"When you walk into Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago, the first thing you see on a Sunday morning are the people crowding the lobby, hugging and kissing, asking after each other’s children. The congregation is older and formally dressed: many of the women wear fur coats, stockings and heels; almost no one is dressed in jeans. As an usher leads a reporter upstairs to the pastor’s office, he rebukes a young boy: “Take off your hat in church, son.”
The service warms up with a few numbers by a 300-member gospel choir. Then there’s a performance by a drill team, three rows of women, dressed in matching white shirts and red suspenders, walk through military moves while chanting verses from Scripture. There’s the sermon, a time for quiet reflection, and an altar call. When asked about the controversial statements of their former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, statements that have been pasted all over the Internet and cable news for the past few days, congregants are almost universally dismayed. These messages are being taken out of context, they say; their church is the most benign place in the world. “Come on, media, it’s just a gospel choir,” says Dwight Hopkins, a member of Trinity and a theology professor at the University of Chicago. “It’s about the least scary place on the planet,” says Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor at Princeton University who attended Trinity for a time.
How is that Trinity church-along with its message and its messenger of 36 years--can look so different to different people? More to the point, how is that presidential hopeful Barack Obama, a member of that church for two decades, could fail to anticipate how terrifying Wright would look to the rest of the world? Trinity Church, like so many places of worship, is a place of contradictions. From the inside, it’s a place of comfort and solace, a place where the most heated conversations are about what kind of music the choir should sing on Sundays: hip hop or gospel. From the outside, it looks like a hotbed of radical, anti-establishment talk.
America may be the most religious nation in the Western world, but as so many scholars have pointed out recently, Americans are also among the least well educated on the subject of religion - they know little about the history and theology of their own religious traditions and even less about those of their neighbors. As we learned after September 11, Americans pay scant attention to the religious practices of the minorities among us. When the spotlight does shine on adherents of an unfamiliar religion or religious movement, we do a bad job trying to understand them and they, in turn, do a bad job trying to explain themselves.
Rev. Wright represents a vein of thought in the African-American church tradition called “black liberation theology,” a commitment, born out of the racial strife of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to use Christianity as a weapon in the fight against what was seen as systemic, overreaching and unchanging racism. Obama condemned this view as narrow in his speech on Friday. Rev. Wright’s views “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country,” he said, “ a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” At the same time, Obama refused to pretend that the problem of racism, which so inflamed his pastor, no longer exists. The anger that finds its voice in the sermons of Rev. Wright, Obama said, “is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”
Last Friday, in an effort to gauge just how “out there” Wright’s sermons are in the context of the African-American church tradition, NEWSWEEK phoned at least two dozen of the country’s most prominent and thoughtful African-American scholars and pastors, representing a wide range of denominations and points of view. Not one person would say that Wright had crossed any kind of significant line.
“An effort on the part of Christians--both clergy and laypersons--to critique the United States in light of what they understand as biblically based moral and ethical guidelines isn't new,” explains Anthony Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University. “There is a dominant style in black churches and Rev. Wright’s preaching is a prime example of this…Some of what Rev. Wright says is controversial, but that doesn’t make him unique.”
The Rev. James Forbes, the recently retired longtime pastor of Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side explained that, broadly speaking, there has been a historical division in the world of black churches. One group thinks you should work hard, keep quiet and get ahead; the other thinks that you need to agitate and provoke to make progress. Forbes puts himself in the first camp but supports Wright’s efforts. “Some of us wish we had the nerve that Jeremiah had,” he said. “We praise God that he’s saying it, so the rest of us don’t have to.” Does Wright ever cross a line? “I think if a person is a prophet and he’s not seen as ever crossing a line, then he has not told the truth as it ought to be told.”
In 1969, the theologian James Cone wrote “Black Liberation Theology,” the book that so influenced Jeremiah Wright. Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, sees a straight line from the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., through Wright to Obama himself. Indeed, in 1964, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, King spoke movingly about -- what else? -- audacity and hope. “I believe that even amid today’s motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow…I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
In Obama’s rhetoric, “the fierce urgency of now comes from his church,” explains Cone. “His emphasis on hope-hope has been the most dominant theme with black people because without hope you die. What that church represented for Obama is hope for black people.” Cone sees in Obama a prophetic, King-like figure. “ He represents what America wishes was true. . . I think the vast majority of Americans want a society without racial conflict and racial oppression. Obama strikes a note in that hope and that wish.”
In his speech on Tuesday, Obama explicitly aligned himself with King when he retold an anecdote he first told on Martin Luther King day, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It's a story about a young, white nine-year-old girl who convinced her sick mother that she liked mustard and relish sandwiches because they were the cheapest food she could think of. She grows up to work on the Obama campaign. "It is not enough to give health heare to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children," he said. "But it is where we start."
For their part, members of the church are just grateful that they can give the job of defending and explaining of their church to Barack Obama, the person with the most explaining to do".
(with Elise Soukup.)