Wright stuff: His black church tradition

church4As Mark noted earlier, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., came right out and made a statement -- a statement about religion -- that reporters should be able to investigate and challenge. In a way, Wright focused on the very angle that GetReligion has been trying to focus on from the start of this media firestorm. The key quote again: "This is not an attack against Jeremiah Wright, this is an attack against the black church."

There is the question: Is this statement true? Or is it more accurate to state that Wright is a high-profile leader in a certain kind of black church, one that offers a unique approach to faith and life? What about black Pentecostal churches? Lutheran? Assemblies of God? Catholic? Southern Baptist? Church of God in Christ?

In addition to its main Wright stories, which have been almost completely political, the Washington Post has offered some sidebars that capture more of the atmosphere surrounding the controversial preacher's current media tour. I need to note right up front that much of this reporting has been done by a veteran reporter who is a friend of mine, Hamil Harris. Here is are two key passages from the story that ran with the excellent headline: "Preaching to the Choir, and Feeding the Fire -- Before Black Ministers From Around the Country, Wright Courts Further Controversy."

Some ministers were fired up by Wright's defense of "black liberation" theology:

The Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of the District's Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, said this was more than a speech. "This is a movement that has been in the shadows for decades -- I call it the progressive evangelical movement."

The Rev. James Forbes, pastor emeritus of the Riverside Church of New York, said: "In all of this hullabaloo, the question is: What is the message that God is trying to get through? It is more serious than the presidential election."

Princeton professor Cornel West was just happy that Wright was getting to tell his side of the story. "People need to know the work and witness of Brother Jeremiah Wright, they need to know who is all his humanity. ... All of the lies that have been told about him need to be shattered."

But another person with close ties to Wright -- the Rev. Henry P. Davis III, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Highland Park -- had his doubts about the timing of this whole episode:

"I still come back to the point that the focus should be on Obama, Clinton and McCain," Davis said. "Dr. Wright talks about an attack against the black church, but if you peel everything away, you don't have a room filled with reporters and press if we are simply talking about the black church.

"The risk for all of us in ministry is when we operate outside of our normal roles," added Davis, who studied under Wright at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. "While Reverend Wright has done so many good things down through the years, I am reminded of the song, 'May the Work That I Have Done Speak for Me.' That doesn't take any commentary at all."

These are crucial voices. But, again, note that they are united by ties other than race. They are connected through the United Church of Christ -- a trailblazing church on the religious left -- or through other academic or community ties that are solidly on the theological (try to forget politics, for a moment) left.

Cornel West? James Forbes? Very important voices, but voices on one side of the religious and cultural spectrum. Do they, along with Wright, represent a crucial part of the black church? Yes. Obviously. Do their cultural and theological views represent all of the black church? That's the question reporters have to keep asking.

church1An earlier Post sidebar ended with a voice of caution about the agenda that is driving much of this coverage, an agenda driven as much by Wright as by anyone else.

The question is whether Wright's voice represents the past, the present or the future. Or, is his voice only one voice that is part of a debate that will continue into the future? The experts agree that "black liberation" theology is important. But that is not the only issue, now.

The prevalence of the theology today can't be easily measured, but traces of the movement can be seen in the style and ministry of many black churches across denominations. Some black church leaders, however, say its relevance is waning.

"The issues that we face today are more crisis-oriented: How am I going to keep my marriage intact? How am I going to keep my home? What school am I going to put my kids in?" said the Rev. Keith Battle, who heads Zion Church in Landover. "There might be a racial undertone to the questions, but it can't just be a movement anymore about when am I going to get my 40 acres and a mule." ...

The Rev. Harry Jackson Jr., who leads the multiracial Pentecostal Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, said that liberation theology might have begun as a helpful rallying cry in the civil rights era but that what is needed now is a message of reconciliation.

"You can't keep bringing up the anger of black power or black theology without a vision or plan to address those issues," he said. "There is a desire for the first time in post-civil rights history among large white churches to integrate in cities like D.C. that are predominantly black," he said.

These other voices are important, as well.

While it may sound strange to say this, the Wright coverage, as a whole, needs more diversity -- theological diversity. Some of the sources that are ending up in the sidebars need to bleed over into the main stories.

Illustrations: Black Art Depot, the black church.

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