was, as I saw it, a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country's chief of state.

Malcolm X connected the assassination of president Kennedy to the violent hatred in America; in other words, to racism. Now, to white ears this sounds at first at best a reckless stretch, and at worst - well... we've seen the sorts of labels applied to Wright for saying something very similar. However, an appreciation of the historical context quickly shows that Malcolm X had a point. For instance, on the day that Kennedy was killed, the University of Tennessee - only recently integrated, with a handful of black students - had to close. Was this in commemoration? An act of remembrance for a beloved president? Was this due to collective shock that in this unstable time not even the most powerful person in the country is safe?

No. This was because there were so many white Southerners in the streets of Knoxville celebrating the death of that n- loving president. (If you don't believe me check out the brilliant new documentary on ESPN, Black Magic. It contains both first person accounts of this, and archival footage.) Across the American south there was a large, vocal minority of the white population that saw Kennedy's death as the justified result of his stance on civil rights. It was not a stretch at that time to say that racist white anger, fear, and paranoia led either directly or indirectly to Kennedy's assassination, even if such an assertion is less credible today.

In order to understand the statement by Wright quoted above, yanked as it is out of his context, you have to have some appreciation of its use of Malcolm X. Just as Malcolm X linked an American tragedy to American sin, Wright is doing the same thing. But instead of pulling a Jerry Falwell, he is coming from a very different, more prophetic tradition.

The New York Times piece linked to above provided some space for Wright to explain his words, to place them gently back into the context from which they were yanked:

Asked in an interview last March to explain the sermon, Mr. Wright said he had been questioning the country’s desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, counseling his congregants to look inward instead.

Immediately after the attacks, the country’s response was “to pay back and kill,” he said. But before it got “holier than thou,” he said, the nation should have considered how its own policies had led to the events of that day.

The quote in question from Rev. Wright, like the Malcolm X quote to which it points, has been interpreted as saying something sinister, like America deserved to be the victim of a terrorist attack, like the attack was somehow justified. But placed in this context, neither Wright nor Malcolm X are saying any such thing. They are offering explanations, not justifications. They are using their prophetic voices to note the connection between a horrific event and social, economic, and political policies that create the landscape within which that event takes place.

If America were not such a violently racist country, built on the backs of slaves, over the corpses of the native population, it may not have produced the conditions in which John F. Kennedy was killed, and in which many white racists celebrated his death. This is Malcolm X's point.

In the same vein, Wright says, "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards." If we had not done this, then the necessary conditions for the attacks on September 11 may not have been met. This does not justify those attacks. But neither does it let us blindly ignore our own corporate participation in them.

This is not hate speech, it is prophetic speech, in line both with the prophets of ancient Israel and the prophetic tradition of black preaching. It may grate on our ears, but listening to it and taking it seriously may just do us a world of good.

(My next post will concern what I mean by the prophetic tradition.)


Update: 3-19-08, 1:27 pm

Finally having some time to check on some of the blogs I like, I saw this excellent post by Liam. It is similarly concerned with Wright's statements, but does perhaps an even better job critically examining them and placing them in context. More importantly, Liam's focus is slightly broader than mine, and so he addresses multiple statements rather than the single one I parsed out here.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. There's a lot of things that you point out in this post that I think are worth noting and noticing. I didn't realize that UT closed for those reasons and that truly bothers me. I think others should be aware of things like this and how it is happening again now. Hopefully if people are aware now they will be able to think more about their actions, what they think, and change them.


Brian Beech said...

This is completely out of line. Have you listened to any of Rev. Wright's sermon's? I listened to a few on YouTube (admittedly his most controversial) and they are blatantly racist. There is no two ways around it.

There is a double standard in this country that a black man can say whatever he pleases and make any outrageous claim with no consequence. If you replace the word 'black' with the word 'white' in his remarks and sermons - and you were white - you would be ousted and marked a racist. I know it, you know it, everyone knows that is a fact.

The black population that is segregating itself as Rev. Wright is, is the worst kind of public voice the community can have. He's a race-baiter and a complete racist. How anyone can endorse that and say that the church is a good platform for that is beyond me...I can't even comprehend it.

Sandalstraps said...


I have some sympathy for your comment. However, I think what you've been given are snippets yanked totally out of their textual context. And, as my post indicated, yanked totally out of their cultural and theological context as well.

I don't expect that you'll ever agree with my take on some of Wright's statements (and I am not saying that they are entirely innocuous), but I do expect you to appreciate that some understanding of context is required to interpret them.

