Our Jeremiah

Why Obama's pastor matters.

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A black orator stood before a rapt audience, his voice rising to a crescendo as he made this fiery statement: "Statesmen of America beware what you do! The soil is in readiness, and the seed-time has come. Nations, not less than individuals, reap as they sow.

The dreadful calamities of the past few years came not by accident, nor unbidden, from the ground. You shudder today at the harvest of blood sown in the springtime of the Republic by your patriot fathers."

Sound familiar?

These are not the words of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the embattled minister of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. These words were uttered by Frederick Douglass in his appeal to the U.S. Congress for African-American voting rights.

Douglass, like Wright, was speaking as a patriot and as a Christian. Douglass, like Wright, was speaking out of an honored tradition in black church life. Douglass, like Wright, was speaking in the tradition of biblical prophets.

In his 1993 text, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth, historian Wilson Moses labeled this tradition the black jeremiad. Like Rev. Wright himself, it is named for the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was among the biblical truth tellers who regularly warned the government that divine destruction was imminent if the nation continued to oppress the powerless. Frederick Douglass was a master of the jeremiad.

He called slavery a curse to the nation and argued that, "we shall not go unpunished." He said it was the patriotic duty of blacks "to warn our fellow countrymen" of the impending doom they courted and to dissuade America from "rushing on in her wicked career" along a path "ditched with human blood, and paved with human skulls."

Jeremiah Wright is a modern Douglass. Both men are like the Old Testament prophets who condemn the injustice and corruption of the rulers of their government.

Let's be clear. American democracy has always coexisted with vicious, state-sponsored racism. The nation's first presidents worked to establish an innovative, flexible, radical democratic republic while simultaneously codifying enslaved blacks as a fraction human and relegating them to intergenerational chattel bondage.