Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – The History of Political Dissent from the Pulpit

When Barack Obama came under fire for comments made by Reverend Wright, people called Wright and Obama un-American and unpatriotic. In one sermon, during which Wright said “God Damn America,” Wright recounted the injustices our country has perpetrated and continues to inflict upon many of its citizens. He drew fire from every major network, newspaper and water cooler conversation when he said “God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and superior.” Without honestly accessing the historical significance of Black churches and Black liberation theology and whether Wright’s words were true, Wright’s demeanor was characterized as “angry.” It was said that he hated White people, and that the pulpit was not the appropriate place in which to talk about politics. But, many folks echoed an even more troubling sentiment – the notion that criticizing your government’s actions and pointing out its wrongdoing makes you unpatriotic. This is a principle that the Republican Party has even espoused, calling anyone who disagrees with the war in Iraq unpatriotic. 

 

History always repeats itself and there is nothing new under the sun. A merging of religion and political discourse has always been part of the Black theological tradition. Slaves gathered at religious services, not only to commune with God, but also to plot escapes to freedom and exchange information about relatives on other plantations. During Reconstruction, the Black church helped former slaves establish new lives and educate themselves. During the civil rights movement, Black churches organized boycotts and marches, and served as meeting places for civil rights groups to organize and publicize their activities. Dr. King’s work was inextricably tied to the Black church, and he didn’t shy away from voicing his political opinions from the pulpit. In a sermon about his opposition to the Vietnam War, Dr. King admonished against equating dissent of opinion with disloyalty to one’s country. He warned that to oppose such dissension is to deny the very best of American tradition, called America arrogrant, and urged America to “come back home.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was very much the Jeremiah Wright of his day.

 

I finally asked myself:

What if Dr. King had been shunned into silence? What if he had divorced his religion from his civil rights work and opinions on political and social issues? What if Dr. King had only said what made folks comfortable with themselves and with their country? What if Dr. King had refrained from criticizing our government policies, inequities and iniquities? What kind of world would we have today?  

When I think about the legacies of Dr. King and the Black church, I don’t see a bitter, angry, unpatriotic Reverend Wright. I see a tradition that has served my community well for hundreds of years.

 

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