Racial Politics and the Color of Faith

When I took my first preaching class in seminary, now well over twenty years ago, I remember a professor telling us, “Preach the truth as you understand it, and remember: if you’re not making someone mad at least some of the time, you’re probably not doing your job.”

This week Barack Obama felt obligated to distance himself from his longtime minister at Trinity UCC, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, because of things that Wright has said about race in America. It’s too bad. Dr. Wright is widely considered one of the best preachers in the country, and he has taken Trinity from a dying inner city church to a vibrant congregation of over 8,000, with vital service missions from Chicago to Africa. Whether or not you regard his words as true or incendiary, Dr. Wright is of course not running for President himself. He’s a preacher, and for decades he’s been doing a better job at it than most ordained ministers can ever dream of.

Preaching is different from political speech not only because it’s supposed to focus on a spiritual message rather than on winning votes. It’s different because of being part of a conversation, week after week, between a minister and his or her congregation. The conversation is always particular: the reason the gospel message lives on through the centuries is that people continue to hear it according to their lives and circumstances. A preacher’s job is to help them do that, and sometimes we do it best by being provocative and shocking.

In an earlier chapter of this controversy (which remains a surrogate racial attack on Barack Obama), Dr. Wright was interviewed on Fox News. He said then that Trinity’s philosophy does not “assume superiority or does it assume separatism… When [we] say an African-centered way of thinking — African-centered philosophy, African-centered theology — we’re talking about something that’s different, and different does not mean …superior or inferior.”

This is simply truth-telling: there is always a center from which we view our world. Where we stand affects what we will see and hear and how we’ll receive it. It is an undeniable truth that the default center of our nation – in terms of history, power, language, definitions, institutional control, wealth, privilege and most anything else you could name – has been and is white. And so still, in our time as in the past, in order to be black in America and also be strong, confident, proud and independent, something is required beyond what the general society is willing to give. That “something” has resided for generations in the black church.

Black liberation theology and African-centered churches do not teach a doctrine of separatism or hatred of white people. They teach power, pride, self-reliance and faith to black people. For those of us willing to listen, they teach white people to notice how heavily the scales are still tipped for us. Whatever our class background, whatever our other struggles, whatever our political commitments: because our bones come wrapped in a Caucasian package, we walk through this world affirmed at every turning in ways invisible to us. It is not racism to name this truth. It is a form of racism to ignore it.

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