Monday, March 17, 2008

Trinity, Wright, and Context

Trinity United Church of Christ, the home church of Presidential candidate Barack Obama, vigorously defended itself and its past minister Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. on Sunday, accusing its critics of character assassination.

According to the Politico, Trinity's new pastor Rev. Otis Moss III:
...delivered a fiery sermon Sunday, defending the African-American church’s right to speak out about social issues. He stressed Trinity's work in its still-impoverished community, mentioning the church's scholarship programs, drug counseling, SAT prep classes, and missions to Africa.

"Our very sanity is connected to the church. If it hadn't been for the church we would have lost our minds in the insanity of racism," he said, in a sermon titled, "Why the Black Church Won't Shut Up."
The church also issued a statement (scroll to bottom) with the heading, "An Attack on Our Senior Pastor and the History of the African American Church":
Nearly three weeks before the 40th commemorative anniversary of the murder of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s character is being assassinated in the public sphere because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe.

“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...

...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...

...Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached the Christian tenet, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Before Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968, he preached, “The 11 o’clock hour is the most segregated hour in America.” Forty years later, the African American Church community continues to face bomb threats, death threats, and their ministers’ characters are assassinated because they teach and preach prophetic social concerns for social justice. Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America.
Obviously, Trinity isn't apologizing for anything-- about itself or Rev. Wright's over-the-top pulpit words.

Their response also seeks to explain itself in broader context.

The church-- and our denominational leaders-- put into context Rev. Wright's strengths: 36 years of preaching, a vibrant church, and dozens of social service programs. Yet none of these good works excuse Rev. Wright's now famous remarks. In fact, spotlighting the good works makes one wonder even more why Pastor Wright spoke so inflammatory.

The church is also putting its situation in the broader context of American black history, as seen in the church's press release. 40 years ago, it says, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. Now, they say, Rev. Wright's "character is being assassinated in the public sphere because he has preached a social gospel..."

When you put something into broader context, the goal is to bring something into greater clarity. But when the church press release brings up Dr. King's death and associates that event with Dr. Wright's character assassination by the media, that's not contextual clarity, that's contextual confusion. Dr. Wright isn't suffering because he, like Dr. King preached a social gospel. Dr. Wright is suffering because he's uttered ridiculous remarks.

Context, particularly the failure to put things in proper context, is the reason why Rev. Wright is under so much criticism. For example, his assertion that America got what it deserved on 9/11-- because of what our country did to the Japanese, Palestinians, and black South Africans-- is contextualizing that most people don't buy, and for good reason.

Meanwhile, as the church unapologetically stands behind Rev. Wright, the context that Senator Obama will face is this: He'll remain under pressure to keep emphasizing that he condemns Wright's remarks. And the church's stance may force Obama to distance himself even further from a congregation and minister that he obviously loves.

No comments: