Rev. Wright’s rhetoric rankles somewhat and reveals much

Sen. Barack Obama has come under heavy fire for his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, recently retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama still maintains membership.

Obama has been criticized for not severing his ties with the church where Wright has delivered some sermons during his 36 years of ministry that many have deemed as inappropriate.

Wright is no stranger in political circles. He attended executive prayer breakfasts during Bill Clinton’s tenure as president, and he received three commendations from Lyndon Johnson for his active involvement in the civil rights movement. His connection to people of power in government spans many decades, and only now, when it involves an African-American candidate for the presidency, has it become so contentious.

Lest people consider him anything less than calculated in his choice of words, it should be noted that Wright holds seven honorary doctoral degrees along with his doctorate of ministry, has taught at a number of seminaries and universities and graduated at the top of his class from the two naval academies he attended before serving in the navy, and after his three-year service as a Marine.

Whether or not you agree with his style or substance, he’s no dummy.

This is not to say that some of Wright’s statements haven’t been inflammatory. They were meant to be. His fiery, and even condemnatory, style of preaching actually harkens back all the way to prophets such as Jeremiah, Micah and Hosea, all of whom issued scathing judgments of their homelands at one time or another during their preaching careers.

This similarity aside, Wright’s damning words toward the United States, and particularly his charges that the government was using HIV as a weapon against its black citizens, shocks, particularly in the sound-bite form in which they have made their way into the public eye. In reality, such claims would be hard to digest for many people, even within the context of the services in which they were delivered.

This raises another point of interest, which is a general lack of understanding of something called liberation theology. Though there is more than one form of liberation theology, the strain most closely identified with Wright is “black liberation theology.” Though liberation theology in the broader sense is familiar to many – particularly non-Anglo – ministers in mainline and evangelical Christianity, black liberation theology is associated with, among other groups, the infamous Nation of Islam, where Louis Farrakhan is a minister.

In addition to adopting the fiery delivery of many of the Old Testament prophets, liberation theology particularly identifies with biblical stories about the Israelites, who were extricated from their homeland and enslaved by foreign powers. There is also strong identification with the suffering that Jesus underwent as one falsely accused and executed.

For some decades, liberation theology has provided a necessary outlet for members of oppressed communities, whether by force, under the strain of poverty and disease, or any combination of factors that serve to hold a group back. In some ways, the traditionally African-American churches have served as the most public forum within which to air generations-old anger and sorrow over the scars borne by the African-American collective consciousness.

Perhaps understanding the context within which such seemingly outrageous comments might have been made is more constructive than presuming to understand more than a century of theological expression with which most in the Anglo community have little to no contact.

Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr. was more prophetic than he realized when he suggested that the most segregated place in the United States was in the pews of churches on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps those who stand all too ready to denigrate Obama’s choice to maintain his membership at the church formerly led by Wright indicates an imposition of American secular values on the dynamic of church, namely that if something doesn’t perfectly align with your desires or interests, move on and find another one that does.

If anything, this most recent situation only makes more clear how very far we have yet to go if we are to truly understand one another, both as complexly diverse individuals and cultures, while at the same time, all being similarly loved and valued by the One that created us.

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