Chicago Tribune - March 28, 2008
Wright's sermons fueled by complex mix of culture, religion
By Manya A. Brachear Tribune reporter
On the Sunday in 2003 when Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. shouted "God damn
America" from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ, he
defined damnation as God's way of holding humanity accountable for
Rattling off a litany of injustices imposed on minorities throughout
the nation's history, Wright argued that God cannot be expected to
bless America as the anthem requests unless it changes for the
better. Until that day, he said, God will hold the nation accountable.
And that's when Wright uttered the three infamous words that have
rocked Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Not long after a Democratic front-runner emerged from the pews of
Wright's church, the pastor's long-winded oratory found itself at
odds with the sound-bite culture that feeds the 24-hour news cycle
and YouTube. Thirty-second snippets of 30-minute sermons led pundits
to question how Obama could remain a member of Wright's flock.
Examining the full content of Wright's sermons and delivery style
yields a far more complex message, though it's one that some will
still find objectionable. For more than 30 years every Sunday, Wright
walked churchgoers along a winding road from rage to reconciliation,
employing a style that validated both. "He's voicing a reality that
those people experience six days a week," said Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a
professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Trinity
member. "In that sense, he's saying they're not insane. That helps
them to function the other six days of the week."
Wright preached his last sermon at his "unashamedly black,
unapologetically Christian" church in February but does not
officially retire until May 31. Wright had been scheduled this week
to speak publicly for the first time since debate over his remarks
erupted this month, but those stops in Florida and Texas were
canceled because of security concerns. Efforts to interview him for
this story were unsuccessful.
Obama has denounced Wright's most provocative remarks, but in a
speech on race last week he defended Wright as a person and refused
to disown him as his pastor.
Wright's preaching, which mixes theology with the often-troubled
history of race relations in America, is in the "prophetic"
tradition, one of many that have evolved in black pulpits.
Shocking words like "God damn America" lie at the core of prophetic
preaching, said Rev. Bernard Richardson, dean of the chapel at Howard
University. "The prophets in Scripture . . . their language wasn't
pleasing to hear, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that," he
Some pastors and scholars criticize Wright for not moving beyond the
struggles of the civil rights era. Others say his messages are too
divisive and political. Some say he just goes too far.
Wright "goes beyond the bounds. That's why it's so hard to translate
and why excerpts don't do well," said Rev. Martin Marty, a retired
professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "In today's
world, where you can debate these things instead of blast away like
the prophets did, it's sort of an alien language for most people."
But while the rhetoric may come across as harsh, experts say its goal
is to convince bitter skeptics that reconciliation is indeed possible.
"The anger comes from compassion," Richardson said. "It can feel
hard. It can sound hard. It's cutting. It cuts to make you whole and
bruises to heal you."
Wright's sermons closely follow the prophetic formula. Taking a
biblical text, he analyzes the history and language, highlights the
personal pain likely shared by people in the pews, calls out similar
injustices in today's society and emphasizes that God always
provides. His delivery is often provocative, sometimes even raunchy.
But the most provocative passages often don't convey the entire point.
For example, on the Sunday after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,
2001, Wright preached for the first time in three decades on the
"brutally honest" last verses of Psalm 137, which he said "spotlight
the insanity of the cycle of violence."
The sound bite taken from the sermon is something Wright on that day
termed a "faith footnote," in which he used the phrase "chickens are
coming home to roost" to sum up what U.S. diplomat Edward Peck had
said in a TV interview. Malcolm X expressed the same sentiment after
the John F. Kennedy assassination. But critique of foreign policy was
not Wright's central topic.
In January, shortly after former President Bill Clinton referred to
Obama's campaign as a fairy tale, Wright told his flock: "Bill did
us, just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was riding dirty."
Beyond that racy dig, however, the sermon seeks to admonish members
who may vote for Hillary Clinton because they think a black candidate
can't win. Wright likened their doubt to the doubt of Jesus'
disciples who did not believe he could feed a crowd with five loaves
and two fishes.Wright's recent comment that Hillary Clinton would
never know what it feels like to be called the N-word also touched
nerves. But Wright had his reasons for using that term, said Rev.
Frederick Haynes III, a Wright protege.
'From a different time'
"People need to understand how profoundly painful that word is," he
said. "It speaks to an experience. He came from a different time.
Because of the time he came from, he's not going to just flippantly
go along to get along in terms of how that word has hurt him in the
Wright's fans describe his wrath as a "righteous anger." But critics
say it can cloud the Gospel message he is trying to preach. Rev.
Winfred Neely, associate professor of pastoral studies at Moody Bible
Institute, said that while churches should offer social critique,
Wright's presentation is too ethnocentric.
"I don't think some of the critiques were offered in love for
people," Neely said. "I think they were born of his own personal
anger . . . and not necessarily a critique coming out of a
heartbroken pain over the fact that God is being dishonored by what
is going on in society and culture."
Marty said he thinks Wright crosses a line when he equates American
power with white power. He also believes that both Wright's praise of
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Wright's stated belief
that HIV and AIDS were created to destroy the black community damage
But Wallace Best, professor of religion and African-American studies
at Princeton University, said that conspiracy theory is largely a
product of Wright's generation, which recalls experiments in which
black men with syphilis went untreated in the name of science.
"If put in context of the tragic history of what it means to be black
in this country, to think that a government would inflict a virus on
black people is not as far-reaching an idea as we've been led to
believe," Best said.
As for Wright's friendship with Farrakhan, Richardson said that might
be a fair litmus test for a politician seeking popular support but
not for a pastor.
Best, who teaches a course on preaching in America, questions the
sudden disdain for Wright's sermons, which are part of a tradition
around for two centuries.
"It's not like people should be surprised that they peer into a
church on the South Side of Chicago and the minister there who has
the obligation to uplift his people would be speaking in such a way,"
Last week, Best assigned his students a 1852 speech by Frederick
Douglass on the meaning of July 4 for African-Americans.
"I had my students read that and imagine that Jeremiah Wright could
be saying the same things," Best said. " 'There is not a nation on
earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the
people in the United States.' Put that on YouTube and spin it around."