April 25, 2008
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
Barack Obama’s pastor was in the news again this week. North Carolina Republicans are preparing to run an ad tying Obama to some controversial sound bites lifted from Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. And CBS and MSNBC led their broadcasts with reports about the ad.
DEAN REYNOLDS: In North Carolina the Republicans put their ad on the internet and say they’re going to broadcast it as well.
KEITH OLBERMANN: Republican hit job the North Carolina GOP plans a Willie Horton style TV ad against Obama.
BILL MOYERS: Jeremiah Wright will be in Washington Monday for a news conference at the National Press Club — his first since the controversy erupted over those incendiary sound bites. You’ve heard them; who hasn’t heard them: Wright suggesting the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were payback for American policy; Wright repeating the canard heard often in black communities that the u.s. government spread HIV in those communities; Wright seemingly calling on God to damn America.
But just who is this man? That’s the question I asked when those sound bites began popping up. I’d heard the name Jeremiah Wright — his church in Chicago belongs to the fellowship of the United Church of Christ. I joined a UCC church on Long Island 40 years ago and attend Riverside Church in New York City, which is affiliated with American Baptists and the UCC. But I couldn’t remember ever having met Reverend Wright. So I wanted to know more about the man, the ministry, and the church.
BILL MOYERS: In 1972, Jeremiah Wright became pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He inherited a struggling congregation of just 9887 members.
REVEREND WRIGHT: I have a friend who every time you greet him, every time you ask him how you doing, he answers, just trying to make it man, just trying to make it.
BILL MOYERS: But by the mid 1980s, when PBS’ Frontline shot this film about Wright, he’d grown the congregation to several thousand.
REVEREND WRIGHT: In our homes! Help us to be your church! In our private lives, help us to be your church! In our dealings one with another, help us to be your church Though our minds wander, our souls love only you. Let the church say Amen. Say Amen again.
BILL MOYERS: Trinity Church is located in a largely black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago – a mixture of working class people and the poor.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Unfortunately, most churches now are “status quo.” And so that, to the extent that they’re not trying to feed the poor, they’re not trying to hook up jobs and people, they’re not concerned about the lowest, the least, the left out. They’re not concerned about the youth, they’re concerned about “Let me come here on a Sunday, hear something that tells me I’m ok, and I’m going to back to where I’ve been going. Don’t rock the boat”
REVEREND WRIGHT: How about the fact that we have pledged to take what we’ve got as black people and put it back into the black community? That’s what I want to ask you
BILL MOYERS: He challenged his growing congregation not to lose sight of the needs of their neighbors.
YOUNG MAN: I want to be a vehicle designer.
BILL MOYERS: That meant soup kitchens, day care, drug and legal counseling, and mentoring for young people.
YOUNG MAN: I’ve watched TV and looked at lawyers in past years and I’ve basically like the feel of being a lawyer. It’s like really exciting.
MENTOR: As a matter of fact, there are a couple lawyers here in the church that maybe we can just hook you up with
YOUNG MAN: I’d like to be a doctor.
REVEREND WRIGHT: You can’t be whatcha ain’t seen. And so many of our young boys haven’t seen nothing but the gangs and the pimps and the brothers on the corner. They’ve never sat and talked to lawyers, they’ve never sat and talked to a man, a black man, with 2, 3 degrees! They’ve never had a chance, they’ve never had an option in terms of thinking I could do this? I can be this? They see a doctor when they’re sick. They don’t get to sit and talk-me go to med school? They don’t talk to somebody who writes programs and analyzes systems and computers. A black guy? I can do this? I can-never have their horizons lifted.
BOYS: The commitment to the black community The commitment to the black family
BILL MOYERS: He spoke out about racism from segregation in America’s cities to the racist apartheid regime of South Africa.
REVEREND WRIGHT: What the word says about racism comes through loud and clear! Botha is wrong! South Africa is wrong! Apartheid is wrong! Oppression is wrong! Anybody who feels white skin is superior to black skin is wrong!
BILL MOYERS: Around that time a young Barack Obama came to Chicago and went to work as a community organizer on the South Side. As he describes in his book, Obama was a religious skeptic at first, and sought out Pastor Wright for his knowledge of the neighborhood. But soon Obama began attending Sunday Services, and in 1988 was baptized there as a Christian.
Twenty years later, Trinity has built a new building for its burgeoning congregation: now over six thousand members. Its ministry has grown as well: including tutoring for kids, women’s health programs, and a HIV/AIDS ministry.
Trinity has long had strong ties with the African roots of its faith. Parishoners are asked to respect what they call “the black value system:” to rededicate themselves to God, the black family and the black community. Reinforcing the motto that they are quote “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.”
You see the connection to Africa in the stained glass windows Wright installed in the new church. They depict many of the biblical stories that took place there.
REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT: We wanted our stained-glass windows to tell the story of the centrality of Africans in the role of Christianity from its inception up until the present day. We play some interesting games educationally with the kids to help kids understand — can you name the seven continents? As a kid, you learn that in school. All right, on what continent did everything in the Bible from Genesis to Malachi take place? And they’ll give you an eighth continent: the Middle East. No, no, no, you just named seven continents. So, what continent do these things take place on in your Bible? It’s that kind of biblical truth put in stain glass so kids can understand this is not something somebody made up. This is not something from black power “Oooh.” This is actual biblical, historical fact that you have a central role in the Christian faith that is yours.
BILL MOYERS: Several years ago Jeremiah Wright and the church began the search for his successor, and after 36 years as pastor, he will be retiring at the end of next month.
REVEREND WRIGHT: In Genesis:2 it says God breathes into the nostrils of what God had formed from the dust. God donated some divinity to some dirt and we became living souls. That’s God breath you have in you, that’s God’s breath that you just breathed. God is the giver of life. Let me tell you what that means. That means we have no right to take a life whether as a gang banger living the thug life, or as a President lying about leading a nation into war. We have no right to take a life! Whether through the immorality of a slave trade, or the immorality of refusing HIV/AIDS money to countries or agencies who do not tow your political line! We have no right to take a life! Turn to your neighbors and say we have no right to take a life!
BILL MOYERS: That was Jeremiah Wright three years ago, and he’s with me here today.
Welcome to the JOURNAL.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Thank you for having me.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s start with first things. When did you hear the call to ministry? How did it come?
REVEREND WRIGHT: I was a teenager when I heard the call to ministry. I grew up in a parsonage. I grew up a son of and grandson of a minister, which also gave me the advantage of knowing that there were more things to ministry than pastoring. I had no idea that I’d be preaching or pasturing a church at that teenage year. As a matter of fact I left Philadelphia going to Virginia Union University. And unfortunately, I was starting during the civil rights movement. And the civil rights movement showed me a side of Christianity that I had not seen in Philadelphia. I had not seen Christians who, as I saw in Richmond, Virginia, who loved the lord, who professed faith in Jesus Christ and who believed in segregation, saw nothing wrong with lynching, saw nothing wrong with Negroes staying in their places. I knew about hatred. I knew about prejudice. But I didn’t know Christians participated in that, in that kind of thinking.
BILL MOYERS: So what did that do to you?
REVEREND WRIGHT: It made me question my call. It made me question whether or not I was doing the right thing. It made me pause in my educational pursuit. I stopped school in my last year, senior year, and went into the service.
BILL MOYERS: He served six years in the military: two as a marine, and four in the Navy as a cardiopulmonary technician. That’s where our paths crossed for the only time.
That’s Jeremiah Wright, behind the I.V. pole, monitoring President Lyndon Johnson’s heart as he was recovering from gall bladder surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. And right behind him is a very young me. I was the President’s Press Secretary.
REVEREND WRIGHT: As you know, the President had to be operated on and out of surgery by 9:00 when the stock market opened. And talking and wide awake. So, we scrubbed in, like, 3:00 in the morning.
When he awakened, unlike other patients, you did not move him to recovery. You didn’t move him to ICU. They kept him right there for security reasons. Secret Service all around, there was secret service in the whole operating suite and nobody else allowed in the operating suite except Secret Service.
So, after about an hour and a half, I went to get some coffee. And as I was coming back from the lounge where the coffee was, going back to monitor, I saw the guys talkin’ into their wristwatches and I was nodding, speaking to them. So, I turn to go into the room to check the pace. And secret service guys standing there grabbed me, knocked the coffee outta my hand, burned me with the hot coffee, twisted my arm up behind my neck and screams into his phone, “I got him.” And I was, “Got him?” And I’m screamin’ in pain. And my assistant comes running out of the booth. He sees me jacked up and he starts laughing. I said, “Joe, don’t laugh. Tell him who I am.” And he said, “He’s been here all morning.”
BILL MOYERS: Standing above the President.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Guy looked at me, pulled my mask up over face, “Oh, yeah.” And that was it.
BILL MOYERS: After the military, Wright graduated from Howard University, then went to the University of Chicago Divinity School for a Masters in Religious History.
But his path took a turn back to his first calling – when he was asked by that struggling little church on the South Side of Chicago to become its pastor.
BILL MOYERS: So, when you looked out on that handful of worshippers that first Sunday morning, 87 members, I’m sure all of them weren’t there–
REVEREND WRIGHT: Oh, yeah. They all knew they heard this new kid was there with a big natural. So, they came to see–
BILL MOYERS: They were there.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: So, what did you see and what did you think you had to do?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Well, actually a good friend of yours, I believe, and one of my professors, got me in the predicament I’m in today, Dr. Martin Marty, one of my professors at the University of Chicago–
BILL MOYERS: One of the great distinguished historians of religion in America.
