Jeremiah Wright and the Black Church

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Senator Barack Obama this week denounced several recent controversial statements by his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. On Monday (April 28), at the National Press Club in Washington, Wright addressed a crowd of both journalists and supporters and spoke out defiantly about recent criticism of him.

Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT: This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. It’s an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition. And why am I speaking out now? In our community we have something called “playing the dozens.” If you think I’m going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition, and my grandma, you got another think coming.

ABERNETHY: Some of Wright’s criticisms of the U.S. government offended many listeners, among them Senator Obama who interrupted his campaign in North Carolina to attack Wright the next day.

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Harold Dean Trulear

Senator BARACK OBAMA: I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday. His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs.

ABERNETHY: So what does all this say about the black church, or better, churches? Harold Dean Trulear is a professor of applied theology at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington. He joins us from Philadelphia.

Professor Trulear, welcome.

Dr. HAROLD DEAN TRULEAR (Professor of Applied Theology, Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC): Thanks for having me.

ABERNETHY: Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama seem to represent two of many different traditions in the black churches. Would you just quickly tick off what the major traditions are?

Dr. TRULEAR: Well, with respect to the approach to social issues we would talk about the prophetic tradition. We would talk about community services. We would talk about individual services. And then we would also talk about churches that believe that spirituality and social issues don’t mix.

ABERNETHY: Let me ask you about the prophetic tradition — not prophetic in the sense of predicting the future but prophetic in the sense of speaking out against those in power when you think they’re wrong. How prevalent is that?

Dr. TRULEAR: Well, it used to be central to the black church tradition in that the black churches were born out of discrimination in the North, when blacks were put out of white churches, and slavery in the South, when Negro spirituals included words like, “Go tell Pharaoh let my people go.” It’s resurrected to a center stage in the work of Martin Luther King who saw himself in the prophetic tradition. And now it exists alongside of a variety of strands as our society has become more complex.

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Jeremiah Wright

ABERNETHY: Is Jeremiah Wright a typical representative of the prophetic tradition?

Dr. TRULEAR: I would say he’s an exemplar because there are people who model their ministries after his.

ABERNETHY: Even though he can be profane and even though he can say things that a lot of people think are wildly wrong, mistaken?

Dr. TRULEAR: Well, many people thought the biblical prophets were biblical prophets were wildly wrong and mistaken. Many people thought that Jesus was wildly wrong and mistaken. So that alone would not be sufficient to dissuade people from emulating him as a prophet

ABERNETHY: Another tradition, another strand — and perhaps it’s represented primarily by younger people, maybe by Obama himself — is one that speaks more of reconciliation, of creating unity, and looks ahead with hope rather than back with anger. How strong is that tradition?

Dr. TRULEAR: I think it’s very strong, especially among the younger generation, as you mentioned. It also has to do with a certain historical naivete that has lost sight of the fact that there are still very many disaffected people in our nation and abroad, and any attempts towards reconciliation are going to have to take that disaffection into account.

ABERNETHY: I wanted to ask you what it’s going to take to bring about this unity that everyone hopes for?

Dr. TRULEAR: I think it’s going to take conversations that bring the disaffected to the table, that take into consideration that there’s a lot of hurt, there’s a lot of anger that’s not just historic but also exists today in many inner cities, in many poor communities. Those are the people that Reverend Wright believes he speaks for, and their concerns are going to have to be addressed if reconciliation is going to be true and not just papered over and ephemeral.

ABERNETHY: Many thanks to Harold Dean Trulear of the Howard University School of Divinity.