You may very well, for instance, find the Malcolm X quote to which Wright's comments in question here (as this is a narrow piece, concerned only with how a few sentences function within a particular context) at least distasteful, if not hateful and vile. I don't, because I don't think that Malcolm X was making the point he has been portrayed as making. But, whatever your opinions of the merits of the Malcolm X quote, you have to understand it to understand how Wright is using it.

As for racism, I hear your frustration, but I don't share it. For starters, racism is ultimately a question of power. You can't take Wright's comments, flip "black" for "white," and have anything like the point that he's making. This is because blacks as blacks have never in the history of this country had any power over whites as whites. To treat, then, the legacy of racism in this country as some mutual dispute between ethic groups in which both sides are equally wrong is to misread American history.

As I noted in one of my posts on Cone (a major influence on Wright, I don't think the kind of essentialist message on race that we get from Cone (and by extension Wright) provides us with any way forward. And I suspect it is that essentialist message that you are responding to and calling racist. So we share a concern there. As Obama put it in his speech, Wright is wrong here because he's treating America (and, by extension, using the term "white") as though it is static. This may thus stand as a prophetic critique of something that needs to be challenged (the ongoing legacy of racism in our country), but as noted above, provides no way forward.

In an upcoming post I'm going to delve into prophetic religion, which is part of the tradition Wright is speaking out of. There I will note that, as Martin Buber puts it, true prophets always "speak into the power of decision that resides in the moment." If Wright's words truly reflect his view that, as Obama put is, America is static, then he is being deficiently prophetic, following in the vein of Jonah (about whom I will write in that post).

But, again, to understand Wright outside this context is to misunderstand him.

Finally, I would ask you to bring a little bit of charity to your reading of Wright's words for this reason: while he is rightly understood as the black pastor of a predominantly black church, his denomination is overwhelmingly white. If the few statements of his that seem on a perpetual loop were the best means by which to understand his ministry and message, why would he be such a legendary figure in that extremely white denomination? Why would he be so intimately connected to that tradition, and a part of its broader global ministry? And, is being a vital part of a white denomination really an act of "segregation"?

I don't ask you to like or agree with Jeremiah Wright, I just ask you to treat both your initial response to him and the media's portrayal of him with a little bit of suspicion.

Sandalstraps said...


One more thing:

In the post I linked to, I explore how James Cone (the theologian most influential on Wright) uses the terms "black" and "white," and why I don't like that usage. However, it should be clear that Cone (and I think Wright is following him here) does not mean by "white" persons with light skin, nor by "black" persons with dark skin. He is, as he puts it, using these terms ontologically. Here is Cone's own explanation of his use of "black" and "white" (see this post for my critique):

Blackness, then, stands for all victims of oppression who realize that the survival of their humanity is bound up with liberation from whiteness.

In a footnote on this he writes:

I do not intend to qualify this statement, because too much is at stake - the survival of the black community. But perhaps some clarification is needed here. Some critics will undoubtedly ask, "How can you dismiss out of hand any criticisms that white theologians or others in traditional white Christianity might raise concerning your interpretation of black theology, and at the same time use quotations from white theologians, both European and American, with approval? If white theology is as bad as you say, why not dismiss them altogether, without any reference to their work?" Of course, these are challenging questions, and I can see whites milking this idea for all it is worth.

...those who press this point have taken too seriously the American definition of white. When I say that white theology is not Christian theology, I mean the theology that has been written without any reference to the oppressed of the land. This is not true of Karl Barth and certainly not true of Bonhoeffer. Reinhold Neibuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society moves in the direction of blackness. To verify the blackness of a particular perspective, we need only ask, "For whom is it written, the oppressed or the oppressors?" if the former, it is black; if the later, it is white. I do not condemn all persons who happen to look like white Americans; the condemnation comes when they act like them.

This is how I suspect Wright uses "black" and "white," so the terms do not refer directly to any racial or ethnic group, though it is safe to say that Cone (and probably Wright, too) places many if not most white persons in the ontological camp of whiteness. Again, please do see that post for my critique of this move. My explanation of it should not be considered a vigorous defense - I think Cone (and by extension, Wright, who is following Cone here) is at least unhelpful, at most outright wrong. But not for the reasons given by the whiplash-inducing-quick judgment rendered by the mainstream (white) community.

Amy said...

I think it's important to add (as we learned in the forum at the seminary) that Wright is less a student of Cone than a co-creator with Cone of Black Liberation Theology, as they worked together in the 1960s when these ideas were first coming to fruit.