REVEREND WRIGHT: He put a challenge to us in 1970, late ’69, early ’70, I’ll never forget. He said, “You know, you come into the average church on a Sunday morning and you think you’ve stepped from the real world into a fantasy world. And what do I mean by that?” He said pick up the church bulletin. You leave a world, Vietnam, or today you leave a world, Iraq, over 4,000 dead, American boys and girls, 100,000, 200,000 depending on which count, Iraqi dead. Afghanistan, Darfur, rapes in the Congo, Katrina, Lower Ninth Ward, that’s the world you leave. And you come in; you pick up your church bulletin. It says, there is a ladies tea on second Sunday. The children’s choir will be doing. He said, “How come our bulletins, how come the faith preached in our churches does not relate to the world in which our church members leave at the benediction?” Well, it hit me. And it hit me several different ways. Number one, I know there’s a church publication, the bulletin, the weekly bulletin. But what about the ministry? And what about the prophetic voice of the church that’s not heard? We’re talking about things that our members are wrestling with a whole bunch of other things. And the sermons and the ministries of the church don’t touch those things.
So, when, I looked and said this church had said to me, in fact not just to me, the church, the congregation has said, “OK, we were started by a white denomination. We were started in this community to be an integrated church. Ten years, that hasn’t happened. Are we gonna be a black church in this community? What are we doing for this community?” They put together a statement that shows all the candidates for the pulpit. I was one of the candidates. They said, “Can you lead us in this new direction? How do we minister to this community in which we sit?” Not just on Sunday, first you have to attract people to come– or even be interested in our worship experiences on Sunday. But what do we do in ministry that speaks to the community and the world in which we sit? That’s Martin Marty. That’s Martin Marty.
BILL MOYERS: Marty told me that you launched a strenuous effort to help the members of that church overcome the shame, and I’m quoting him, “they had so long been conditioned to experience.” What was the source of that shame?
REVEREND WRIGHT: What Carter G. Woodson calls the miseducation of the Negro. That Africa is ignorant, Africans are ignorant; there is no African history, there is no African music, there is no African culture, anything related to Africa is negative, therefore you are not African. Chinese come to the country, they’re still Chinese-American. We have Chinatown. Koreans come, they’re still Korean. They have Koreatown. Africans come, they’re colored. They’re Negro. They’re anything but Africa. In fact, we don’t even call them Ebbu, Ebibu, Fulani, Fanti, Ga, no, no, no — they’re all “Negro.” Portuguese, “Negro” Spanish. They’re all gettin’ lumped into black, but we’re not black, we are Negro with a capital N.
The shame of being a descendant of Africa, was a shame that had been pumped into the minds and hearts of Africans from the 1600s on, even aided and abetted by the benefit of those schools started by the missionaries, who simply carried their culture with them into the South and taught their cultures being synonymous with Christianity. So that to become a Christian, you had to let go of all vestiges of Africa and become European, become New Englanders and worship like New England, worship God properly and right. Well, that shame was a part of the shame that many Africans in the ’60s and the ’70s were feeling.
Dr Reuben Sheares is my predecessor — he was the interim pastor at Trinity — coined the phrase “unashamedly black,” where blacks coming outta the ’60s were no longer ashamed of being black people, nor did they have to apologize for being Christians. Because many persons in the African-American community were teasing us, Christians, of being a white man’s religion. And no, we’re not ashamed of Christianity. And we don’t have to apologize for who we are as African-Americans. So that, I think, is what Marty was talking about.
BILL MOYERS: So, when Trinity Church says it is unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian, is it embracing a race-based theology?
REVEREND WRIGHT: No, it is not. It is embracing Christianity without giving up Africanity. A lotta the missionaries were going to other countries assuming that our culture is superior, that you have no culture. And to be a Christian, you must be like us. Right now, you can go to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and see Christians in 140-degree weather. They have to have on a tie. Because that’s what it means to be a Christian. Well, it’s that kind of assuming that our culture, “We have the only sacred music. You must sing our music. You must use a pipe organ. You cannot use your instrument.” It’s that kind of assumption that in the field of missions, people say, “You know what? We’re doing this wrong. We need to take Christ and leave culture at home. We need to learn the culture of people into which we’re moving, and preach the methods of Jesus Christ using the culture that we are a part of.” Well, the same thing happened with Christians in this country when they said, “You know what? Because those same missionaries who went south, they didn’t let us sing gospel music.” That was not sacred–
BILL MOYERS: They were singin’ the great Anglican hymns.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Correct, correct. And make sure you use correct diction. Well, the– Africans in the late– African-Americans in the late ’60s started saying, “You know, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Even– I was in Virginia Union, I was soloist at Virginia Union in the college, in the concert choir. We were not allowed to sing anything but anthems and spirituals. The same thing with the Howard University concert choir. The same thing with all the historical black choirs until ’68. When King got killed, black kids started saying wait a minute. We’re not givin’ up who we are as black people to become– to show somebody else that we — in fact, the music majors at Howard when I was– teaching assistant at La Vern they said to the choir director there, “We’re tired of singin’ German Lieder and Italian aria to prove to you that we– you know, we can sing foreign songs. But we have our own music tradition.” Prior to ’68, there was no gospel music at Howard University. Prior to ’68, there was no jazz major. The white universities are giving Count Basie and Duke Ellington degrees. We don’t even the jazz course. We don’t have blues. We don’t have any of our music on this black college campus. Because the missionaries had not allowed us to teach our own music.
