Monday, April 28, 2008
Wright or Wrong?
If you've spent any time reading this blog, you'll know that's there is no way I'd miss Rev. Jeremiah Wright's press conference today... all 48 minutes of it. The outspoken pastor from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago has been embattled after snippets of his sermons ended up on YouTube, and then got picked up by the mainstream press who have been having a field day ever since. More than likely, if Barack Obama had attended another church in Chicago's south side, virtually all of us would have never heard of Jeremiah Wright. But in an age of 24 our news, and the scramble to fill time, the sound bites from Wright's sermons are like manna from Heaven.
Today, Wright himself decided that wasn't food enough. Today, much like God giving the children of Israel quail to eat in addition to their bread, the UCC pastor gave the talking heads 48 more minutes of unadulterated speech to process.
Well... speech AND some interesting gestures, laughter, and an introduction to black liberation theology. It was meaty, indeed.
I remember years ago in seminary reading James Cone in a class on Martin Luther King Jr. taught by a man, Dr. Irvin (Irv) Smith, whose entire life had been shaped by King's example and experience. I remember too reading that line that the god of the captain of a slave ship who stood on a deck steering a course for safe harbor and profits at a slave auction was not the same god of the people under the deck taken against their will to be slaves.
It's a matter of perspective, and for those who believe in Liberation Theology, the perspective is that God always shows up and supports those on the underside of the deck. In fact, for them, the "first shall become last and the last shall become first" isn't metaphorical or spiritualized. It's the inevitable end to the course of history - those who had power, becoming powerless as those who were powerless become powerful. To them, this message is cemented in the Book of Revelation where the all-powerful "Beast" which controls all forms of politics, business, and culture, ends up crushed under the justice of God and the patience and faithfulness of his believers (who, by the way aren't raptured out of the time of tribulation, but rather suffer for their faithfulness for a long time before their prayer of "how long must we wait God for your justice" is finally answered with the casting of the Beast, all his followers, and Satan, into a "lake of fire".
Jeremiah Wright not only knows liberation theology and believes it, but he has been essential in helping write it's course in the late 20th century. He came of age at a time where historically black colleges, largely founded and run by mostly white mainline denominational leaders, wouldn't allow black students to worship in their own tradition. Gospel melodies and piano were replaced with organ music and hymnals filled with music written by dead European white guys from the 18th and 19th century. This mirrored a culture that wouldn't allow Jackie Wilson on TV to sing his latest R&B hit. Instead, Pat Boone would have to redo the song, making it more palatable and less threatening to white and audiences, before the hit could be heard on American Bandstand. Black culture, ideas, style, talent and expression were deemed second-class, and thus inferior.
Then one day the students woke up and said, "Wait a minute. I like Charles Wesley and all, but his music isn't a part of my tradition and doesn't help me express what's in my soul." And hence the beginnings of the "Black is Beautiful" movement as it related to higher education and Christian expression was born. Black intelligensia (led by young people like Jeremiah Wright) began to espouse that just because white people don't want to be loud (expressive) in worship, didn't mean that black people had to be quiet (reflective) in their own service. Or as Wright put so many times in the news conference, "Different wasn't deficient. Just different." Hence a much more expressive and prophetic style of worship and preaching began to fall on ears desperate to hear a new message.
The emergence of Black Liberation Theology, encapsulated early on by the writings of James Cone, gave voice to "Black is Beautiful" as it related to the Christian religion. These liberationist theologians asserted that Christianity had long been aligned with people of European (and mainly Western European) ancestry, and that they not only had tried to convert people across the world to their religion, but also to their culture. That's why, for example, when you go to Haiti today, the music in the Sunday morning worship service sounds nothing like the music you hear in the streets during the week. Haitian Christians, which are still largely under the thumb of evangelical, conservative, protestant missionaries, have been taught to sing to western hymns (and now, praise choruses) and are still taught that the kinds of rhythms you might hear on popular radio (or at night at a voodoo ceremony) are of the Devil. No matter that this music and rhythm originates out the ancestry of the native culture... it's not white European, so its evil (an argument that, curiously enough, a member at Goshen First UMC tried to make when we introduced contemporary praise music into the traditional worship service). Black liberationists (which are having a huge impact right now in Africa, which is beginning to find its own creative voice in worship, music, ministry, and theology) got black Christians all over the world asking, "If somebody forced music that wasn't culturally relevant down my through, what else - theology, culture, political ideas, my place in society, etc... - got shoved down with it?"
Hence black preaching, coming out of this tradition, has always seen its role to largely be prophetic. Prophetic in the sense that what is the dominant paradigm in the immediate community needs to be named, called out, and eventually stamped out. Prophetic in the sense that power structures in the greater community need to challenged, resisted, and overcome. At its best, ministry from this tradition helps communities make changes for the better that help defeat poverty, ignorance and oppression. But at its worst, it can sound paranoid (about the dominant culture) and condescending (to anyone not educated in this tradition).
That's what I heard in the 48 minute press conference today. At his best, Wright was outstanding. He gave a great synopsis of what black liberation theology is, and how it shapes a preacher and congregation. He nailed key reasons why American Christianity is more segregated than American neighborhoods or the American workplace.
But at its worst, Wright seemed arrogant, condescending and paranoid. If you watch the whole video, take a gander at the moment after the question about whether or not the government gave AIDS intentionally to Black America. You can hear a pin drop in the room when Wright won't back off the assertion that the government, as based on a book he read by Dr. Leonard Horowitz did intentionally infect the black community with AIDS. Even his supporters in the room (the "non-working press") who have been vocally supporting him for more than a half-hour didn't say a word as he said that given what had happened at the Tuskegee Institute (when blacks were injected with syphilis for the purposes of medical testing), he had to believe that the government was capable of such activity again. People weren't willing to "amen" that statement. It just sounded to whacked out to be believed.
In an event, listen to the entire interview, and I think you'll get a good introduction to a wing of Christianity you might not have ever known existed even as its flourished in your own community.