King’s work permeates campaign debate about race, faith

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., another preacher has ignited a national discussion about race.

This time, the preacher is Sen. Barack Obama‘s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who recently retired from the 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Many whites heard Wright’s cries of “God damn America” — in a 2003 sermon — as combative and incendiary, but for African-Americans, the language sprang from the gospels and the sermon from a tradition of pulpit political oratory.

“The use of the word ‘damn’ in the Bible, in the Old Testament, is a sacred usage,” said Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a member of Trinity.

“Yahweh damns ancient Israel for moving away from the greatness it could be, through various prophets like Jeremiah, to bring the nation back to the righteous path — to be the city on the hill,” he said.

Americans confused the expression with the profanity “God damn it,” he said.

“People don’t know the flow of the black sermon,” Hopkins said. The speech followed the classic pattern of black church oratory, which stuns with references to injustice and then soars in an uplifting ending.

“To think it would end in anger is an insult to those people,” he said.

Obama condemned Wright’s words, saying they do not reflect the strides the nation has made in overcoming a past that includes slavery, lynching and segregation. Wright had been Obama‘s pastor.

But in a speech that has tallied tens of thousands of hits on YouTube and evoked praise around the nation, Obama also celebrated Wright’s sermonizing, which helped him see “the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekial’s field of dry bones.”

Wright is a contemporary voice of black liberation theology, which took root in the mid-1960s as a reaction against a historical message to look to the next life for salvation. The movement surfaced in 1966, when the 51-member National Committee of Negro Churchmen took out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling on the ministry to wage war against racism in Biblical terms.

“A prophet’s job is to bring God’s judgment within a particular context and that’s as old as the religion itself,” said the Rev. Dante Quick, who spoke at a candlelight vigil Thursday night honoring King at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

“When one reads Revelations, you are reading the words of a man in prison condemning the Roman empire,” Quick said. “Many readers of the Bible narrative can point to Jesus as a political victim.”

Biblical texts “include rather heated rhetoric that excoriates the dominant powers,” said Vincent Wimbush, a professor of religion and director of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures at Claremont Graduate University.

“There is a very long tradition of that. One style is a direct, prophetic, politically aware style,” he said.

Clergy in many primarily white congregations have pointed out they also excoriate racism and other social evils from the pulpit.

And black liberation theology founder James Cone wrote in his seminal “Black Theology & Black Power” that the black in black theology encompasses all who are in concert with the oppressed.

“To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are,” he writes.

If King is revered today for his eloquent calls for equality and his courage, he endured scorn in his day, and not just from Southern white racists.

When he was assassinated April 4, 1968, King had moved beyond a call for black equality and begun challenging the nation’s economic and political institutions. He lost the support of many by condemning the Vietnam War and advocating passionately for workers and the poor, Quick said.

The Rev. Cone embraced King and Malcolm X to forge black liberation theology. He said Malcolm X challenged him about his blackness, King about his Christianity.

Hopkins said the two leaders moved toward each other philosophically as their lives neared their ends.

Malcolm X, a Black Muslim minister and spokesman for the Nation of Islam, was shot down Feb. 21, 1965, during a speech in Manhattan.

The primary surprise for Wimbush is that 40 years after King’s death, “we are still segregated along the lines of the 18th century in these Christian churches. “We ought to be asking, what accounts for such ignorance?” he said.

The Pacific School of Religion will take up that discussion throughout April — Advancing Racial Justice Month — McKinney said.

“There is a willingness across the board for people to resume the conversation that has been too difficult for too long,” he said. “People have feared that (engaging in it) would only lead to conflict. From a theological perspective, conflict precedes reconciliation.”

For many black theologians, the gap remains wide.

Wright has been berated for sowing dissension, but the white establishment has done it with impunity, Quick said.


Hear four black leaders speak:

Malcolm X

Martin Luther King Jr.

Sen. Barack Obama

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Contra Costa Times, April 4, 2008

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