And at that point in history, all across the country and all across denominational lines, the– the college-age kids started saying, no more. No mas. Nada mas. We’re gonna do our people. We’re gonna do our culture. We’re gonna do our history. And we’re gonna embrace it and not put– to say one is superior to the other. Because we are different. And different does not mean deficient, that we just different like snowflakes. We’re different. We talk about God of diversity? God has diverse culture, God has -and we’re proud of who we are because that’s the statement the congregation was making, not a race-based theology.
BILL MOYERS: So, God is not, contrary to some of the rumors that have been circulated about Trinity, God is not exclusively or totally identified with just the black community?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Of course not. God– I think Jesus said to Nicodemus, “God should love the world,” not just the black community– that we have our church is what some would call multicultural. We not only have Hispanic members, we not only have members–
BILL MOYERS: When you said, “No mas,” I was gonna say that’s not a spiritual. That’s not out of the spirituals or the blues.
REVEREND WRIGHT: We have members from Cuba. We have members from Puerto Rico. We have members from Belize. We have members from all of the Caribbean islands. We have members from South Africa, from West Africa, and we have white members.
BILL MOYERS: What does the church service on Sunday morning mean in general to the black community?
REVEREND WRIGHT: It means many things. I think one of the things the church service means is hope. That tell me that there is hope in this life, almost like Psalm 27 when David said, “I would have fainted unless I lived to see the goodness of the right in this life.” Don’t tell me about heaven. What about in this life– that there is a better way, that this is not in vain, that it is not Edward Albee or Camus’ absurd, the theater of the absurd. It is not Shakespeare full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. That life has meaning and that God is still in control, and that God can, and God will, some people of goodwill working hard do something about the situation. We can change. We can do better. We can change policy. We can look back and say, “Well, 40 years ago when King was alive, we did not have right before his death, a civil rights act. We did not have a voting rights act.” So, change is possible. But I’m getting my head whipped. The average member in the black church five days a week, “tell me that this is not all there is to this.” So, they come looking for hope. And as we’ve tried to do, move a hurt. People who are marginalized, marginalized in the educational system, marginalized in the socioeconomic system — to move them from hurt to healing, that there is really is a balm in Gilead.
BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that the members of Trinity leave the world of unemployment, leave the world of discrimination, leave the world of that daily struggle and come to church for-
REVEREND WRIGHT: For encouragement, to go back out and make a difference in their world. To go back out and change that world, to not just talk about heaven by and by, but to get equipped and to get to know that we are not alone in this struggle, and that the struggle can make a difference. Not to leave that world and pretend that we are now in some sort of fantasy land, as Martin Marty called it, but that we serve a God who comes into history on the side of the oppressed. That we serve a God who cares about the poor. That we serve a God who says that as much as you’ve done unto the least of these, my little ones, you’ve done unto me, so that we are not alone. Because that same God says I’m with you, and I’m with you in the struggle. Our United Church of Christ says courage and the struggle for justice and peace that is an ongoing struggle.
BILL MOYERS: Lots of controversy about black liberation theology. As I understand it, black liberation theology reads the bible through the experience of people who have suffered, and who then are able to say to themselves that we read the bible differently, because we have struggled, than those do who have not struggled. Is that a fair bumper sticker of liberation theology?
REVEREND WRIGHT: I think that’s a fair bumper sticker. I think that the terms “liberation theology” or “black liberation theology” cause more problems and red flags for people who don’t understand it.
BILL MOYERS: When I hear the word “black liberation theology” being the interpretation of scripture from the oppressed, I think well, that’s the Jewish story–
REVEREND WRIGHT: Exactly, exactly. From Genesis to Revelation. These are people who wrote the word of God that we honor and love under Egyptian oppression, Syrian oppression, Babylonian oppression, Persian oppression, Greek oppression, Roman oppression. So that their understanding of what God is saying is very different from the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians. And that’s what prophetic theology of the African-American church is.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. But talk a little bit about that. The prophets loved Israel. But they hated the waywardness of Israel. And they were calling Israel out of love back to justice, not damning–
REVEREND WRIGHT: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Not damning Israel. Right?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Right. They were saying that God was– in fact, if you look at the damning, condemning, if you look at Deuteronomy, it talks about blessings and curses, how God doesn’t bless everything. God does not bless gang-bangers. God does not bless dope dealers. God does not bless young thugs that hit old women upside the head and snatch their purse. God does not bless that. God does not bless the killing of babies. God does not bless the killing of enemies. And when you look at blessings and curses out of that Hebrew tradition from the book of Deuteronomy, that’s what the prophets were saying, that God is not blessing this. God does not bless it- bless us. And when we’re calling them, the prophets call them to repentance and to come back to God. If my people who are called by my name, God says to Solomon, will humble themselves and pray, seek my faith and turn from their wicked ways. God says that wicked ways, not Jeremiah Wright, then will I hear from heaven.
