On March 13, a media firestorm began surrounding comments made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., former pastor of Southside Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. According to FOX News, “Sermon highlights [show] Wright . . . . portraying the country as institutionally racist.” FOX also called Wright’s comments, “anti-American invective.” Some news commentators went a step farther and condemned the entire Trinity United Church of Christ congregation as racist.
By now, many of us are familiar with Wright’s words, which expressed frustration and anger towards the United States government for its role in deaths from HIV/AIDs, the injustices of the Drug War, and the systemic racism of the criminal justice system.
These words have brought to the forefront the unique heritage and spiritual challenges that black Americans of faith carry to their places of worship and meditation. What does it mean to be living in a country whose government has authorized the enslavement, segregation and impoverishment of your race?
On the church’s website, Trinity United Church of Christ describes the congregation’s relationship with God as follows:
“God has superintended our pilgrimage through the days of slavery, the days of segregation, and the long night of racism. It is God who gives us the strength and courage to continuously address injustice as a people, and as a congregation. We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a Black worship service and ministries which address the Black Community.”
As Reverend Al Sharpton said, and as UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford has repeated, “People of color have a history, not a hallucination.” Reverend Wright’s words ministered to the real, legitimate, and righteous anger of congregants whose inherent worth and dignity have been discounted in North America on the basis of racial identity for over half a millennia. The hubbub over Rev. Wright’s expression of this anger has demonstrated that white and black people of faith are sometimes out of touch with one another.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”
In conversation at our office, Taquiena Boston, the UUA’s Director of Identity-Based Ministries, spoke about the reasons for segregation in faith communities. “It’s why black people are sitting in black churches and not white churches–because white people do discount the experiences of African Americans, or in some ways require their silence to keep peace, so that [white people] can be comfortable. So when you spend six days a week having to calibrate and monitor and repress, when you come to the place where you’re supposed to be honoring the holy, and when you have an understanding that God sees all, it just wouldn’t do to be hypocritical or silent about the injustices and the oppression that you see operating in your life every day.”
Unitarian Universalist Reverend Kathleen McTigue addressed this same issue at the Unitarian Society of New Haven in her February sermon A Way Out of No Way: The Black Church in America. “Where we stand affects what we will see and how we will see it,” McTigue observed. “The undeniable truth is that the default center of our nation – in terms of power, language, definitions, history, money, privilege and most anything else you could name – has been and is white. And so still, in our time as in the past, in order to be black in America and also be strong, confident, proud and independent, something is required beyond what the general society is willing to give. That ‘something’ has resided for generations in the black church.”
Ministers speak to the issues which congregation members confront in their lives. Experiences of economic and racial injustice may be a greater part of congregation members’ daily reality and consciousness in some churches than in others. As one member of Trinity’s congregation said to ABC News, “I wouldn’t call [Rev. Wright’s words] radical. I call it being black in America.”
The words of Reverend Jeremiah Wright embody a powerful, prophetic convergence of race, class, politics, and faith that have inspired both feelings of joy and affirmation, and feelings of shock and discomfort. If we wish to grow in our relationships with one another, we must be willing to listen to things that may make us feel uncomfortable.
Developing an anti-racist consciousness is a powerful experience, and as any anti-racist person of color or anti-racist white person could tell you, it is often neither easy nor comfortable. Listening to the pain of others, acknowledging your part in it, sharing your own pain, and asking others to acknowledge your truth is one of the most difficult processes for human beings to undertake together. It is also one of the most worthwhile.
We as a nation cannot effectively address the economic and ethical challenges that face us without listening to the experiences of those in our country who have been discounted and marginalized. We must learn how the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination has put and continues to put black people and all people of color at an economic disadvantage. Reflecting on reconciliation, Reverend Sinkford said, “Race and class in this country are inextricably intertwined. If our work for racial justice does not engage with the realities of class it is doomed to fail. Likewise, if we try to reconcile class inequities without acknowledging race, those efforts are equally doomed.”
As an anti-racist ally who has lobbied against the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity, I am moved by Wright’s bold condemnation of injustice in the criminal justice system.
As an advocate for economic equality who has volunteered in post-Katrina New Orleans, I experience a feeling of sorrowful affirmation upon hearing Wright’s critique that the United States government has at times treated its citizens of color as less than human.
As a citizen of the United States, I feel pride that our faith leaders can publicly urge the government to greater accountability.
And as a Unitarian Universalist, I view Reverend Wright’s insights about race and class in our nation as a part of our second source of faith: “the words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”
“It feels to me,” Sinkford said on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 2007, “that Unitarian Universalists have been stuck around the issue of race for far too long.”
The recent media storm around race is a challenge to people of faith to listen, to hear, and to get unstuck.
“It is not racism to name this truth [of the reality of racism and white privilege],” Rev. Kathleen McTigue wrote in her sermon. “It is a form of racism, I believe, to ignore it. Talking about race is difficult. Listening to the experience of those who have suffered racism is painful. But this listening is what black UU minister Mark Morrison has called “a passive act of power.” He said, ‘To open ourselves to that which we know will be painful is an act of strength.’ May we choose that act of strength. May we listen. May we respond.”