WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor for 36 years of a Southside Chicago church that grew from 87 members in 1972 to 8,000 under his leadership, spoke to a sold-out audience at the National Press Club Monday morning, receiving three thundering standing ovations while seeking to establish a context for the series of controversial video snippets from his sermons that have drawn national attention this spring.
The former pastor to presidential candidate Barack Obama outlined three features of what he called “black liberation theology” that grew out of hundreds of years of an on-going Christian religious tradition carried on by Afro-Americans living under conditions of brutal slavery, repression and discrimination. He called it “the prophetic tradition of the black church.”
Saying he felt the repeated use of the “sound bites” taken out of context constituted an attack on the tradition of the black church more than on him, personally, justifying his need for a clarification.
He elaborated on the three themes of liberation, transformation and reconciliation, issuing from the 61st chapter of the Old Testament book of Isaiah, where the prophet wrote that he’d been anointed “to preach good tidings unto the meek…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” It is the same text that the Gospel of Luke reported was the inaugural message of Jesus’ ministry.
This “prophetic” theology, he said, “was done from the underside…not from the top down or from a set of teachings that undergirded imperialism.” Instead, it was “from the bottom up, the thoughts and understandings of God, the faith, religion and the Bible from those whose lives were ground under, mangled and destroyed by the ruling classes or the oppressors…It started from the vantage point of the oppressed.”
Wright added that, “In biblical history, there’s not one word in the Bible, between Genesis and Revelation, that was not written under one of six different kinds of oppression: Egyptian oppression, Assyrian oppression, Persian oppression, Greek oppression, Roman oppression, Babylonian oppression.”
He stressed this theology was preached in black churches in the days of chattel slavery “to set free those who were held in bondage, spiritually, psychologically and sometimes physically,” but he added its theme of liberation also sought to set slaveholders free “from the notion they could define other human beings or confine a soul set free by the power of the gospel…to set free misguided and miseducated Americans from the notion that they were actually superior to other Americans based on the color of their skin.”
This prophetic preaching today, he said, seeks “to set African-Americans and all other Americans free from the misconceived notion that different means deficient.”
In addition to a theology of liberation, it is also a theology of transformation, he said. “Do not try to understand the content of the passage (of Isaiah 61) in the context of a sound bite,” he stated, “What you see is God’s desire for a radical change in a social order that’s gone sour.”
“God’s desire is for positive change, transformation; real change, not cosmetic change, transformation…change that makes a permanent difference, transformation…changed lives, changed minds, changed laws, changed social order and changed hearts in a changed world,” he expounded. “This principle of transformation is at the heart of the prophetic theology of the black church.”
This prophetic theology, he added, “is ultimately a theology of reconciliation.”
“God does not desire for us, as children of God, to be at war with each other, to see each other as superior or inferior, to hate each other, abuse each other, misuse each other, define each other or put each other down,” he said. “The black church’s role in the fight for equality and justice from the 1700s up until 2008 has always had as its core the non-negotiable doctrine of reconciliation, children of God repenting for past sins against each other.”
“Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them. We retain who we are, as persons of different cultures, while acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior to us; they are just different from us. We root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred or prejudice,” he concluded.
“We recognize for the first time in modern history, in the West, that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles and different dance moves; that other is one of God’s children just as we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness just as we are.”
During the question period, the Rev. Wright responded to concerns for the content of the widely-aired video snippets. He said the comment following 9/11 about “chickens coming home to roost” was a quote from the ambassador from Iraq, adding that the Bible also says, in effect, “You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back to you.”
About being patriotic, he said, “I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?”
On his comments about Louis Farrakhan, he said the new clips came from 20 years ago, when Farrakhan criticized Zionism, not Judaism. “He was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say…that President Carter’s being vilified for and Bishop Tutu’s being vilified for.”
He said that he and Farrakhan “don’t agree on everything,” but said that he can’t be ignored. How many people “can get a million people together on the Mall?,” he asked. “When Louis Farrakhan speaks, it’s like E.F. Hutton speaks. All black America listens. Whether they agree with him or not, they listen.”
Asked whether he felt “that America is still condemned in the eyes of God,” he said: “God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns some things. And d-e-m-n, demn, is where we get the word, ‘damn.’ God damns some practices. There is no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn’t make me not like America, or unpatriotic.”
Asked about a sound bite where he spoke of the government’s culpability in the invention of the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color, he replied that he was reporting to his congregation about the contents of the books, “Emerging Viruses, AIDS and Ebola,” and “Medical Apartheid.”
He then added that Saddam Hussein got most of the biological weapons he once had from the U.S. “Any time a government can put together biological warfare to kill people and then get angry when those people use what we sold them, yes, I believe we are capable.”
Asked if he thinks “God loves the white racist in the same way he loves the oppressed black American,” Rev. Wright quoted John 3:16 from the Bible. “For God loved the whole world – world is white, black, Iraqi, Darfurian, Sudanese, Zulu, Kosha. God loves all of God’s children, because all of God’s children are make in God’s image.
Asked if he thinks Islam is “a way to salvation,” he replied, “Jesus also said, ‘Other sheep have I who are not of this fold.’”
He cited the diversity in his own church membership, and the role of the 1.2 million-member United Church of Christ, the denomination he and his church are affiliated with, and its long history of struggles against slavery and in founding hundreds of educational institutions for freed slaves, including Howard University in Washington, D.C. That denomination’s membership is overwhelmingly Caucasian, and always has been even in its greatest struggles to free slaves and fight for racial equality.