BILL MOYERS: One of the most controversial sermons that you preach is the sermon you preach that ended up being that sound bite about Goddamn America.
REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Where governments lie, God does not lie. Where governments change, God does not change. And I’m through now. But let me leave you with one more thing. Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from East to West. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonized Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British government failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!
BILL MOYERS: What did you mean when you said that?
REVEREND WRIGHT: When you start confusing God and government, your allegiances to government -a particular government and not to God, that you’re in serious trouble because governments fail people. And governments change. And governments lie. And those three points of the sermon. And that is the context in which I was illustrating how the governments biblically and the governments since biblical times, up to our time, changed, how they failed, and how they lie. And when we start talking about my government right or wrong, I don’t think that goes. That is consistent with what the will of God says or the word of God says that governments don’t say right or wrong. That governments that wanna kill innocents are not consistent with the will of God. And that you are made in the image of God, you’re not made in the image of any particular government. We have the freedom here in this country to talk about that publicly, whereas some other places, you’re dead if say the wrong thing about your government.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you can be almost crucified for saying what you’ve said here in this country.
REVEREND WRIGHT: That’s true. That’s true. But you can be crucified, you can be crucified publicly, you can be crucified by corporate-owned media. But I mean, what I just meant was, you can be killed in other countries by the government for saying that. Dr. King, of course, was vilified. And most of us forget that after he was assassinated, but the year before he was assassinated, April 4th, 1967 at the Riverside Church, he talked about racism, militarism and capitalism. He became vilified. He got ostracized not only by the majority of Americans in the press; he got vilified by his own community. They thought he had overstepped his bounds. He was no longer talking about civil rights and being able to sit down at lunch counters that he should not talk about things like the war in Vietnam. He preached–
BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson was furious at that. As you know-
REVEREND WRIGHT: I’m sure he was.
BILL MOYERS: That’s where they broke.
REVEREND WRIGHT: And that’s where a lot of the African-American community broke with him, too. He was vilified by Roger Wilkins’ daddy, Roy Wilkins. Jackie Robinson. He was vilified by all of the Negro leaders who felt he’d overstepped his bounds talking about an unjust war. And that part of King is not lifted up every year on January 15th. 1963, “I have a dream,” was lifted up, and passages from that – sound bites if you will – from that march on Washington speech. But the King who preached the end of- “I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land, I might not get there with you,”- that part of the speech is talked about, not the fact that he was in Memphis siding with garbage collectors. Nothing about Resurrection City, nothing about the poor–
BILL MOYERS: Resurrection City was the march in Washington for the poor.
REVEREND WRIGHT: For the poor. That part of King is not talked about because we want to keep that away from the public eye, and the public memory, and it’s been 40 years now.
BILL MOYERS: What is your notion of why so many Americans seem not to want to hear the full Monty – they don’t want to seem to acknowledge that a nation capable of greatness is also capable of cruelty?
REVEREND WRIGHT: I think I come at that as a historian of religion. That we are miseducated as a people. Or because we’re miseducated, you end up with the majority of the people not wanting to hear the truth. Because they would rather cling to what they are taught. James Washington, now a deceased church historian, says that after every revolution, the winners of that revolution write down what the revolution was about so that their children can learn it, whether it’s true or not. They don’t learn anything at all about the Arawak, they don’t learn anything at all about the Seminole, the Cheek-Trail of Tears, the Cherokee. They don’t learn anything. No, they don’t learn that. What they learn is 1776, Crispus Attucks was the one black guy in there. Fight against the British, the- terrible. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal while we’re holding slaves.” No, keep that part out. They learn that. And they cling to that. And when you start trying to show them you only got a piece of the story, and lemme show you the rest of the story, you run into vitriolic hatred because you’re desecrating our myth. You’re desecrating what we hold sacred. And when you’re holding sacred is a miseducational system that has not taught you the truth. I also think people don’t understand condemn, D-E-M-N, D-A-M-N. They don’t understand the root, the etymology of the word in terms of God condemning the practices that are against God’s people. But again, what is happening is I talk a truth. Reading the scripture or the hermeneutic of a people who have-
BILL MOYERS: Hermeneutic?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Hermeneutic is an interpretation, it’s the window from which you’re looking is your hermeneutic. And when you don’t realize that I’ve been framed- this whole thing has been framed through this window, there’s another world out here that I’m not looking at or taking into account, it gives you a perspective that– that is– that is informed by and limited by your hermeneutic. Dr. James Cone put it this way. The God of the people who riding on the decks of the slave ship is not the God of the people who are riding underneath the decks as slaves in chains. If the God you’re praying to, “Bless our slavery” is not the God to whom these people are praying, saying, “God, get us out of slavery.” And it’s not like Notre Dame playing Michigan. You’re saying flip a coin; hope God blesses the winning team, no. That the perception of God who allows slavery, who allows rape, who allows misogyny, who allows sodomy, who allows murder of a people, lynching, that’s not the God of the people being lynched and sodomized and raped, and carried away into a foreign country. Same thing you find in Psalm 137. That those people who are carried away into slavery have a very different concept of what it means to be the people of God than the ones who carried them away.
