Mars Hill Forum #139 with Jeremiah Wright: The Bible, Race  and American History: What are the Issues?

John C. Rankin

On November 6, 2008, at Kingdom Life Church in Milford, Connecticut, I hosted Mars Hill Forum #139. My guest was the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and former pastor to then President-elect Barack Obama. There were some 700 people in attendance.

There was also a very large media presence, but for most of them, they were looking for a controversy that did not happen, and some in their midst became creative in order to find it.

The topic was: “The Bible, Race and American History: What are the Issues?” It was designed to be an open-ended conversation, and that is what it was.

Dr. Wright gained media notoriety in the spring of that year when certain clips from some of his sermons were aired over and over – including some hyperbolic statements interpreted by many in a damning way. So why did I invite Dr. Wright?

First, when I saw him on C-Span in June, addressing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), I knew this was a man I could have a public conversation with – his interests were clearly theological and pastoral at a level deeper than the political. I knew there was far greater context to his clipped statements.

Second, in my Mars Hill Forum series, I host the widest range of advocates who are willing to have a public conversation on issues of theology and politics, and the interface with culture. This I do on issues where we might disagree deeply, partly, or not at all. We have an even-handed format where we are both heard, where we both dialogue and where the audience participates. There are no restrictions placed on content or questions.

There are those who refuse such a level playing field invitation, and that happens often with well-known partisan advocates of one stripe or another. For those who do accept, intelligence and graciousness in discourse is assumed, and in all my forums to date, only twice were my guests deliberately otherwise.

Third, and biblically speaking, the level playing field for all ideas to be heard equally is radically and uniquely biblical. In Genesis 2, Yahweh Elohim gives us the choice between life and death side by side, not forcing either on us. Love is chosen, not forced, thus the goodness of the truth is presented to us, not required of us. But too, we will reap what we sow – whether life or death. I examine this “theology for the grass roots” in my book, The Six Pillars of Biblical Power.

When Jesus faced his sworn enemies in the debate during Passover week, he gave them a level playing field to rake him over the coals with their toughest questions. They did so, and ended up daring not to ask any more questions. They thus silenced themselves in the presence of the One who had proved himself blameless as the Lamb of God, able to die for our sins, rise from the grave and return one day as the King of Kings.

If Jesus can do this with his enemies, we can do this with all people. This power of the level playing field is a biblical political philosophy, and examined in my books, The Six Pillars of Honest Politics, and Jesus, in the Face of His Enemies. It allows truth to rise to the top, and invites all people equally to say yes to the Gospel. Jesus came not to condemn but to save.

Fourth, how many of us who are white have any conception of what it is to grow up as a black American who is greeted from childhood with the heritage of slavery? Greeted by four hundred years of dehumanizing and murderous chattel slavery, and the ensuing century plus of residual and even deathly racism? Might we too get emotional in worship and occasionally hyperbolic in preaching under such a weight?

How many pro-life white preachers in the 1980s, for example, declared that the nation was under a curse because of the sin of human abortion? To curse is to damn. For a born or unborn person to be reduced to disposable chattel is equally damnable in the final analysis. Those who push such evil are the most accountable, and those who suffer from such pushes are invited to choose mercy.

Fifth, apart from God’s grace, we are all reactive when violated by others, and the reactive can only find a redemptive home in the presence of the Redeemer. Thus, in my forum with Dr. Wright, I sought to emphasize the proactive Gospel, and he honored it.

So, for those who might rush to judgment, it is better to lift up Jesus and see what proactive beauty can be affirmed? Or is it better to react to reactions, which if we do, we will all drown in the same miserable soup?

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, there was one point when I said, “The Gospel never dehumanizes anyone.” When I said that, and looking eye-to-eye with Dr. Wright, I saw those words find deep resonance in his soul. Indeed, such a truth will resonate with all people of good will.

There were three topics addressed.

   1. The Bible

Here I started with a biblical understanding that we ultimately have two choices in life – give and it will be given, or take before you are taken. I located the social power to give in the marriage of one man and one woman, and in their parenthood; rooted in the power to give by the Creator to begin with.

Then I identified the reality of creation, sin and redemption in Genesis 1-3, as the interpretive foundation for the Bible and life; the six pillars of biblical power (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), where no dehumanization of any person is possible; and the nature of the image of God which equals a universal humanity, and as such, the biblical order of creation is the only origin text in humanity where slavery is not possible.

Finally, I located the origins of slavery in the pagan Babylonian Genesis, and the cultures that traced themselves accordingly.

   2. Race and American History

On this basis, and in terms of race and slavery, I spoke about the history of tribal realities, languages and the tower of Babel; ancient Israel and nature of slavery as a) war reparations or b) economic indentured service to pay off debts, and where redemption was always the goal, and how the Sabbath belonged to all people, slave or free – but there was no dehumanizing slavery as with pagan nations; the letter of Paul to Philemon concerning Onesimus (“no longer a servant [translated often as “‘slave’], but a brother”); and the universal reality of the kingdom of God in Revelation 7:9: “every nation, tribe, people and language.”

In terms of American history, I indicated the history of the dehumanizing slave trade from the Portuguese to the Spanish to the British, with African tribal realities in the background (including too, the reality of Muslim slave traders as the largest slave traders in human history), and its realities in the Colonies and after the foundation of the nation; the biblically based abolitionist movements in Great Britain and the United States, and how justice is yet to be fully achieved. I also brought up my own family heritage, a blessing I did not choose, but which I embrace. There were quite a number of abolitionist Presbyterian ministers, including, more directly, the Rev. John T. Rankin, “manager of the underground railroad” for 44 years (see his house in Ripley, Ohio); and more distantly, the Rev. Andrew Rankin, founder of Howard University, after whom the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel was named, and in which Dr. Wright worshiped as a student there.

[Postscript: The very word itself, “slave,” is a bigoted term. It comes from the years when Islam dominated Spain and brought many men, women and children from Eastern Europe in forced bondage, i.e., from among the Slavic peoples, and hence the word “slave” came to pass. There is no such word in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, merely the words for “servant” (ebed and doulos). Someone can choose to be in a place of service, or forced.]

   3. What are the Issues?

The greatest social evil in human history is the chosen absence of the biological father, and it is a crushing evil today for 70 percent of children in the American Black community. This is traceable to government intervention in the “Great Society.” In 1940, White Americans had a higher illegitimacy rate than did Black Americans, who against the historical tide of enslaving evils, fought to keep their families intact – until big daddy government stepped in after World War II. The church needs to be the father to the fatherless, and we need a political reformation based on the six pillars of honest politics (rooted in the six pillars of biblical power).

In the forum itself, I had several occasions to give robust reasons for the goodness of man and woman in marriage, and for the equal humanity of the unborn.

Dr. Wright’s presentation was erudite, and he made many points with which we both agree, but also from perspectives and in terms that reflected a different angle than my own. The point here is not that he agreed with or did not disagree with my presentation – it was the Gospel that we both affirm.

At the end (and after the taping time was up), one questioner brought up the issue of reparations for slavery, an issue for which Dr. Wright has spoken in favor. As I responded by speaking of the need to go deeper than the divisive issue of reparations, to grasp a forward vision of equality and justice, Dr. Wright was affirmative.

In other words, we can choose to communicate in the face of real or apparent controversy, reflecting Jesus who is the Word of God; or we can let politics and political egos trump. I choose the former, and so did Dr. Wright in this forum.