Reverend Jeremiah Wright
National Press Club Address
delivered 28 April 2008
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[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]
Over the next few days, prominent
scholars of the African-American religious tradition from several different
disciplines -- theologians, church historians, ethicists, professors of Hebrew
Bible, homiletics, hermeneutics and historians of religions -- those scholars
will join in with sociologists, political analysts, local church pastors and
denominational officials to examine the African-American religious experience
and its historical, theological, and political context. The workshops, the panel
discussions, and the symposia will go into much more intricate detail about this
unknown phenomenon of the black church -- than I have time to go into in the few
moments that we have to share together.
The black religious experience is a tradition that at one point in American history was actually called "the invisible institution," as it was forced underground by the Black Codes. The Black Codes prohibited the gathering of more than two black people without a white person being president -- present to monitor the conversation, the content, and the mood of any discourse between persons of African descent in this country.
Africans did not stop worshipping because of the Black Codes. Africans did not stop gathering for inspiration and information and for encouragement and for hope in the midst of discouraging and seemingly hopeless circumstances. They just gathered out of the eyesight and the earshot of those who defined them as less than human. They became, in other words, invisible in and invisible to the eyes of the dominant culture. They gathered to worship in brush arbors -- sometimes called "hush arbors" -- where the slaveholders, slave patrols, and Uncle Toms couldn't hear nobody pray.
From the 1700s in North America, with the founding of the first legally
recognized independent black congregations, through the end of the Civil War and
the passing of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United
States of America, the black religious experience was informed by, enriched by,
expanded by, challenged by, shaped by, and influenced by the influx of Africans
from the other two Americas and the Africans brought into this country from the
Caribbean; plus the Africans who were called "fresh blacks" by the slave
traders, those Africans who had not been through the seasoning process of the
Middle Passage in the Caribbean colonies, those Africans on the sea coast
islands off of Georgia and South Carolina, the Gullah -- [changing
pronunciation] -- we say in English
Gullah; those of us in the black community
say Geechee -- those people brought into the black religious experience, a
flavor that other seasoned Africans could not bring.
(As the vice president told you, that applause comes from not the working press.)
Maybe this dialogue on race -- an honest dialogue that does not engage in denial or superficial platitudes -- maybe this dialogue on race can move the people of faith in this country from various stages of alienation and marginalization to the exciting possibility of reconciliation. That is my hope as I open up this two-day symposium, and I open it as a pastor and a professor who comes from a long tradition of what I call "the prophetic theology of the black church."
Now, in the 1960s, the term "liberation theology" began to gain currency with the writings and the teachings of preachers, pastors, priests, and professors from Latin America. Their theology was done from the underside. Their viewpoint was not from the top down or from a set of teachings which undergirded imperialism. Their viewpoints, rather, were from the bottom up, the thoughts and understandings of God, the faith, religion, and the Bible from those whose lives were ground under, mangled, and destroyed by the ruling classes or the oppressors. Liberation theology started in and started from a different place. It started from the vantage point of the oppressed.
In the late 1960s, when
Dr. James Cone's powerful books burst onto the scene,
the term "black liberation theology" began to be used. I do not in any way
disagree with Dr. Cone, nor do I in any way diminish the inimitable and
incomparable contribution that he has made and that he continues to make to the
field of theology. Jim, incidentally, is a personal friend of mine.
The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates those who are holding them captive. It frees the captives and it frees the captors. It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors. The prophetic theology of the black church during the days of chattel slavery was a theology of liberation. It was preached to set free those who were held in bondage, spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically, and it was practiced to set the slaveholders free from the notion that they could define other human beings or confine a soul set free by the power of the gospel.
The prophetic theology of the black church during the days of segregation, Jim
Crow, lynching, and the "separate but equal" fantasy was a theology of
It was preached to set African-Americans free from the notion of second-class
citizenship, which was the law of the land. And it was practiced to set free
misguided and miseducated Americans from the notion that they were actually
superior to other Americans based on the color of their skin.
Black learning styles are different from European and European-American
learning styles. They are not deficient. They are just different.
This principle of "difference does not mean deficient" is at the heart of the
prophetic theology of the black church. It is a theology of liberation.
God's desire is for positive, meaningful, and permanent change. God does not want
one people seeing themselves as superior to other people. God does not want the
powerless masses -- the poor, the widows, the marginalized, and those underserved
by the powerful few -- to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the
society as being more equal than others in that same society. God's desire is
for positive change, transformation; real change, not cosmetic change,
transformation; radical change or a change that makes a permanent difference,
transformation. God's desire is for transformation: changed lives, changed
minds, changed laws, changed social orders, and changed hearts in a changed
world. This principle of transformation is at the heart of the prophetic
theology of the black church.
These two foci of liberation and transformation have been at the very core of
the United Church of Christ since its predecessor denomination, the
Congregational Church of New England came to the moral defense and paid for the
legal defense of the
Mende people aboard the slave ship Amistad, since the days
when the United Church of Christ fought against slavery, played an active role
Underground Railroad, and set up over 500 schools for the Africans who
were freed from slavery in 1865. And these two foci remain at the core of the
teachings of the United Church of Christ as it has fought against
South Africa and racism in the United States of America ever since the union
which formed the United Church of Christ in 1957.
Our congregation sent -- sent 35 men and women through accredited seminaries to earn their Master of Divinity degrees with an additional 40 currently being enrolled in seminary while building two senior citizen housing complexes and running two child-care programs for the poor, the unemployed, the low-income parents on the south side of Chicago for the past 30 years. Our congregation feeds over 5,000 homeless and needy families every year while our government cuts food stamps and spends billions fighting in an unjust war in Iraq.
Our congregation has sent dozens of boys and girls to fight in the Vietnam War,
the first Gulf War, and the present two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My
goddaughter's unit just arrived in Iraq this week, while those who call me
unpatriotic have used their positions of privilege to avoid military service
while sending -- while sending over 4,000 American boys and girls of every race
to die over a lie.
God does not desire for us, as children of God, to be at war with each other, to
see each other as superior or inferior, to hate each other, abuse each other,
misuse each other, define each other or put each other down.
The black church's role in the fight for equality and justice from the 1700s up
until 2008 has always had as its core the non-negotiable doctrine of
reconciliation, children of God repenting for past sins against each other.
Wallis says America's racist -- sin of racism has never even been confessed,
much less repented for. Repenting for past sins against each other and being
reconciled to one another -- Jim Wallis is white, by the way -- being reconciled
to one another because of the love of God, who made all of us in God's image.
But then the complicated work is
left to be done, as you dig deeper into the constructs which tradition, habits,
and hermeneutics put on your plate.
To say, "I am a Christian," is not enough. Why? Because the Christianity of the
slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the
slaveholders pray, as they ride on the decks of the slave ship, is not the God
to whom the enslaved are praying, as they ride beneath the decks on that same
Thank you for having me in your midst this morning.
¹ Martin Luther King, "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, the same hour when many are standing to sing: 'In Christ There Is No East Nor West.'" (Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958). See also Martin Luther King's Methodist Youth Conference Address for this quotation in context and with audio.
² An extrapolation perhaps, taken from two different NT passages attributed to the Apostle Paul. II Corinthians 5:18-20 states, "And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." And Ephesians 2:14 states, "Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby...." (KJV, emphasis added for clarity)
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