Learning to listen: Cultural perspectives on Rev. Wright
By Alan Strachan, Ph.D. and Janet Coster, M.A.
Online Journal Guest Writers

Mar 26, 2008, 00:22

As white Americans, it is natural to view the narrowly excerpted comments of Obama�s Reverend Jeremiah Wright through the lens of white culture, and therefore to condemn him. As citizens of our democracy, those of us who are white must not fall into this trap. It is incumbent upon us to attempt to understand the meaning of Reverend Wright�s sermons from the context of the African-American experience and the role of the black church within that experience. We must take into account, as well, the countless sermons of Reverend Wright that we have not heard, and the overall context of his message and his life.

Jim Wallis speaks to this issue in an article entitled �Healing the Wounds of Race.�

Wallis describes the �deep well of both frustration and anger in the African-American community in the U.S� and then describes the role of the black church: �The black church pulpit has historically been a place of prophetic truth-telling about the realities that black people experience in their own country. Indeed, the black church has often been the only place where such truths are ever told. And, black preachers have had the reverendal [sic] task of nurturing the spirits of people who feel beaten down week after week. Strong and prophetic words from black church pulpits are often a source of comfort and affirmation for black congregations.�

He adds, �The truth is that many white Americans would indeed feel uncomfortable with the rhetoric of many black preachers from many black churches all across the country,� and this has, in fact, proven to be the case. If we do not truly understand the anger and frustration of the African-American experience, and do not understand the role of the black church pulpit in addressing, expressing and ameliorating that experience, then we have fallen short as citizens.

Diane Butler Bass powerfully describes her own study and experience of the black church over the past 20 years. As a white woman, she was at first pained and very angered to learn that, in black preaching and theology throughout the scope of US history, �black Christian leaders leveled a devastating critique against their white brothers and sisters -- accusing white Christians of maintaining �ease in Zion� while allowing black people to suffer injustice and oppression.� She cites Frederick Douglass' address, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" first delivered on July 5, 1852, as an example of this kind of powerful critique.

After months of reading and attending a black church -- months of �patience, historical imagination, and lots of complaining to my friends� (both black and white) -- she writes: �I began to hear the power of the critique. I came to appreciate the prophetic nature of black preaching. I recognized that these voices emerged from a very distinct historical experience. And I admired the narrative interplay between the Bible and social justice. Over time, they taught me to hear the Gospel from an angular perspective -- the angle of slaves, freed blacks, of those who feared lynching, of those who longed for Africa, those who could not attend good schools.�

From the African-American perspective, Reverend Wright is speaking from within a prophetic tradition, specifically called the �Jeremiad� tradition. The Jeremiad has historical precedent and very deep roots in the Biblical prophetic tradition, one that reaches back thousands of years into the role of the Prophets in the Old Testament. It includes Jesus, as well, who also spoke out and acted with �prophetic� anger towards the blindness of the cultural structures and dominating hierarchies of that time. Within this tradition countless black ministers, including Reverend Wright, have spoken with anger and passion, and spoken truth to power.

Is this the only way to express grievance? No, it is not. Are ministers in the Jeremiad tradition capable of crossing the line and answering hatred with hatred? Absolutely. Would we be just as angry and vocal were we in their position? We expect that we would. Is there a core of truth in much of what Reverend Wright says? We believe there is, but we will only hear it if we stop �attacking the messenger,� cringing at the stridency of his voice and focusing only on the extremes of his message.

How do we -- as whites with rank, as human beings, as fellow citizens -- continue to learn how to listen, especially when faced with others� wounds, and even more especially when we may feel guilty about, or in some way responsible for, those wounds?

Are we willing to more fully listen both to Reverend Wright�s angry voice as well as Obama�s mellifluous one? We hope we are. We believe it is only in the authentic and inclusive hearing of all voices that our own authentic voice is fully formed and informed, and the promise of our democracy fulfilled.

� 2008 Alan James Strachan and Janet Denise Coster

Alan Strachan, PH.D. and Janet Coster, M.A. are psychotherapists in private practice. They are currently writing a book about the struggle between democracy and dominance in politics, religion and the individual psyche.

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