On Barack Obama's Church and its Senior Pastor

BlogHer Original Post

The Senior Pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. has announced that he will bring "a word from Heaven" on the the recent negative press coverage of the church and the faith of its most prominent member, presidential candidate Barack Obama. You can watch its services online at 7:30 AM, 11:00 AM and 7:00 PM CST.

In the past, I've written about the need for cultural competence in reporting on Obama. Nowhere is the lack of cultural competence -- and its unfortunate consequences -- more apparent than in the widening rift between TUCC and the press. Incomplete reporting, uninformed blogging -- and most recently, the Church's reported imposition of a clumsy media relations policy provide a distorted picture of a widely-respected church, theological perspective and Christian leader. My intention in this post is to share my experience of TUCC, and, more importantly, to correct some of the misinterpretations of black liberation theology that have been reflected in the coverage of the church.

Full disclosure: I've watched TUCC church services online off and on for the last two years, and I have notes from most of the services I've watched. In the last six months, I've watched almost every week. I do not know Dr. Wright personally, but I have known of him for years. In the course of his 35-year tenure as a pastor, he has been in frequent demand as a guest preacher, has given workshops for aspiring pastors, and has often been quoted in the press on issues of the day. In 2004, when I was trying to put together an anthology on the homosexuality debate among black Christians, I e-mailed Dr. Wright and received permission to publish a chapter on the subject from one of his books. I also feel I know something of Dr. Wright as a man because I his mother, the late Dr. Mary H. Wright, was my vice-principal. I've also written about the the debates among black Christians about the contemporary application of black theological traditions.

All of that said, here are my thoughts:
1. The TUCC Black Value System, a statement of faith, is not separatist, but comes out of 400 years of African American Christian traditon. Theologians such as Dwight Hopkins have noted that African Americans countered their slavemasters' use of the Bible to justify slavery with a vision of God as liberator, latching on to heroes such as David, Moses and Jesus himself.

That tradition was further strengthened after slavery, in response to writers and politicians who pushed the murderous stereotype that black men were "brutes." It was a response to those who claimed that the Bible proscribed interracial marriage.

The African American theological tradition informed Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail:"

Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands...."

2. The church's battle against white supremacy is also a call for black self-respect and responsibility. We live, after all, in a time when there are black men who say slavery was good for us, and when corporate media glamorize self-destructive behavior, often overwhelming parents' best efforts. In sermons, TUCC's leaders call black parents to take responsibility for their children, extol education, offer Bible-based messages for combating the thug life, and decry cultural trends that destroy black people's self-esteem. If you have any question about why that's necessary, watch this.

3. TUCC's theology is not in conflict with the theology of Dr. Martin Luther King, as some have charged. Yes, Dr. King dreamed of a day when people of all races could join hands. However, he also reflected on the needs for black controlled-institutions within black communities, saying, I don't want to be integrated out of power." (For more on the context of that statement, see James Cone's Malcom & Martin & America: Dream or Nightmare. )

4. The Senior Pastor's perspective on political issues is partially derived from his belief about what belongs on the public vs. the private sphere. Here's an explanation from a recent interview Wright gave to der Spiegel:

Wright: Faith should be pulled into the public arena when it affects how we live. If it doesn't -- if it's so heavenly focused -- it does no earthly good. What does my faith say about 44 million people with no health care? What does my faith say about the fact that my girl can't be a nuclear physicist because she's black and from the inner city and because her schooling options are not what they are for George W. Bush's girls or for Bill and Hillary's daughter Chelsea? My faith says, no, that's not what God intended. It pulls it back into the public arena the idea that there's got to be something fair for all of us.

5. The Black Value System's condmenation of "middleclassness" is not a condemnation of academic or financial success. It's a condemnation of selfishness and materialism of putting self ahead of the welfare of the community. The implied critique in the statement is in the tradition of E. Franklin Frazier's Black Bourgeiosie or W.E.B. Du Bois's sober reflection in his 1948 speech, "The Talented Tenth: A Memorial Address." In that speech, Du Bois said that he had thought that an educated black middle class would automatically seek the good of the race:

"I assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow. In my youth and idealism, I did not realise that selfishness is even more natural than sacrifice..."

It is that selfishness that TUCC condemns.

Reportedly, the church has adopted a new media relations policy in response to what its leaders feel are deceptive reporting tactics by the press. It's a bad public relations move, to be sure. When I was in the corporate world, I knew executives that occasionally tried to tell reporters to send their articles to us for approval, and I had to jump in and explain that's not how the game works. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to have been a good PR counselor on the scene when this policy was developed.

And to be sure, there are those who vehemently disagree with the way TUCC and Barack Obama proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. One group led by a black conservative clergyman,Christians for Social Justice condemns Obama's stances on abortion and homosexuality. Such disagreements are fair game. What's not fair, however, is the mischaracterization of the beliefs and traditions on which public figures stand.

cross-posted at Professor Kim's News Notes

 Obama, Jeremiah Wright "Trinity United Church of Christ", "black liberation theology"

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