Healing the Wounds of Race

Rev. Jeremiah Wright at Trinity United Church of Christ.

Prophetic truth-telling from the black pulpit.
By Jim Wallis / Huffington Post / March 18, 2008

It has simmered throughout this campaign, and now race has exploded into the center of the media debate about the presidential race. Just when a black political leader is calling us all to a new level of responsibility, hope, and unity; the old and divisive rhetoric of race from both blacks and whites is rearing its ugly head to bring down the best chance we have had for years of finally moving forward.

And that is indeed the real issue here. A black man is closer to possibly becoming president than ever before in American history. And this black man is not even running as “a black man” but as a new kind of political leader who believes the country is ready for a new kind of politics. But a new kind of politics and a new face for political leadership is deeply threatening to all the forces that represent the old kind of politics in America. And all the rising focus on race in this election campaign has one purpose and one purpose alone — to stop Barack Obama from becoming President of the United States.

Barack Obama should win or lose his Party’s nomination or the presidency based on the positions he takes regarding the great issues of our time and his capacity to lead the country and America’s role in the world. He must not win or lose because of the old politics of race in America. That would be a tragedy for all of us.

The cable news stations and talk radio are playing carefully selected excerpts of the most potentially incendiary statements from Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s fiery sermons, the retiring pastor of Barack Obama and his family’s home Trinity Church in Chicago. Obama, while affirming the tremendous work his church has done in his city and around the nation, has condemned the most controversial remarks of his pastor. But the whole controversy points to the enormous gap in understanding between the mainstream black community in America and the experience of many white Americans. And that is what we are going to have to heal if we are ever to move forward.

Here is what I mean.

There is a deep well of both frustration and anger in the African American community in these United States of America. And those feelings are borne of the concrete experience of real oppression, discrimination, and blocked opportunities that most of America’s white citizens take for granted. African Americans across the spectrum of income and success will speak personally to those feelings of frustration and anger, when white people are willing to listen. But usually we are not. In 2008, to still not comprehend or seek to understand the reality of black frustration and anger, is to be in a state of white denial which, very sadly, is where many white Americans are.

The black church pulpit has historically been a place of prophetic truth-telling about the realities that black people experience in their own country. Indeed, the black church has often been the only place where such truths are ever told. And, black preachers have had the pastoral task of nurturing the spirits of people who feel beaten down week after week. Strong and prophetic words from black church pulpits are often a source of comfort and affirmation for black congregations. The truth is that many white Americans would indeed feel uncomfortable with the rhetoric of many black preachers from many black churches all across the country.

But if you look beyond the grainy black and white clips of the dashiki clad Rev. Wright and the angry black male voice (all designed to provoke stereotypes and fear) to actually listen to what the words are saying about America being run by “rich white people” while blacks have cabs speeding by them, and about American misdeeds around the world, it’s hard to disagree with many of the facts presented. It’s rather the angry tone of Wright’s comments that provides the offense and the controversy.

Ironically, a new generation of black Americans is now eager and ready to move beyond the frustration and anger to a new experience of opportunity and hope. And nobody represents that shift more than Barack Obama. There is a generational shift occurring within the black community itself, between an older generation who are sometimes perceived to be stuck in the politics of victimization and grievance, and a younger generation who believe that opportunity and progress are now possible–not by ignoring, but by being committed to actually changing the facts of oppression and discrimination.

Barack Obama represents that hope of dealing with the substance of the issues of injustice while at the same time articulating the politics of hope, and even the possibility of racial unity.

Obama’s attraction to many who are white, especially a new generation, demonstrates the promise of a new racial politics in America. But to be a leader for a new generation of black Americans, Barack Obama had to be firmly rooted in the black church tradition, where the critique of white America, the sustenance of the African American community, and God’s promise for the future are all clearly articulated. That’s why he began attending Trinity Church where he was converted to Jesus Christ in the black liberationist tradition of, among others, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

So it would be a great tragedy if the old rhetoric of black frustration and anger were to now hurt Barack Obama, who has become the best hope of beginning to heal that very frustration and anger. Obama has never chosen to talk about race in the way that Rev. Jeremiah Wright does on the video clips that keep playing, and indeed has never played “the race card” at any time in this election. It’s been his opponents that have, especially the right-wing conservative media machine that wants America to believe he is secretly a Muslim and is from a “racist” church.

This most recent controversy over race just demonstrates how enormous the gap still is between whites and blacks in America–in our experience and our capacity to understand one another. May God help us to heal that divide and truly bless America.

Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at http://www.godspolitics.com/.


Is America Too Racist for a Black President?

[This is an interview with Rev. Jeremiah Wright conducted for Spiegel International by Marc Hujer one year ago, posted on March 13, 2007. Rev. Wright is highly respected in clerical circles; here is some of the substance behind the media-trumpeted bombast. Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog.]

SPIEGEL: Barack Obama seems to be developing a compassionate liberal answer to the so-called “compassionate conservative” platform US President George W. Bush ran on in 2000. Is the Democratic Party looking to take more care of the religious voter?

Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.: I wouldn’t say “more care.” The United Church of Christ has a 350 year history of being on the side of social justice. Our denomination was against slavery. We were a part of the Underground Railroad; part of the abolitionist movement. So it’s nothing new for us.

What is new is that Barack says we need to stop being afraid to talk about our faith and how our faith and values influence public policy and the decisions we make. We’ve been biting our tongues because we don’t want to offend our Jewish friends and our Muslim friends. The new movement is toward not being afraid to talk about your faith. But you should also stop thinking you have absolute truth — that your faith is the only one.

SPIEGEL: Isn’t that the nature of faith, though? Believing strongly in your faith to the exclusion of others?

