Monday Morning, March 17, 2008
Dear Reverend Wright,
My guess is that by now your mail-box is filled with vitriol and “how dare you call yourself a Minister of the Gospel” and that sort of stuff. It may well be that the diatribes unleashed since the video tapes of your sermons hit the Internet and the front pages of the newspapers and the headlines of the talk shows leave you feeling vindicated. Reactions have served to validate the points you were trying to make in the first place. Or so it seems.
Racism is alive and well. Misunderstanding abounds. We may think we have ascended to a time when ignorance has been eliminated by enlightenment and bigotry by education. We’ve no doubt come a long way; but we still have a longer way to go, don’t we?
As odd as it may seem, we have some things in common, you and me. I was born in Chicago and spent those formative post-high school years living in the heart of the city. I remember well when Malcolm X met his tragic end in February 1965, and Alex Haley’s piercing autobiography captured my imagination. I remember the turmoil downtown in the aftermath of the brutal and cold-blooded murder of Martin Luther King; the rioting in the streets and the awful feeling of despair and apocalyptic sense of the world coming to an horrific end. Harvey Cox predicted that there would be no place for religion in the Secular City and Hugh Schonfeld exposed Jesus as a fraud in his Passover Plot. Many embraced the conclusions of those popular books. Too many. The Democrats asked host Richard Daley to keep the bums outside which he did. Chicago’s police force brutally “kept the peace,” and the bloody violence is recorded on splotchy black and white film. Later that fall, we met Ralph Abernathy just after he prevailed over Jesse Jackson to become heir apparent to Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
I do believe you were making your mark at the University of Chicago about that time. You were steeped in the literature of liberation theology; believing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has powerful social implications. And you built a church on that foundation.
I hadn’t heard the phrase “white flight” until I lived in the city and outlying suburbs. Racial animosity reached a fever pitch in those days. Sadly, it’s always been an undeniable piece of the fabric of the Windy City.
In this world of sound-bites and slogans and labels, your moment in the national spotlight came and went like Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes. It’s sad that a lifetime of ministry and service and pastoral care could be so diminished in a few out-of-context rants that got served up to your adversaries on a silver platter. And the relish with which they pounced is a wonder to behold.
I can only imagine the pride you’ve taken in one of your church’s favorite sons – Barack Obama. (I, too, have been a pastor.) Twenty years ago, you stood there watching over an open Bible as he declared his promise and took those vows he made to God and Michelle as her parents listened in. You where there as his pastor and observed from close range as he became a voice of hope mobilizing a colossal throng of otherwise tired and cynical and ambivalent people; and transform them into energized, hopeful players in a system that heretofore seemed too distant and too coldly indifferent. You were there when the girls were born and when he won a high State office and then a Senate Seat and then blew the roof off the arena with a spellbinding speech at the last Democratic Convention. You knew like few others from whence he came. And Obama is only one of the stories of people whose lives were transformed over there on the South Side at Trinity Church. I saw you in one scene bent over on the platform on your knees, washing the feet of your people. If you could, you would tell the world of their stories, too. But the world isn’t listening now.
By necessity Barack has been forced to repudiate those biting words of yours on the church video tapes in the most convincing terms he can find in the English language. I can only imagine the depth of loss you must feel. Certainly, there is the strident part of you that has framed a potent defense. You’d like to give it. But no one wants to hear it.
I understand that your people this weekend have entered into a time of fasting and prayer. You helped them find healing and hope and purpose; forgiveness and reconciliation. Now they feel misunderstood. They are angry at a media and a system hungry for an opportunity to stir up old racial stereotypes and bitter animosities. They know you. They love you. They want to come to your defense. But they are confused, too.
This will be an Easter like no other in the history of Trinity Church. We’ll all walk down that Via Dolorosa again, and remember the One who was “despised and rejected.” The One who agonized in the garden. The One who said, “Father, forgive them.”
I will pray for you, Pastor Wright. Here’s my prayer: that in this dark night of the soul, when enemies surround you with hatred in their hearts and fire in their eyes, that you will embrace the love of your people. That the transformation you have seen in so many who apart from Christ would be lost and alone would fortify your own heart. That you would emerge with a message of reconciliation and hope; and work to serve a Gospel that breaks down the dividing walls.
You’ve found a capable successor in young Otis Moss, III.
I understand that Obama got the title of his book from you. There is an unmistakable audacity in genuine hope. May the hope that can only come from God be audacious in its scope.
May your powerful voice, the decades of pastoral care, the academic and scholarly accomplishments, the network of influential people, come together now and usher us to a new level of mutual respect, understanding and determination arm in arm – to serve the Kingdom.
And the One who called us.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008