Monday, March 17, 2008

Liberation for me, but not for thee

Well, the issue of the Rev. Wright is pretty much dead, except in the blogosphere (which, no, Virginia, does not accurately reflect the interests of the country. If it did, Ron Paul would have made a better showing among Republicans.), so I hesitate to keep it alive any longer. But Talking Points Memo has the press release issued by Trinity UCC in Chicago, and several points about it are worth considering. Statistics, for example, are always a nice touch:

"Dr. Wright has preached 207,792 minutes on Sunday for the past 36 years at Trinity United Church of Christ. This does not include weekday worship services, revivals and preaching engagements across America and around the globe, to ecumenical and interfaith communities. It is an indictment on Dr. Wright's ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second sound bite," said the Reverend Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ.
It is not only a cheap shot, it's pretty damned stupid to think that 15 seconds sums up a person's entire thought over 36 years. But, of course, this is politics, not a graduate seminar on theology or hermeneutics, so what else can we expect? And other than accept Jeremiah Wright as their spiritual leader and pastor for 36 years, what has Trinity UCC-Chicago done?

Trinity United Church of Christ's ministry is inclusive and global. The following ministries have been developed under Dr. Wright's ministerial tutelage for social justice: assisted living facilities for senior citizens, day care for children, pastoral care and counseling, health care, ministries for persons living with HIV/AIDS, hospice training, prison ministry, scholarships for thousands of students to attend historically black colleges, youth ministries, tutorial and computer programs, a church library, domestic violence programs and scholarships and fellowships for women and men attending seminary.
Oh, and the church grew from 87 to 8000 under the Rev. Wright. Which means a lot of people in the area are hate-filled, too, apparently. Or something. The influence of the church on them is irrelevant, though; for some reason. So are the good things the church has done. Stick to the point, people! It's all about the 30 seconds!

Speaking of influence and relevance and the doing of good deeds:

In the United States the materialistic, humanistic world view is being taught exclusively in most state schools... There is an obvious parallel between this and the situation in Russia [the USSR]. And we really must not be blind to the fact that indeed in the public schools in the United States all religious influence is as forcibly forbidden as in the Soviet Union....

There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate... A true Christian in Hitler's Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state. This brings us to a current issue that is crucial for the future of the church in the United States, the issue of abortion... It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God's law it abrogates it's authority. And our loyalty to the God who gave this law then requires that we make the appropriate response in that situation...

Excerpts from the work of Francis Schaeffer, as reported by his son Frank. I remember reading Schaeffer's work in college, when he was being presented as an "intellectual" Christian. I soon realized he was also a very narrow-minded Christian, and I abandoned the reading of his theology. Still, as his son points out, Mr. Schaeffer was lauded by:

...Congressman Jack Kemp, the Fords, Reagan and the Bush family. The top Republican leadership depended on preachers and agitators like us to energize their rank and file. No one called us un-American.
Francis Schaeffer went much further than "God-damn America," and he called for much more than the civil disobedience advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "If there is a legitimate reason for the use of force [against the US government]," his son quotes, "... then at a certain point force is justifiable." Dr. King's efforts were all aimed at the non-use of force. So far no one has turned up any videotape of the Rev. Wright advocating force be used against the Federal government, but such advocacy by Mr. Schaeffer didn't keep him from sleeping in the White House. And can there be any doubt his son is right when he says:

Take Dad's words and put them in the mouth of Obama's preacher (or in the mouth of any black American preacher) and people would be accusing that preacher of treason. Yet when we of the white Religious Right denounced America white conservative Americans and top political leaders, called our words "godly" and "prophetic" and a "call to repentance."
It really isn't a matter of whose ox is being gored, but who is doing the goring. Nobody really pays attention to what preachers say, or even who they say it to. It's who says it, that matters. But if what they say matters at all, perhaps we should consider what Trinity UCC has to say for itself:

• One of the biggest gaps in knowledge that causes the kind of ignorance that you hear spouted by this man [Erik Rush] and those like him, has to do with the fact that these persons are completely ignorant when it comes to the Black religious tradition. The vision statement of Trinity United Church of Christ is based upon the systematized liberation theology that started in 1969 with the publication of Dr. James Cone’s book, Black Power and Black Theology.

• Black theology is one of the many theologies in the Americas that became popular during the liberation theology movement. They include Hispanic theology, Native American theology, Asian theology and Womanist theology.

• We [African Americans] were always seen as objects. When we started defining ourselves, it scared those who try to control others by naming them and defining them for them; Oppressors do not like “others” defining themselves.

• To have a church whose theological perspective starts from the vantage point of Black liberation theology being its center, is not to say that African or African American people are superior to any one else.

• African-centered thought, unlike Eurocentrism, does not assume superiority and look at everyone else as being inferior.

• There is more than one center from which to view the world. In the words of Dr. Janice Hale, “Difference does not mean deficience.” It is from this vantage point that Black liberation theology speaks.
These were originally promulgated in response to critiques on the Hannity & Colmes show, so this is still all about politics. But I remember reading Cone's book in seminary, and there is a great deal of legitimacy in liberation theology, not least because it is not widely embraced by the very power structures it critiques. I also remembering learning in seminary that "there is more than one center from which to view the world" (although most congregations prefer you stick to theirs). And you don't have to talk of oppressors (but then, I'm not the descendant of people enslaved simply because of the color of their skin) to understand that those with power cling to it in part by defining those without power, and resenting any attempt to change those definitions. Indeed, that's the issue in play in the controversy in question here.

But it isn't necessarily racism at work here. It's just as easy to see the comments by the Rev. Wright being made by a radical white preacher of a mega-church (if such could be imagined!), a Daniel or Philip Berrigan, for example, a William Sloane Coffin, perhaps. They, too, would be condemned in the same terms by the same people; so it ain't necessarily racism (which also doesn't mean it isn't). It isn't what is said (as Frank Schaeffer points out); it's who says it, that matters. Now, if we could just get the "who" and the "what is said" together on something that is of real value to the national discourse:

What about Obama? Is he not up to the task of educating people about what the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act did to the markets many Americans poured their retirement and college savings into? Does he know that the Federal Reserve is about to bail out bankers, investors, and outright thieves who helped drive down the dollar, and brought the credit markets to a near standstill? Does he understand the problem? I wouldn't know.

Seventy years ago Franklin Roosevelt was able to explain this country's and the world's financial crises to a far less educated, and less accessible, American public. That today's candidates are unwiling, or unable to do so, is alarming. Maybe if the media first tried to understand the problems, then asked the proper questions until answers were forthcoming or it was clear the candidates are afraid to ask them, political coverage would be more than the extreme sports coverage it has turned into.
The issues of black theology and the place of mega-churches in our culture, and even of what pastors can, or should, say from the pulpit, are social questions. The real political questions are questions of policy. Politicians don't control their coverage by the media entirely, but neither do they have to be controlled by it. Surely someone will figure this out before long.

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