Reverend Wright Speaks Out

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Wright, who stepped down recently as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, said the attacks on him were "an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition." Other clergy members present seemed to agree.

[Richard Prince’s Journal-isms]


Some Say Cultural Divide Seems Insurmountable.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright fired back at critics and the news media Monday in a speech at the National Press Club, reaping shouts of approval from fellow members of the Black clergy but raising doubts from Black journalists about how his comments would be received by white voters or translated by culturally distant reporters and pundits.

Wright, who stepped down recently as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, said the attacks on him were "an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition." Other clergy members present seemed to agree.

The comments by Wright, former pastor to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., were broadcast live on C-Span. They followed a Friday night interview with Bill Moyers on PBS, a sermon Sunday at a Dallas church and a speech later Sunday to the Detroit branch of the NAACP, all coming after weeks of silence.

Throughout, Wright made it clear that he was not part of the Obama campaign and had his own priorities.

In his formal speech Monday, Wright sought to explain the African American religious tradition and its evolution into "Black liberation theology" in the 1960s, explaining that the oppressed and the oppressors do not view Christianity in the same way.

"The prophetic tradition of the Black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates who are holding them captive," he said.

"The prophetic theology of the Black Church in our day is preached to set African Americans and all other Americans free from the misconceived notion that different means deficient."

It was in the question-and-answer session that Wright let loose. "Why am I speaking out now?" he said to one question. "In our community, we have something called playing the dozens. If you think I'm going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition, and my grandma, you've got another thing coming."

He answered questions submitted in advance by audience members that seemed to exasperate not just Wright, but members of the audience. Many of those who asked seemed not to have done their homework.

"No one seems to have heard of Cone or Black liberation theology before last week, for instance," veteran journalist Angela P. Dodson, who followed Wright's appearances Sunday and Monday, told Journal-isms, "or the United Church of Christ and the fact that it is a white institution. 'Wright is Black, Obama is Black, therefore church is all Black' seems to be the mentality," said Dodson, referring to James Cone, theorist of the Black liberation theology movement.

Wright took questions about the most-played sound bites from his sermons. To one on whether he really believed the U.S. government helped spread AIDS, Wright cited Dr. Leonard Horowitz's book

"Emerging Viruses"
and Harriet A. Washington's award-winning "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present."

"I believe our government is capable of anything," Wright said.

To the sound bite in which Wright said, "Not God bless America, God damn America for treating its citizens like less than human beings," often shortened in soundbites to "Not God bless America, God damn America," Wright replied, "If you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about— although it got edited out — you know, that's biblical. God doesn't bless everything. God condemns something — and d-e-m-n, 'demn,' is where we get the word 'damn.' God damns some practices.

"And there is no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn't make me not like America or unpatriotic." In a dig at one of his critics, Vice President Cheney, Wright said he had served six years in the military. "How many years did Cheney serve?

About his suggestion that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were "chickens coming home to roost" for U.S. foreign policy, Wright insisted he was merely quoting Edward Peck, a former ambassador to Iraq who opposed the war, and added, "You can't do terrorism on other people and not expect it to come back on you. Those are Biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic principles."

But those were not the comments that most resonated with members of the audience, who had assembled for a

conference on Black theology

. "It was an opportunity for a very well-prepared pastor to teach America about the foundations of racism and for it to live up to its doctrines," Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative, told Journal-isms. "They picked on the wrong man. He represents for us the finest example of what a prepared Black preacher is all about."

Larry Murphy, a faculty member at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., said Wright "acquitted himself well. He framed the questions in the appropriate categories, because this is, in fact, not an issue of Rev. Wright. It really is an issue of the larger African American experience" and the responsibility of the Black clergy to respond to the events of the times.

But on the e-mail list of the National Association of Black Journalists, where most who commented assessed the event from live television coverage, Wright's speech played out differently.

"All the Wright drama can do is hurt Obama among white voters, especially the undecideds," one said. "White people (and some Blacks) know basically nothing about the historical black church (as opposed to the less monolithic and changing contemporary Black church) and were petrified by what they saw and heard in Wright's pulpit. Many won't forget it, and they associate it with Obama."

"He should have stayed above the fray. He should have remained as this learned, theological scholar. When he starts talking about 'playing the dozens' and 'talking about my mama,' then that ain't cute. That doesn't come across well," said another.

"It's not a fair fight. Rev. Wright is much more learned and articulate than almost all of those who are covering and commenting on him," said a third.


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