BILL MOYERS: And they say, “How can we sing the song of the Lord of a foreign land?”
REVEREND WRIGHT: Correct.
BILL MOYERS: That chapter ends up with some very brutal words.
REVEREND WRIGHT: It does. And–
BILL MOYERS: You used them in one of your sermons–
REVEREND WRIGHT: Yes, I did. I was trying to show how people- how the anger- and we felt anger. I felt anger. I felt hurt. I felt pain. In fact, September 11th, I was in Newark. September 11th, I was trapped in Newark ’cause when they shut down the air system I couldn’t get back to Chicago. September 11th, I looked out the window and saw the second plane hit from my hotel window. Alright, I had members who lost loved ones both at the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center. So, I know the pain. And I had to preach to them Sunday. I had to preach. They came to church wanting to know where is God in this. And so, I had to show them using that Psalm 137, how the people who were carried away into slavery were very angry, very bitter, moved and in their anger from wanting revenge against the armies that had carried them away to slavery, to the babies. That Psalm ends up sayin’ “Let’s kill the baby-let’s bash their heads against the stone.” So, now you move from revolt and revulsion as to what has happened to you, to you want revenge. You move from anger with the military to taking it out on the innocents. You wanna kill babies. That’s what’s going on in Psalm 137. And that’s exactly where we are. We want revenge. They wanted revenge. God doesn’t wanna leave you there, however. God wants redemption. God wants wholeness. And that’s the context, the biblical context I used to try to get people sitting again, in that sanctuary on that Sunday following 9/11, who wanted to know where is God in this? What is God saying? What is God saying? Because I want revenge.
REVEREND WRIGHT: The people of faith have moved from the hatred of armed enemies, these soldiers who captured the king, those soldiers who slaughtered his son and put his eyes out, the soldiers who sacked the city, burned the towns, burned the temples, burned the towers, and moved from the hatred for armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents, the babies, the babies . “Blessed are they who dash your baby’s brains against a rock.” And that my beloved is a dangerous place to be. Yet, that is where the people of faith are in 551 BC and that is where far too many people of faith are in 2001 AD. We have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. We want revenge. We want paybacks and we don’t care who gets hurt in the process.
I heard Ambassador Peck on an interview yesterday. Did anybody else see him or hear him? He was on Fox news. This is a white man and he was upsetting the Fox news commentators to no end. He pointed out. You see him John? A white man he pointed out -an Ambassador! He pointed out that what Malcolm X said when he got silenced by Elijah Mohammad was in fact true. America’s chickens are coming home to roost! We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism! We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Gadafi’s home and killed his child. “Blessed are they who bash your children’s head against a rock!” We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to payback for the attack on our embassy. Killed hundreds of hard-working people; mothers and fathers who left home to go that day, not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima! We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye! Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school, civilians – not soldiers – people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant? Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yards! America’s chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism. A White Ambassador said that y’all not a Black Militant. Not a Reverend who preaches about racism. An Ambassador whose eyes are wide open, and who’s trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised–
BILL MOYERS: You preached that sermon on the Sunday after 9-11 — almost 7 years ago. When people saw the sound bites from it this year, they were upset because you seemed to be blaming America. Did you somehow fail to communicate?
REVEREND WRIGHT: The persons who have heard the entire sermon understand the communication perfectly. What is not the failure to communicate is when something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public. That’s not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they wanna do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a “wack-a-doodle.” It’s to paint me as something. Something’s wrong with me. There’s nothing wrong with this country. There’s -its policies. We’re perfect. We-our hands are free. Our hands have no blood on them. That’s not a failure to communicate. The message that is being communicated by the sound bites is exactly what those pushing those sound bites want to communicate.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think they wanted to communicate?
REVEREND WRIGHT: I think they wanted to communicate that I am- unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ. And, by the way, guess who goes to his church, hint, hint, hint? That’s what they wanted to communicate. They know nothing about the church. They know nothing about our prison ministry. They know nothing about our food share ministry. They know nothing about our senior citizens home. They know nothing about all we try to do as a church and have tried to do, and still continue to do as a church that believes what Martin Marty said, that the two worlds have to be together-the world before church and the world after postlude. And that the gospel of Jesus Christ has to speak to those worlds, not only in terms of the preached message on a Sunday morning but in terms of the lived-out ministry throughout the week.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think when you began to see those very brief sound bites circulating as they did?
