Do We Dare Listen to Jeremiah Wright?

By John Rankin (October 29, 2009)

Jeremiah Wright has stated that he is theological in identity, whereas Barack Obama is political.

So, who listens to Jeremiah Wright? Is it more the case with his former parishioner, Mr. Obama? Or an evangelical minister like me whose politics are very different than both of theirs? Or any of us who claim to honor the humanity of all people equally?

In June of 2008, my wife and I watched Dr. Wright on C-Span, as he addressed the NAACP’s annual convention. I leaned over at one point and said, “I think I can have a conversation with this man.” So I emailed his church the next day, inviting him to address a forum with me, and within 20 minutes I received a warm reply from his daughter.

I have hosted a wide range of public forums over the years, on the most controversial of issues, with the most well prepared partisans of various theological and political positions. The goal is not to win a debate. Truth is truth, and time will test all of our views equally well.

Rather, the goal is to have a true conversation in the face of honestly debated issues. And to such an invitation, Dr. Wright was pleased to accept. We did so on November 6, just two days after the election. Our topic was open-ended: “The Bible, Race and American Politics: What are the Issues?”

A phalanx of media showed up, given some of Dr. Wright’s prior remarks. But no sparks flew. Rather, a good conversation happened, learning happened, and a large and diverse audience enjoyed themselves.

As I listened to Dr. Wright, I did so with an assumption that all of his inflammatory remarks have context, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with them. I had reviewed my readings in Latin American and Black liberation theology, also reading some of Dr. Wright’s mentors. Namely, do we understand the real reactions to real evil evil, even if we do not necessarily agree with the means of reaction. And what is the proactive that cuts through all of this? It is the Gospel.

For those of us who are white, what concept do we have of growing up as a black American who is greeted from childhood with the heritage of chattel slavery? Even for someone like myself who is blessed by a long lineage of Presbyterian abolitionist ministers?

Imagine the pain of being greeted in life by the mark of four hundred years of dehumanizing and murderous hatred, and the ensuing century of residual and even deathly racism? Might we too get emotional in worship and occasionally hyperbolic in preaching under such a weight? How easy it is to critique someone who says “God damn America” when true evil has been experienced, however interpreted?

How many pro-life white preachers in the 1980s, for example, declared that America was under a curse (that is, damnable) because of the sin of human abortion? For a born or unborn person to be reduced to disposable chattel is equally damnable in the final analysis. But who alone can pronounce damnation, with equity, and still be in service to a mercy that triumphs over judgment for those who seek it? Applicable to slaveholders and men who get women pregnant and take off? Only the one who said “Let there be light,” and there was light.

All of us, apart from God’s grace, are reactive when violated by others. So if I disagree with someone’s reactive language, I cannot make a positive contribution if I merely react to a reaction. Then we all drown in the same miserable soup.

Thus, in my forum with Dr. Wright, I sought to emphasize the proactive Gospel, and he honored it. My proactive outline revolved around what I call both the six pillars of biblical power and the six pillars of honest politics – rooted in the biblical order of creation and the Sermon on the Mount – the power to give, the power to live in the light, the power of informed choice, the power to love hard questions, the power to love enemies and the power to forgive.

Dr. Wright’s response was a generous affirmation of my proactive convictions, repeating back to me several of my observations as crucial in his understanding too, e.g., the power to give, the power of informed choice and the power to love hard questions. As well, on such a foundation, where I said that the Bible opposes any form of dehumanization, Dr. Wright’s spirit resonated deeply with mine.

In the face of deep and divisive theological and political issues, do we choose identities rooted in the proactive or the reactive? Which has content, the atomic weight of light which is proactive by definition, or the atomic non-existence of darkness, which only reacts to and flees the light?


Addendum: Summary Points for Liberation Theology

Three good resources:

1. Gutierrez, Gustavo: A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY,    Orbis Books, 1973) – the classic original.

2. Nash, Ronald H., ed.: On Liberation Theology (Mott Media, Milford, MI, 1984) – a critique by a    range of scholars.

3. Cone, James H. A Black History of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY,    Orbis Books, 1986) – the classic original with reflections by like-minded scholars.

  • “Liberation theology” began in the Latin American context, where there was grave injustice for the common people, whether of Spanish, Portuguese or native descent – namely, the political elitists and the Roman Catholic Church together controlled most of the land.
  • Within a dissident number of the priesthood, liberation theology was born, and it merged with the import of Marxist ideology.
  • It was a reactionary movement with legitimate concerns, seeking “liberation” from religious, political and economic forms of control.
  • Nonetheless, it was theologically syncretistic, mixing opposites such as the Bible and Marxism, and the way it did this was through eisegesis – importing foreign ideas into the Bible. It did not do proper exegesis – understanding the Bible on its own terms.
  • Liberation theology sought to accomplish social, economic and political reform, and failed on all counts.
  • In view of the dehumanizing and murderous evils of slavery and racism, accumulated for half a millennia, “Black liberation theology” likewise based itself in a reactionary posture.
  • Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School championed liberation theology until he saw its measurable failure. As Evangelical and Pentecostal growth in Latin America brought such social progress that was undeniable, Harvey Cox joined with Vinson Synan, then dean of Regent University School of Divinity, and an evangelical charismatic, in cooperative efforts.
  • The only answer is not a reaction to a reaction, regardless of the context. Rather, we need to be proactive with the intrinsic nature of the Good News in all contexts.