Jeremiah Wright’s Words Hauntingly Relevant Today

Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith
Writer, author, musician, pastor, preacher and social justice advocate. Originally seen on Huffingtonpost.com

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In 2008, the presence of then-Senator Barack Obama in the race for the White House became troubling, it seems, to a nation which had always been wracked and ruled by racism. There seemed to be a growing panic that this African-American might just win the Democratic nomination and worse, the presidency. A move was put in place to try to upend Obama’s campaign by using what strategists was sure would work — racism.

How best to do that than to use a couple of soundbites by Obama’s then-pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.? The soundbites showing Wright preaching were chosen precisely because his words and his presentation would feed into the fear of black people that racists know well. Surely, the strategists thought, if they could show that Obama was listening to an angry black man who appeared not to buy into the myth of American exceptionalism, the country would be swayed, Obama would lose the election, and things would go back to normal.

The plan did not work, and although Obama distanced himself from Rev. Wright in order to help his chances of winning the election, the fact of the matter is that Wright’s message of the pervasiveness of racism was spot on... and it still is. America’s refusal to deal with its racism is eating away at its very core, but nobody wants to talk about it.

Today, however, we see racism in rare form. The shootings of black people by white officers with no accountability, the massacre of the nine innocent people in Charleston, South Carolina, and the burnings of black churches gives the actions of racism front and center stage once again.

Jeremiah Wright’s ministry was about addressing racism in the context of theological expectations on how to handle it. The power of Wright’s ministry was that he was able to talk and teach about the reality of racial oppression. Black people in America, if the truth be told, really do not want to talk about or hear about racism; the church experience has been, too often, one that celebrates and pushes personal piety in a relationship with Jesus the Christ. Politics and history, and their impact on black people have historically been largely ignored.

In spite of the fact that racism finds its way into every aspect of American life, blacks and whites have been reluctant to talk about it. The sentiment has seemed to be that if America ignores her racist history, that history will dissipate and disappear. So many black families have refused to talk about the painful experiences due to racism their ancestors have endured, and of course, white America has insisted that racism was “back then” and has complained that black people bring it up too often. To talk about or to acknowledge that something happening is due to racism only draws wrath and impatience from white Americans, and many blacks, who charge that any mention of race is playing “the race card.” Nobody wants to be blamed for doing that and too often, remain silent even when the effects of racism are causing horrific emotional pain and societal ruination.

Wright, however, refused to be silent. Before him sat people who constantly lived lives of racial discrimination. They were American veterans who had been deemed good enough to fight for America in her wars, but who were discriminated against and often times lynched when they returned home, still in uniform and were refused loans to buy homes. They were the ones who were passed over for jobs or for promotions on those jobs. They were the ones whose children were stuck in second and third rate public schools, or the ones whose children were being arrested and killed in this nation by those who were supposed to protect them, with scarcely a mention in the news. They were, in effect, suffering because of their race, but were not supposed to admit it or talk about it. They were strangers in a land whose economy they helped build. They were in the Midwest, the north, and west, because they had fled being lynched in the South ...and they were bruised. The only thing they had to hold onto was God.

Wright’s messages made their relationship with God different, stronger, and empowering. He gave the history of what had been happening, related it to the oppression which happened throughout the Bible, and even taught that Jesus himself had been a Palestinian Jew, oppressed as they had been, yet forever faithful to Yahweh. Wright had to preach a message that helped African-Americans keep their heads above and out of the putrid waters of racism, so that they could keep on pushing through the oppression to freedom, dignity, and some semblance of success.

He was angry, as are most African-Americans and others who read about and study what racism has done in this nation. It is a righteous anger, a righteous indignation, no less justified than the anger of Jewish people who were brutalized by Nazism. Any people, or group of people, who are marginalized by their government are angry; the earliest Americans were angry at the British. The anger of African-Americans, however, has been consistently criticized as being unfounded. That being the case, many African-Americans have tried to hide that anger, but that effort has not erased the ugliness of the experiences they have endured..

The brilliance of Wright’s ministry was that he addressed that anger. He put it in historical, sociological and theological context, and in so doing, freed African Americans to acknowledge the anger and move past it. Wright’s ministry was (and is) one which empowers a people who have endured much and who have kept on beating against the gates of oppression. Wright did not preach hatred. He preached liberation and empowerment. Black people were strangers in a land they helped build; the oppressors required of them a song, and they wondered how they could sing the Lord’s song ..regardless. Wright’ message was that one responds to oppression by following the Gospel — to love one another, to forgive one another, and above all, to love and trust God above all else, in spite of the oppression. Being oppressed did not give anyone a ticket to hate; being a Christian demanded that even and perhaps most especially, the oppressed were to show that God is real and that the Gospel, observed and practiced, is the only effective way to fight racism.

Nobody asks the Jewish people to forget the Holocaust. Wright’s ministry reminds us that nobody should ask African Americans to forget what racism has done to them in this land. As Obama’s presidency draws to its end, Wright’s words are still reaching those who are smarting under white supremacy, giving people the strength to fight against the ostensible and less ostensible evidence of racial oppression. In the end, Wright would say, it is only God who can beat the forces of racism; his job, it seems, has been to elucidate and expose racism and get people to stop hiding behind a message of personal piety. He has been and is effective in getting the oppressed to realize that their misery is not imagined or invalid, and in so doing, he has made The Good News “good” to and for those whom American society has marginalized and oppressed for far too long.

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Jeremiah JohnsonComment