Wright Ex-Factor

By Diana Butler Bass 4-28-2008

Over the last several days, I watched Rev. Jeremiah Wright in discussions of faith, theology, history, and culture on television. The three-plus hours I devoted to PBS and CNN amounted to some of the most sophisticated and thoughtful programming on American culture and racial issues that any news station has offered in recent years. And, for those who really listened to Rev. Wright, he moved from being a political liability in the current presidential campaign to demonstrating why he is one of the nation's most compelling spokespersons of the African-American community and of progressive Christianity.

On Friday, Bill Moyers interviewed Wright in an hour-long conversation. (Watch it here.) On Sunday, Wright preached at an NAACP fundraiser in Detroit that attracted 10,000 people. (Watch parts 1 [intro], 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.) Finally, on Monday morning, Wright addressed a packed National Press Club in Washington, D.C. However different the venues, a surprisingly common thread wound through all three speeches -- that a realistic understanding of history forms the spiritual basis of hope and healing.

In the Moyers interview, Wright admitted that one of the major influences on his ministry was the august historian Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago (a white Lutheran and a true gentleman scholar), who challenged his students to relate the "faith preached in our churches" to the "world in which our church members leave at the benediction." He then quoted African-American historian Carter G. Woodson, saying that black Americans had been-and one can argue, by inference, Anglo-Americans as well-"miseducated."

I suspect that both Woodson and Marty share the perception that Americans suffer from "miseducation" regarding history. This "miseducation" means looking to the glorious parts of history and not to its despair, of having an incomplete picture-only a "piece of the story"-regarding the past. Bad history leaves out the bits that make us cringe, doubt ourselves, or question our morality. Leaving out the uncomfortable parts may reinforce cherished views, but it lacks the power of internal critique or self-correction.

Realistic history includes the good and the amoral, the profound and the profane. It gives us the ability to understand the fullness of human experience and learn from mistakes and sin. A robust vision of the past, Wright stated, enables Christians "not to leave that world and pretend that we are now in some sort of fantasy land, as Martin Marty called it, but to serve a God who comes into history on the side of the oppressed."

The God of history is also, as Wright reminded his audience on Sunday, "a God of diversity." In his NAACP address, he recited a history of "difference," and how we denigrated those who are different. But God, he insisted, wants us to change-indeed, God is changing us-to live in such a way that "different does not mean deficient." Wright exhorted us to celebrate God-given diversity of race, color, language, music, and culture that makes humanity beautiful.

In his final address, Wright essentially delivered a church history lecture in which he traced the prophetic tradition of African-American history as a tradition of "liberation, transformation, and reconciliation." Several times, he clearly stated that a realistic view of history opens the possibility of healing the social order.

In recent events, some Americans dismissed Wright as deficient because he is not white and did not adhere to the norms of polite discourse. They used fear of difference as a political tool to divide people. This weekend, Wright rejected divisiveness as he explained his African-American heritage while recognizing the good in Anglo-European religion. He invited everyone-with all of our differences-into a shared mission of Jesus' liberating love. With humor and wit, along with courage and authenticity, Wright stood up for good history and the God of history.

At my house, the home of a white family who worships in a decorous Episcopal church, we found ourselves moved by Wright's trinity of talks on Christian history. We might not agree with everything he has said. But we do not have to. We are different. We will not see things in the same way. We do not have the same experience or the same history. We have things in our past that make us proud. Our ancestors have done things of which we are ashamed. We can learn from history. We can be friends with people who are different than us.

Most important, however, we who are different are loved by the same God. History reminds us that we can make a better world together. Change is going to come.

Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) holds a Ph.D. in church history from Duke University and the author of six books, including Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperOne, 2006).

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