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Commentary: A look inside the black church

"I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution…. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation." –The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in remarks made at West Michigan University, 1963

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Larry Pickens*

April 4, 2008

The Rev. Larry Pickens

The YouTube explosion of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermon clips and the continuous loop being played to millions on CNN, Fox News and other media outlets reminds Christians that, in our worship and living experiences, we still face the daunting challenges of racial division. We’ve realized anew that there is much we do not know about each other across racial and class lines.

Wright and Trinity United Church of Christ, of course, have gained particular notoriety recently because presidential candidate Barack Obama is a member of the Chicago congregation. For myself, Wright has been a colleague and friend for more than 20 years. His significant and miraculous ministry crosses the span of the African-American community and provides a progressive witness for Jesus Christ.

However, the debate over the inflammatory nature of some of Wright’s sermon statements raises questions about black liberation theology, the prophetic role of Christianity in challenging U.S. policies and the role of class in the African-American community. And even though Trinity is not a United Methodist congregation, the debate offers an opportunity for United Methodists to grapple with the significance of our own racial and class divisions.

The Trinity congregation proclaims to be "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." This motto is the foundation to the Afro-centric nature of the church and the theology that undergirds its ministry.

“...Even though Trinity is not a United Methodist congregation, the debate offers an opportunity for United Methodists to grapple with the significance of our own racial and class divisions.”

Black liberation theology is a concept espoused in a growing number of African-American churches today and seeks to make the Gospel relevant to the black experience. It emerged during the 1960s as a group of black pastors demanded a more aggressive approach in the struggle against racism and white oppression. Theologian James Cone is considered its founder and explored the ideas in his works Black Theology and Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation. It is a theology that asks the question: "What does the Christian Gospel have to say to African-American people?" 

Hurling rocks

As an African-American Christian, the recent debate over Wright’s sermons takes me back 40 years, following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Our family moved into a racially changing Chicago community, where the vestiges of racism literally stood in our way. Racism manifested itself in insurance redlining, predatory lending practices and religious authorities working to maintain a line of segregation.

At the Rubicon of Ashland Avenue, where the local activist Catholic priest declared no "niggers" were allowed across Ashland Avenue, black boys lined the east side of the street and engaged in rock-throwing fights with the white boys who lived on the street's west side. When I think back on why we stood on that street throwing rocks at each other, I think it was because of the unknown, the divisions of our experiences that left us bereft of community. We were merely separated by a street, but our experience of each other never allowed us to cross the chasm to realize that the "other" was human. We simply did not have the tools to build community. Therefore, all we knew how to do was attack each other by hurling rocks and racial insults.

It is out of this experience of brokenness and spiritual hope that black liberation theology emerged. The irrationality of racism and injustice provided the roots of an African-American theology focused on life in the present world. Therefore the political, social and economic realities of African-American people get merged into the religious experience and are articulated through a message that is spiritual and social—speaking to the whole person.

Conscience of the State

Many people listening recently to Wright’s sound bites were shocked by his angry-sounding criticisms of the United States, Israel and previous U.S. administrations. However, Protestantism in the United States includes a prophetic tradition of taking on government, challenging the status quo and calling for justice. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr challenged the notion that the United States has been anointed by God to be an "agent of liberty." He recognized the problematic nature of our American national identity, particularly as it relates to the notion that the United States is acting on God’s behalf.

The church is called to serve as the conscience of the state, speaking to the issues of social justice that impact the lives of God’s people. Martin Luther King Jr. was right: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." This is a theology that is lived out in many of our congregations as a sign of Christian discipleship as we help people love God, be merciful and do justice. For the African-American community, spirituality is most relevant when it is merged with social action. Faith without social consciousness is moribund and irrelevant.

Another area that black liberation theology addresses is class. As more African Americans move to the status of the rich and the upper class, the temptation is to allow class interests to supersede racial solidarity. In this dynamic, such African Americans not only leave underprivileged African-American people behind, they actually participate in systems of domination and exploitation that continue to victimize the poor.

Black theology challenges progressive African Americans with class privilege to intervene and challenge black communities to enter into transformative relationships with the poor rather than supporting the structures that oppress them. Black theology calls African-American people to create a structure where those who have achieved economic and social affluence commit to eradicating class distinctions within our community and work to eradicate the injustices that are experienced by the black poor.

Challenging the status quo

As we prepare for our General Conference, there are implications for United Methodists. Our own Council of Bishops and denominational agencies are encouraging our church to commit to eradicating poverty throughout the world. Black liberation theology can serve as a framework for how we overcome the class distinctions within The United Methodist Church, effectively address immigration and develop strategies for building The Beloved Community.

It is exceptional that the Council of Bishops has initiated an effort to engage in a series of dialogues over the next two years to address issues of institutional racism, beginning with its own body and eventually extending throughout the church and society. The amending of one of the Seven Vision Pathways related to racial/ethnic ministries calls upon the church to "end racism and authentically expand racial/ethnic ministries." This is a step that hopefully will become a structural and spiritual reality for The United Methodist Church.

“Jeremiah Wright has reminded us of how blind we are to the experience of the other.”

What is also clear is that for African Americans, change does not ride up on the wings of inevitability. Political deliberation and debate are significant tools for change, but too often are primarily tools of the powerful and the privileged. Substantive change for those outside of power often comes because of the actions of those considered to be cranks, zealots, prophets or agitators. Sometimes a new order is only found in the midst of struggle. This is why I believe that Jeremiah Wright cannot be dismissed simply because he challenges our complacency and willingness to make friends with the status quo.

Rodney King, who in 1992 became a reluctant symbol of police brutality in Los Angeles, asked the question: "Can’t we all just get along?" What hinders our ability to get along is the chasm that exists between our communities and how much we do not know about each other. Jeremiah Wright has reminded us of how blind we are to the experience of the other. My hope is that this episode moves us to significant dialogue and community-building that will focus our ministries in dismantling structures of racism, class oppression and dehumanization.

The task before us is to open the channels of dialogue that move us into intentional community-building, where the gifts of all people form the promise that the church, the United States and the world can be all that they can be. This, my friends, is the audacity of hope.

*Pickens is a clergy member of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference and former head of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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