There is no doubt that our country has known its share of political tension wed to religious fervor. From the first movement of Europeans across the great ocean, to the destruction of indigenous cultures and the enslavement of Africans, to our discomfort with the residue of such situations, our sociopolitical, economic and cultural geography has been mapped in relationship to our religious leanings and assumptions. From then until now, religious commitment and religious informed political opinions have wrestled with the pressing issues of the day.
Popular imagination and public debate in recent weeks, surrounding Sen. Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has highlighted the manner in which the Black Church Tradition plays into religious engagement of political concerns in the United States. I do not lament this debate, but I do regret the rather limited scope of the conversation, the way in which what is really a long and robust tradition of critique and celebration of the United States in black churches has been reduced to a few inflammatory sound bites.
Beginning with the emergence of the spirituals, people of African descent applied scriptural lessons to their daily concerns and social predicament. Through a merging of scriptural moral and ethical principles drawn from biblical characters like Moses and Daniel with their experience of oppression, they expressed their hope for a better life. This reading of life through the Bible allowed slaves to sing “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, and why not everyone?” and provided the framework and language for struggle against oppressive circumstances writ large. As the Christian thought and practice of enslaved Africans grew into visible churches, this evaluation of life arrangements through the insights and principles of scripture continued.
This mode of expression included not just song but the black sermonic style. From the First Great Awakening in the 1730s on, enslaved Africans and free Africans preached the word of God in revivals, camp meetings, and pulpits. In some cases they gave these sermons from pulpits within their own churches and, as of the 1800s, within local congregations associated with black denominations. From pulpits across the land ministers spoke to the pressing issues of the day in light of the unchanging truths of the gospel message.
Some churches, of course, moved in a direction that is commonly called an “other-worldly” orientation through which the priority in preaching and practice revolved around personal salvation and little sustained attention was given to social activism—a posture against the world. Others, however, representing the more celebrated approach, advanced a “this-worldly” orientation, using the preached moment as an opportunity to advance life options that diminished racism. What they preached was the social gospel: the scripture-based assumption that Christian commitment requires social activism.
There is nothing distant and disinterested about the black sermonic style, but rather it utilizes body movement, shifts in tone, to push the urgency of the theme. And this dynamic approach to the preached word is often combined with language meant to demonstrate the sustained importance of the topic. At times this language is inflammatory, radical, demanding. Yes, this can involve a critique of the United States, a critique of its shortcomings, its failure to live up to its democratic principles and religious rhetoric. Without this type of critique, for example, we don’t have the Holiness Movement and we don’t have the Civil Rights Movement.
We found out just how inflammatory, how challenging this language can be when small segments of a few of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons hit YouTube and national television programs. The question was raised ad nauseam: “How can Senator Obama maintain membership in a church whose (former) minister would say such things about the country?” There is no doubt that some of Rev. Wright’s comments are inflammatory—yes, yes, yes, inflammatory. Yet, do we gain a full sense of his 30-plus-year ministry through a few statements taken from his sermons?
If one imagines that his sermons probably average thirty minutes in length, what do we learn from a three-minute clip? What of the better than sixty outreach ministries found at Trinity Church? Do they speak to hopelessness, defeatism, “un-American” attitudes? What do they tell us about Rev. Wright’s take on the gospel message, his commitment to the improvement of life in the United States? His deep disappointment with the failures of the United States is connected to a profound hopefulness that the moral and ethical principles that have served to frame our country can be enlivened, and both are presented in passionate language not dissimilar from that used by Hebrew Bible prophets such as the reverend’s namesake, Jeremiah. Rev. Wright’s sense of ministry, his read of the Bible, when placed in context extends beyond a few questionable comments and speaks to the social gospel representing the best of the Christian Tradition in the United States, and the earmark of the Black Church Tradition.
It should not be forgotten that underlying Rev. Wright’s message is a concern with a fundamental problem in the United States, one as old as the nation itself: Racism. (Worthy of some conversation is a failure to speak in substantive ways to the manner in which both racism and sexism, for instance, impact the life circumstances of black women who make up the bulk of black church membership in the United States. That, however, is another essay.) But one must remember that preaching is not policy and that Rev. Wright is not running for the presidency of the United States.
It is difficult to understand the assumption that Rev. Wright’s commentary somehow represents and reflects Senator Obama’s religious commitments and religious thought; outside of political maneuvering, that is. Such an assumption fails to recognize the nature of church membership, which is based on a shared and very general posture toward the world, shared values and vision premised on the church’s praxis. Church membership does not require complete agreement with every socio-political (or theological) pronouncement made by the pastor. Is it really reasonable to believe every member of every church is in full agreement with the pastor on all issues? Such a requirement would result in empty churches across the country.
Senator Obama has been clear: He rejects what he considers conversation that is divisive, language that does not encourage the best of our democratic principles and does not embrace our highest moral and ethical values. However, he embraces Trinity Church’s commitment to the social gospel, and he does so in a robust manner. It isn’t clear to me that Senator Obama is an advocate of Black Liberation Theology (as Rev. Wright is), as opposed to a more general embrace of liberal religion’s emphasis on active faith. His theological perspective seems to echo the sensitivity and the deep yearning for meaning and community of Howard Thurman, the religious realism of Reinhold Niebhur, the religious engagement of sociopolitical life of Benjamin Mays and the “beloved community” longed for by Martin Luther King Jr. And, unlike many African-American ministers and professional writers of black theology, Senator Obama attempts to speak to an appreciation for religious pluralism in the United States, the merit of difference, and a shared moral and ethical standard that cuts across religious traditions.
Democracy requires sustained, rigorous, and public conversation, concerning moral and ethical principles and political vision—but it must involve more than just sound bites and political speak. What it must involve is rather obvious, and I end with just a few remarks on this score. First, this conversation must be based on the recognition that critique of the United States is not synonymous with unpatriotic ranting, nor is it of necessity a sign of hate. To the contrary, passionate critique of the United States is a sign of patriotism, in that it arises from a deep need to push the country to be the best it can be, to embrace its full potential and live out its principles. In this public conversation we must be open to hearing diverse perspectives and opinions. These differences must be respected and allowed to shape healthy and rich exchange through which we learn a great deal about the texture of our nation and appreciate the diversity of thought and practice, religious and otherwise, that has marked the United States from its very origin. Public debate of this kind is tough, often uncomfortable, and bound to expose both the best of our praxis and the worst of our inclinations.
Next, this conversation must entail more than a jockeying for political advantage. As hard as this might be, our public conversation must attend to the reshaping of the nation’s posture toward its citizens and the world; an issue larger than which political party controls key offices. Rather it has to do with the self-perception of our country and the manner in which this self-perception reflects high values and honest dealings. It is also important that this debate be based on a solid sense of our history, the events and practices that have shaped our current condition. Too often we dialogue based on a romanticized sense of our past, a chronicling of our internal and external dealings devoid of the more nasty moments and embarrassing activities. While this might make us feel better, it does not allow us to really address our shortcomings and celebrate our success in ways that will promote our growth as a nation and as a member of the larger world community.
Public debate and dialogue that allows us to reach the heights of our potential and to tap the depths of our best selves must be mature. By that I mean it must reflect who we are as a people and must note those things that keep us from being all we should be. To use religious language, there is something confessional about this process, a matter of purging and repenting for the ways in which we have failed ourselves; but, it also connotes humble acknowledgment of things well done, all framed by a commitment to do an even better job of living out of a shared moral and ethical vision of collective life.