Wright: We’re not on this planet alone. Right now, the average American or the average German or the average Brit couldn’t tell you the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. I mean, you got Christians who lynch people in the name of Jesus, and you got Muslims who fly planes into buildings. But you got some Muslims who don’t do that. You got some Christians who ain’t got time to lynch people.

We need to stop lumping folks together and start living together. Otherwise, we’re going to kill each other off because you don’t believe what I believe. That’s crazy. Before Democrats were quiet because they didn’t want people to think they were fanatics.

Barack has broken that ice.

SPIEGEL: But how far can you go? As Barack Obama points out in his book, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” religion is more about convictions and truth, whereas politics is about compromise. Where are the limits to introducing faith into the political arena?

Wright: Let’s take a simple issue. Far right radical conservative Christians want to put prayer back in the school. Now my family may start off the day in prayer, and I’m going to teach my daughters and my sons how to pray. But I’m not going to force your kids to pray like my kids. In public, I have to understand that I’m still going to pray tonight and tomorrow morning, and my girls and my son better pray too.

But I’m not going to force my Jewish friends, my Muslim friends, my Hindu friends, my Sikh friends to hear a Christian prayer in a public forum like school. We understand that private faith does not force public decisions. That’s how you work at compromise. I haven’t given up what I believe, but I live in community with — in a city, state, nation, and world with — people who don’t believe what I believe. That doesn’t make them defective or inferior.

SPIEGEL: That sounds different from what Obama wrote in his book. He wrote that faith should return to the center of both private and public life. Should he ever become president, what would that mean?
Wright: From what I know of Barack — from what he has written, from his speeches and from the life I know he has lived — faith in public life does not mean that God tells you to bomb another country or to go get Saddam Hussein. Faith in public life means that every child, regardless of their religious belief, should have health care. That every child should be able to go to school based on the intelligence they have not only the ability of their parents to pay. Because my faith saying I can bomb Iraq is the same as your faith saying you can take over a passenger plane and fly it into the World Trade Center.

SPIEGEL: Can you be a good Christian and be pro-choice?

Wright: Both. You can be a good Christian and be pro-life. You can be a good Christian and be pro-choice.

SPIEGEL: You mean it’s a purely political question and faith has nothing to say about it?

Wright: First of all, we shouldn’t even be having this discussion. Neither one of us can get pregnant. But what a woman decides about her body and her God is her business. Women who are pro-life can be just a good a Christian as a woman who is pro-choice and vice versa.

It gets to be a problem when I decide one position should be the law for everybody. In public life, we have to find a way to live together even though we disagree — and some things we will never agree on. But we’ve got to leave this I’m-going-to-kill-you-because-you-don’t-believe-what-I-believe attitude behind.

SPIEGEL: So why bring faith into the public arena at all, if it’s so divisive?

Wright: Faith should be pulled into the public arena when it affects how we live. If it doesn’t — if it’s so heavenly focused — it does no earthly good. What does my faith say about 44 million people with no health care? What does my faith say about the fact that my girl can’t be a nuclear physicist because she’s black and from the inner city and because her schooling options are not what they are for George W. Bush’s girls or for Bill and Hillary’s daughter Chelsea? My faith says, no, that’s not what God intended. It pulls it back into the public arena the idea that there’s got to be something fair for all of us.

SPIEGEL: Do you think Obama would be able to win Christian voters back from the Republicans were he to become the Democratic nominee for the White House?

Wright: That’s hard to tell. If the pattern of what we saw in the November elections — where evangelical Christians, whether Republicans or Democrats, abandoned the stay-the-course doctrine, abandoned the years of lies — if that pattern continues, I think politicians like Barack are going to win people back. We’re making more enemies than winning friends at the moment. We’re making enemies because (what the Bush administration is doing) is not Christ.

SPIEGEL: Thousands of people listen to your sermons. Can you as a pastor help move voters from the right side of the political spectrum back to the left?

Wright: First of all, not that many people are church goers. But that’s America in general. That said, historically, the black church it has been the political force. It caused blacks to fight to get out of slavery, for example. African-Americans used their faith to not lose hope and to keep on fighting.

A clergy person needs to be aware of that and needs to keep in mind the clergy’s role in changing the public life for the betterment of all. Not just those who believe like I believe, look like I look, think like I think, live where I live. But for all. How do we treat the most vulnerable in this society? What are we doing for our old people? What are we doing for our kids? What are we doing for our poor? The clergy need to put those questions on voters’ minds.

SPIEGEL: Barack Obama has been criticized as a so-called “post-racial politician” who shies away from those interests traditionally important to black voters in the United States…

Wright: I think that criticism is unjustified. It’s a cute term, but he shouldn’t be criticized for who he is — a person who doesn’t “play the race card,” but who instead talks about the issues. Look at it this way. Nobody wants their wives to live in fear of getting from the house to the grocery store or to her job. Whether they’re black wives or white wives isn’t the issue. I don’t care what color they are. The bullets don’t discriminate.

We’ve got to do something to make sure they have a safe environment. Now to call that post-racial is unfair. We’ve got some common needs that we need to address. How do we put policies in place that will ensure their safety in the future? That’s the kind of politician Barack is.

SPIEGEL: Do you think he will be President in two years?

Wright: No. Unless Barak pulls off nationally what he was able to pull off locally, and wins the hearts and minds of people who have been perennially anti-black. Racism is so deeply engrained in this country that he could be flawless in terms of his policies. But he’s still a black man in this country, which has a sorry history in terms of how it sees African-American males. That’s my 65-year-old, jaded perception of where this country is. I was pleasantly surprised in the Senate election. I would like to be as pleasantly surprised in the presidential election.


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