|Commentary: A look inside the black church|
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 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.
The Rev. Larry Pickens
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
“...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
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?"
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race
The Social Principles on the rights of racial and ethnic persons
Trinity United Church of Christ