REVEREND WRIGHT: I felt it was unfair. I felt it was unjust. I felt it was untrue. I felt for those who were doing that, were doing it for some very devious reasons.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
REVEREND WRIGHT: To put an element of fear and hatred and to stir up the anxiety of American who still don’t know the African-American church, know nothing about the prophetic theology of the African-American experience, who know nothing about the black church, who don’t even know how we got a black church.
BILL MOYERS: What can you tell me about what’s happened at the church since this controversy broke?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Well, the church members are very upset. Because they know it’s a lie, the things that are being broadcast. Church members have been very supportive. The church members have been upset by behavior of some of the media; picking up church bulletins to get the names and addresses and phone numbers of the sick and shut-in, calling them to try to get stories. One lady they called in hospice. My members are very upset about that, our members are very upset about that. Our members are very upset about that. Our members know that this is what the media is doing. And our members know they’re only doing it because of the political campaign. What have we gotten into here? People threatening, you know, Christians, some of ’em, threatening us, quoting scripture and telling us how they’re going to wipe us off the face of the earth in the name of Jesus
BILL MOYERS: There had been death threats?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Yes, there have. At, both on myself and on Pastor Moss, and bomb threats at the church.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever imagine that you would come to personify the black anger that so many whites fear?
REVEREND WRIGHT: No. I did not. I have been preaching as I’ve been preaching since I was ordained 41 years ago. I pointed out to some of the persons in Chicago who find all of this, new to them that the stance I took in standing against apartheid along with our denomination back in the ’70s and putting a “Free South Africa” sign in front of the church put me at odds with the government. Our denomination’s defense of the Wilmington Ten and Ben Chavis put me at odds with the establishment. So, being at odds with policies is nothing new to me. The blow up and the blowing up of sermons preached ten, fifteen, seven, six years ago and now becoming a media event, not the full sermon, but the snippets from the sermon and sound bite having made me the target of hatred. Yes, that is something very new and something very, very unsettling.
BILL MOYERS: I think of how important music is to your church at times like this, that’s intentional isn’t it?
REVEREND WRIGHT: It is. It’s been a part of our tradition. And what I tried to do again in bringing together, how do you take a people who are hurting and bring healing? How do you take a people who are suffocating with hate and give them hope? Well, a part is through the musical tradition. One of the things in our tradition that I mentioned a moment ago that’s so key is blues. The Blues. We learned how to sing the blues. That’s why suicide rate wasn’t much higher. ‘Cause we started singing the blues. Well people sittin’ there every Sunday they know that tradition. Many of them, as they turn their keys off coming into church we’re not listening to gospel music. They were listening to our music out of our tradition. Blues, Doo-wops, rock and roll. Anita Baker. Luther Vandross. That’s our music tradition. That’s a part of what helps us hold it together. So it’s the same thing that helps them to hold it together out there. Helps them to hold it together in here
BILL MOYERS: What is it you said about suicide?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Blacks learn how to sing the blues rather than just giving up on life. A guy’s wife walks out on him with his best friend. And he’s crushed. So what does he say? Instead of going out and taking a gun and killing he sings a song. “I’m going down to the railroad to lay my poor head on the track. I’m going down to the railroad to lay my poor head on the track. “And when the locomotive comes I’m gonna pull my fool head back.” I’m not giving up life over this. That life goes on beyond this. Pain is just for a moment. This whole notion about what we’re going through is only a season. And this came to pass, didn’t come to stay. That’s what the blues do. And that’s what the music tradition does. That’s what the spirituals have done and that’s what the gospel music has done, historically, in our church. So, yeah, trying to keep that as an integral part of worship is crucial for us.
BILL MOYERS: So what blues are you singing right now?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Don’t know why they treat me so bad. I’m singing the sacred blues. The songs of our gospel tradition. That I’m so glad trouble don’t last always. That, what man meant for evil, God meant for good. That what–
BILL MOYERS: What man meant for evil God meant for good.
REVEREND WRIGHT: That’s a quote from Joseph, in the bible, the Book of Genesis.
BILL MOYERS: And what do you take that to mean?
