Reporter: "How often does Obama go to church?"
Wright: "About as often as you do."
There was truth in Wright's outing of Obama as a less-than-regular churchgoer. This is no surprise: Ask the other two candidates for proof of their Sunday attendance and you'll see what I mean. Celebrities in general and politicians in particular might have a better (if still theologically poor) excuse than many of us for not worshiping corporately.
When I visited Trinity to cover the then-young controversy over Africentric theology in early 2007, I was craning my neck, looking for Obama, who I'd read was in town. The man beside me asked what I was doing. "I kind of thought he'd be here," I said. He answered, "To tell you the truth, he isn't here much." I was probably part of the reason celebrityism and church attendance don't go well together: we were looking around for the famous guy when we should have been in church looking for Jesus.
Jeremiah Wright goes to church looking for Jesus. And that's why evangelicals should pay attention to him. This is not to say they should agree with him. But Jeremiah Wright is a serious Christian. He didn't have to be many gifted black intellectuals have gotten off the bus with the church for having been, as it inarguably has, a slave religion. (Wright has argued with Muslim friends that its track record is no better on slavery.) Even within the young tradition of Africentric theology, birthed by James Cone at Union Seminary in the late 1960s, former theologians have left Jesus behind in their effort to embrace the wider black diaspora worldwide. Cone himself worries that exclusive attention to Jesus yields something he calls "Christofascism," by which he seems to mean exclusivity. His brilliant student Dwight Hopkins, a leader at Trinity, also seems to think the Christian church too narrow an allegiance, and wants black folks generally to ally over race rather than religion. (Wright has repeatedly endorsed Cone and Hopkins, yet he doesn't use language like "Christofascism"--this is one of the things you should ask him about). In conversation with his teacher Cone, and the most distinguished theologian at his church in Dwight Hopkins, Wright is staking his claim solely on Jesus respectfully, of course, in dialogue with Islam and black nationalist thought but he's standing on the promises of this God. (It's worth noting that the rest of the black church is not so enamored with Cone's theology.)
Therefore charity requires that evangelicals do business with Wright. He, like them, is part of the body of Christ. Not less than John Hagee or Rod Parsley extremist ministers aligned with John McCain Wright's churchmanship means he is more brother than enemy. One of the rhetorical missteps Wright has made is to say an attack on him is an attack on the black church, and to imply that a rejection of his theology makes one ipso facto a racist. This is simply untrue. If you disagree, go ahead part of the reason we're so bad at talking about race in this country is we're all afraid to offend, so we leave it to the screamers on cable. Let Wright know what you think.
But expect him to give as good as he gets. He's been at this a while. He has scratched and clawed for stronger schools, better support from the city, and above all, church growth on the far South Side of Chicago. He has taught that blacks should be proud of their heritage and never ashamed and that they should do theology as subjects rather than objects. He's summoned altar calls and prayed for healing (there is a subterranean charismatic ministry at Trinity) and led the people's praise of Jesus for more then three decades. He has things to teach us. And, as ever in the church, he has points that could stand rebutting. But let's keep those points in perspective. Wright's break with America is no unforgivable sin only blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is that.
Wright's recent media tour was so unfortunate. It would have caused him no harm to wait to travel and speak until January 21, 2009. But of course, on that day, the audience would not have been near as large or as attentive. He got the cameras and front pages because of his parishioner running for President. He knew full well that appearing in public would hurt Obama he'd been warned, begged, pleaded with not to do it. (The week before, a friend in the campaign told me, "They're freaking out up at HQ Wright's going on tour, and they can't do a thing to stop it.") Wright was throwing Obama, a parishioner and former friend, under the bus and he knew it.
But coming from a community that's been told for so long what they're allowed to say and not say has an impact on you. Precisely when you're told to shut up, you preach. At the top of your lungs. For you've got a fire locked up in your bones.
Evangelicals, I think, know something about that.
Jason Byassee is assistant editor at The Christian Century.
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Byassee wrote about Wright and Trinity UCC for the May 29, 2007, issue of The Christian Century.
Pastors and preachers are discussing Wright over at Leadership Journal's Out of Ur blog.