It is difficult to grapple with the complexities of faith and politics, and it is disheartening when the two meet like runaway trains in the night while the media circles above like a vulture. Our society is increasingly weary of the cult style theology of the conservative Christian political movement, and rightfully so. I find myself in ministry in a professional capacity, and more and more I experience the vast differences in the ways that followers of Jesus live out their faith. That is a healthy dynamic in the movement of Jesus, and the differences in the people that practice Christianity, not the similarities, make it a truly robust faith with a rich history. The situation in the news with Reverend Jeremiah Wright is nothing short of irresponsible reporting by a media who neglects the intricacies of Christianity and, more importantly, of the black church culture.
Church today is somewhat of an enigma. There are so many different kinds of churches that represent so many different kinds of social, racial, and ethnic groups that it is increasingly difficult to define Christianity. It is, as well, increasingly difficult to define the nature of a pastor. Mega churches tend to employ motivational speakers and shy away from confrontational theology. They have a large audience and that audience pays the bills in the multi-million dollar buildings, so they can’t afford a split. Some of the larger denominations have a system in place that appoints a minister to a congregation, which (in theory) ensures vitality in the group and protects the pastor from being fired over his version of the word of God. But, overall, the job of the pastor is to discern the word of God for the people of God. The Bible is the inspired word of God, not the sermon. The pastor is human, fallible, and as prone to mistakes as the manager of a hardware store. The better he knows his subject, the better chance he has of accomplishing his mission. Thus, education and experience are invaluable as tools for a good minister.
These things are not typically what drive a person to be a pastor, though. Typically, the ministry is driven by passion. Many wrong things have been said from the pulpit with a passion for seeing the Word of God play out in the world, and there is plenty of regret and hurt that linger in the still air of American sanctuaries. The prophets of old spoke from the heart about the consequences for the people who were not following the path that had been laid out for them, and many of their words were hard and offensive and unpolished. They were blessed by God and carried out His plan, but they didn’t always get it right. Plenty of failure and disappointment surrounded the prophets and scribes of the Bible, and plenty of failurde and disappointment surround our spiritual and religious leaders today. Fiery passion is not always going to fit into a thirty second sound bite on MSNBC and deliver the intended result.
In “Putting Reverend Wright’s Preaching In Perspective,” Diana Butler Bass begins to reveal the long history of prophetic preaching in the black church culture.
Typical of the form used by black preachers is Frederick Douglass’ address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” first delivered on July 5, 1852. The address, a political sermon, forcefully attacks white culture. “Fellow-citizens,” Douglass proclaims, “above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wails of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” He goes on to calls American conduct “hideous and revolting” and accuses white Christians of trampling upon and disregarding both the constitution and the Bible. He concluded his sermon with the words, “For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
…As MSNBC, CNN, and FOX endlessly play the tape of Rev. Wright’s “radical” sermons today, I do not hear the words of a “dangerous” preacher (at least any more dangerous than any preacher who takes the Gospel seriously!) No, I hear the long tradition that Jeremiah Wright has inherited from his ancestors. I hear prophetic critique. I hear Frederick Douglass. And, mostly, I hear the Gospel slant—I hear it from an angle that is not natural to me. It is good to hear that slant.
In my church, my pastor is his own person, and he can say what he likes. We have a great relationship that way. My job, as a member of his congregation, is to provide a measure of accountability for him and to give him a sounding board from which he can explore his faith. He does the same for me. Barack Obama should no more be held responsible for the words of Reverend Wright than I should be by the words of my pastor, and I would discourage anyone from abandoning a church community over a difference of opinion.
If you listen to more of the sermon, you will find that Rev. Wright had some good points and was getting very passionate about his message. If you dig into the history of the church from which Rev. Wright was raised and trained, you will find similar messages and comparable language. I am not defending the Reverend or his social perspective. It is unfortunate that the Reverend chose certain words on certain days. Unfortunate in the same way that anyone in the cross hairs of the current media culture might find themselves regretting their words.