REVEREND WRIGHT: That Human beings, many times, do things for nefarious purposes. And God can take that and turn something- make something good out of it. That, for instance, using that Joseph passage, when his brother sold him into slavery, and they thought, after daddy’s gone, he’s gonna get us. And Joseph reassured them by saying, “No, no, what you meant for evil, God has turned into something good. I’m not trying to do revenge or payback. In fact, restoration is what God is. And I restore you. As brothers, we’re all brothers.” That those sound bytes, those snippets were taken for nefarious purposes. That God can take that and do something very positive for it- with it. That, in Philadelphia, in response to the sound bytes, in response to the snippets, in Philadelphia Senator Obama made a very powerful speech in terms of our need as a nation to address the whole issue of race. That’s something good that’s already starting. That because of you guys playing these sound bytes now what’s getting ready to happen as something very positive, and something very powerful that God can take what you meant to try to hurt somebody to help the nation come to grips with truth. To help a nation come to grips with miseducation. To help a nation come to grips with things we don’t like to talk about. To help a nation–
BILL MOYERS: You know, you mentioned Senator Obama. In the 20 years that you’ve been your pastor, have you ever heard him repeat any of your controversial statements as his opinion?
REVEREND WRIGHT: No. No. No. Absolutely not. I don’t talk to him about politics. And so here at a political event, he goes out as a politician and says what he has to say as a politician. I continue to be a pastor who speaks to the people of god about the things of God.
BILL MOYERS: Here is a man who came to see you 20 years ago wanting to know about the neighborhood. Barack Obama was a skeptic when it came to religion. He sought you out because he knew you knew about the community. You led him to the faith. You performed his wedding ceremony. You baptized his two children. You were, for 20 years, his spiritual counselor. He has said that. And, yet, he, in that speech at Philadelphia, had to say some hard things about you. How, how did it go down with you when you heard Barack Obama say those things?
REVEREND WRIGHT: It went down very simply. He’s a politician, I’m a pastor. We speak to two different audiences. And he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. Those are two different worlds. I do what I do. He does what politicians do. So that what happened in Philadelphia where he had to respond to the sound bytes, he responded as a politician. But he did not disown me because I’m a pastor.
BILL MOYERS: But even some of your admirers say it would be wrong to gloss over what Martin Marty himself called- who loves you- called your “abrasive edges.” For example, you know, Louis Farrakhan lives in the south part of Chicago, doesn’t he? You’ve had a long complicated relationship with him, right?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And he, you know, he’s expressed racist and anti-Semitic remarks. And, yet, last year-
REVEREND WRIGHT: Twenty years ago.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty years ago, but that’s indefensible.
REVEREND WRIGHT: The Nation of Islam and Mr. Farrakhan have more African-American men off of drugs. More African-American men respecting themselves. More African-American men working for a living. Not gang banging. Not trying to get by. That’s not indefensible in terms of how you make a difference in the prisons? Turning people’s lives around. Giving people hope. Getting people off drugs. That we don’t believe the same things in terms of our specific faiths. He’s Muslim, I’m Christian. We don’t believe the same things he said years ago. But that has nothing to do with what he has done in terms of helping people change their lives for the better. I said direct quote was what? “Louis Farrakhan is like E.F. Hutton. When Lewis Farrakhan speaks, black America listens. They may not agree with him, but they’re listening.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that millions Americans, according to polls, still think Barack Obama is a Muslim?
REVEREND WRIGHT: It says to me that corporate media and miseducation or misinformation or disinformation, I think we started calling it during the Nixon years, still reigns supreme. Thirty some percent of Americans still think there are weapons of mass destruction. That you tell a lie long enough that people start believing it. What does the media do? “Barack Hussein Obama! Barack Hussein Obama! Barack Hussein. It sounds like Osama, Obama. That Arabic is a language. So that’s why many people still think he’s a Muslim. He went to a madrasah. What’s a madrasah? I don’t know, but I know it was one of those Muslim schools that teaches terrorism. The kind of I don’t want to think, just tell me what to think mentality is why so many Americans still think that.
BILL MOYERS: Our denomination, the United Church of Christ has called for a sacred conversation on race in America. What are the steps that you think from all of your experience can be taken to move race relations forward?
REVEREND WRIGHT: I think there are many – to start using Bill Jones’ paradigm, about how one sees God. Your theology determines one’s anthropology. And how you see humans determines your sociology. To look at how we’ve come to see race, and in others of other races, based on our understanding of God who sees others as less than important. Less than my people. And where in our religious traditions are there passages in our sacred scriptures that are racist? They’re in the Vedas, the Babylonian Talmud, they’re in the Koran, they’re in the Bible. How do we grapple with these passages in our sacred texts? The same way you grapple with Judges:19, where it’s alright for a preacher to have a concubine and cut her up into 12 pieces. We gotta argue with our texts that are, as we’ve been struggling with, battling with, wrestling with, anti-Semitic. The Christian, “The Jews killed Jesus.” No, we gotta come to grips with, you know, these texts were written by certain people at certain times with certain racist understandings of others who are different. That different meant deficient. That doing that with adults and starting with kids. that begins the conversation that Senator Obama talked about that we need to have. And re-writing the curriculum in our schools to tell the truth in our schools.
BILL MOYERS: Jeremiah Wright, thank you very much for this opportunity.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Well, thank you for having me Bill. Thank you sir.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for the JOURNAL. We’ll see you next week and on line.
I’m Bill Moyers.
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