In the wake of Barack Obama's impassioned and eloquent speech on race, forced by his pastor's hateful rants, the black church, the historic back-bone of the movement for equality of opportunity, has gotten a bad rap.
It has been alleged that the fire-breathing oratory — dripping with hate-America themes, bigoted racial messages and all sorts of dark conspiracy theories –- is part and parcel of the black prophetic church tradition. The defense of Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is that he is not an aberration but typical of the black religious tradition. This is simply not the case.
The black church, from its earliest days, provided the organizing force for resistance efforts during the worst days of slavery and Jim Crow, and later, for the budding movement for civil rights for a beleaguered black population, not just in the South but wherever black Americans lived.
The emergence of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. provides a crucial example of this type of leadership. Countless other ministerial figures provided the organizational platform for the battle against white supremacy. In 1967, even as the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee's Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, along with the Black Panther party, were stoking the fires of confrontational, angry Black Power politics, Dr. King gave a Christmas Eve sermon at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. In this "Christmas Sermon on Peace," King said: "Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone … we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we are all going to perish together as fools."
Dr. King's sermon, in some ways, is reminiscent of the kinds of race-transcendent speeches delivered by Obama: This is the source of the current confusion over Obama's affiliation with Rev. Wright and Trinity United Church. Obama has postured himself as a unifying agent in America's lingering divisive discussions about race, yet the world-view of his minister of more than 20 years appears to differ dramatically from his.
Contrast Dr. King's soaring and unifying messages, which simultaneously made impassioned calls for deliverance from racial bondage, with those of Obama's ex-pastor. Wright argues that America invented AIDS as a means of genocide against people of color; callously bombed Japanese cities without "blinking an eye;" that America is a country and culture controlled by "rich, white people." And, he claims further, that the government "gives" black people drugs and guns.
No store-front ministry, Trinity United Church has a membership of 8,500. To see congregants nodding in approval, some laughing or giggling, at this pastor's theatrical antics, is to experience a jarring kind of "O.J Simpson" moment. Seeing the responses of those sitting in the church's pews, many Americans undoubtedly thought "what in the world were these people thinking?"
The scene also serves as a comment on how deep-seated racial victimization is among black Americans of all class backgrounds. Reverend Wright made these comments smug in the certainty that his words would hit a chord of victimization that's been cultivated for decades by black leadership, religious and otherwise.
Some have argued that Wright's ignorant rants are commonplace in black churches. Interviewed by ABC News, NPR's Michelle Norris denied that Wrights comments were radical. She said that Wright's bigoted and hateful words were a well-known and routine part of his Sunday sermons, and "… not something that's unusual" for black pastors. She claimed that Wright's tone was just a part of "being black in America."
As the former executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957, I traveled nearly every Sunday to visit black churches from San Bernardino to San Diego, and everywhere in between. Did I occasionally hear sermons that mirrored the ignorance and bigotry of Wright's recent comments? Of course I did. But the majority concentrated on messages of sin and salvation, and themes of uplift for communities struggling with single parent households, community violence, drug-peddling street gangs, and endless economic struggles.
Did some of these pastors speak openly and forcefully about their views on race and racism? They did. However, the views expressed fell far short of Pastor Wright's incendiary themes of racial victimization and conspiracy.
Further, while there are those black churches and pastors who trade in vitriol and victimization, I would argue that these churches and the black religious tradition, as expressed in so-called black liberation theology, are more a product of Black Power ideology than the historic black prophetic ministries that provided the basis for black organizing efforts led by Dr. King and other black pastors.
The church-led efforts for equality of opportunity for black Americans wanted to make America better. This movement fought for America's excluded black population to join the political, economic and social mainstream of the country.
The kind of "black liberation theology" expressed by Rev. Wright seeks something else. An outgrowth of the Sixties Black Power movement, it glorifies in what it claims are distinct differences inherent in blackness. Religious figures from this tradition willfully perpetuate a hostility and disengagement from government, and maintain a view among congregants that they are victims of, as Wright describes, a society "… controlled by rich, white people."
How disempowering for young blacks to hear from their minister that you are growing into adulthood in a society that conspires against them, wants to imprison them at every opportunity, and is controlled, to their detriment, by "rich whites."
As if almost speaking to Rev. Wright, Dr. King once said "At times we begin to talk about racial separation instead of racial integration, feeling that there is no other way out. My only answer is that the problem will never be solved by substituting one tyranny for another. Black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy … God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and in the creation of a society where all men can live together as brothers, where every man will respect the dignity and the worth of human personality."
Calling Reverend Wright … are you listening?
Joe R. Hicks is a Los Angeles-based writer.