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By ADELLE M. BANKS
c. 2008 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON — The outgoing pastor of Sen. Barack Obama’s black megachurch in Chicago has come under fire for sermons that some have called racist, offensive, even dangerous.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright has called the federal government the “U.S. of K.K.K. A.” Just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Wright said “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” according to a review of his sermons by ABC News.
Observers of the black church say Wright’s sermons may seem incendiary or uncomfortably provocative, but they reflect a proud history of what Walter Earl Fluker of Morehouse College in Atlanta calls “prophetic preaching, which is the trademark of the black church tradition, of which Jeremiah Wright is perhaps one of the most illustrious exemplars.”
Peter Paris, professor emeritus of Christian social ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, attended seminary with Wright in the 1960s and said Wright fits in the prophetic tradition of both the black church and the Bible.
“Prophets are basically reformers and not revolutionaries,” said Paris, an Obama supporter. “There’s a line beyond which one is no longer prophetic but one is revolutionary. He’s not there, but the language may appear from time to time to be there.”
On Friday (March 14) afternoon, Obama’s office released a statement in which he said, “I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy.”
“While Rev. Wright’s statements have pained and angered me, I believe that Americans will judge me not on the basis of what someone else said, but on the basis of who I am and what I believe in.”
Wright will soon retire from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama has been a member for 20 years. The 8,000-member church bills itself as “unashamedly black, unapologetically Christian.”
Even those who disagree with Wright’s comments — politically or otherwise — maintain his right to preach the truth as he sees it in the pulpit.
“For many African-Americans, everything that Jeremiah Wright said would be considered true,” said Bishop Harry Jackson, the conservative black leader of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and a pastor in Lanham, Md.
“It is the spirit in which he said it, the attitude even of bitterness, that comes through in that particular piece, that’s the thing that taints the whole thing.”
And some, including white evangelical activist Jim Wallis, say Wright’s comments, however incendiary, reflect reality in black America.
“That the country is mostly run by rich white people, that’s a pretty broadly based opinion among most people in the black community, including black churches,” said Wallis, the founder of Washington-based Sojourners/Call to Renewal.
But those who know Wright, and who have observed the black church, say he fits squarely in the truth-telling tradition of prophetic preachers who speak truth to power and say things others might not.
The Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of African-American studies at Colby College in Maine, is a friend of Wright’s and an alternate delegate for Obama. She wasn’t surprised to see Wright combat the “demon of racism.”
“If you’re really a Bible-believing Christian, you’ve got to take seriously the issues of poverty, the issues of racism, the issues of oppression,” said Gilkes, who also is an assistant pastor of a Baptist church in Cambridge, Mass.
Wright has noted that Sen. Hillary Clinton, unlike some blacks, doesn’t have trouble hailing a cab.
Gilkes said she could relate to Wright’s taxicab illustration because she’s seen cabs pass her by at Boston’s Logan International Airport.
“He’s telling the truth,” said Gilkes. “The woman has never had to try to catch a cab in New York City and have people go by you. …
Hillary Clinton has never had that experience, OK? And most middle-class black people in America have.”
The Rev. Marvin McMickle, professor of homiletics at Ashland University in Ohio, said it is inappropriate to assume that Wright’s words would also be Obama’s simply because the presidential candidate sits in a pew of his church.
“I think the notion that because your pastor says something it must necessarily either be shared by each member, or it reflects the unspoken views of the members, or he is in some sense a surrogate for Obama, is completely false,” said McMickle, whose book, “Where Have all the Prophets Gone?” was endorsed by Wright.
McMickle, a pledged delegate for Obama, said the Chicago pastor is like the biblical prophet Amos, who critiqued the government of his time.
“The prophet is never welcomed,” said McMickle, who pastors a Baptist church in Cleveland. “The words of the prophet are always met with rejection, scorn, criticism and sometimes only time will tell whether the prophet has spoken truly.”

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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