With our current media situation, can we in America have a responsible public conversation on race, religion, and politics or are we destined to the lowest common denominator of ten-second sound-bites?
I was serving a small church in Cajun Louisiana. Think The Apostle, Robert Duvall’s masterpiece from eleven years ago, and you’ll know where I was. It was literally filmed down the road from my church.
When I was doing some community organizing, I made friends with Prophetess Perot. She asked me to preach at her revival at the House of Prayer, and I (of course) accepted.
I had no idea what was in store when I drove up to the tiny clapboard house. The building had been transported from a plantation and its walls were soaked with history. Houses of Prayer were the one place on the plantation where slaves met, without any oversight or fear of their owners.
This House of Prayer was where the Bible was read and preached, where revolutions were planned, where hope was reignited. Within those walls, in that safe place, men and women told their stories. They could cry about the beatings, they could whisper the truth about the rapes. The sanctuary was a refuge in every sense of the word.
Upon entering, I found out that the walls were now filled with posters, with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. written on them, next to the words of the biblical prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. I read them as the heat from the room enclosed on me.
The series of services was not a revival in the sense that they were out to save anybody. It was a week to revive the pastor. All the speakers and singers were there to encourage the congregation and the prophetess in her work. The gathering was made up mostly of women, and when we talked, I found out that most of them were professional cleaners.
The deacons had starched white coats on. They lined the walls to make sure everyone was helped. I was thankful that I wore a dress, and my husband was in a suit, otherwise we would have felt quite out of place.
We began the service with singing praise choruses and spirituals. And there’s so much I could write about—how the prophetess entered twenty minutes late and was seated in a large wicker chair, how the singers were a family act who traveled about from revival to revival–but I need to get to the point, so I’ll skip all that and tell you about the deaconess who got up to pray.
She was beautiful. Thin, black, with perfect posture. I was about 27 at the time, and she was the same age. When she opened her mouth, there was some sort of power behind her words. A force I can’t explain. But, the preachers reading this know what I’m talking about. She prayed through every part of her body, that her mouth, and nose, and ears, and hands, and feet would all serve God. It was poetry. It’s a prayer form that I’ve tried to copy a hundred times since I first heard it. Except for one part. When she referred to God… at first I didn’t understand it… I couldn’t figure out what she was saying.
And then it hit me. She was saying, “Massah.”
Oh no. It can’t be. I thought. And she said it again. And again. She’s my age. She grew up in the same country that I did. She’s smart. This can’t be.
I had this gut-wrenching urge to plead with her, “You can’t do that! You cannot refer to God as your Master. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t. You are God’s daughter. You are not God’s slave.”
I recall the incident frequently in my mind. And sometimes I still wish that I had been brave enough. But I wasn’t. It was not my place to enter into that sacred house and begin telling her what to do. To tell her how to talk to God. I didn’t think of myself as a descendant of slave owners; that historical fact was far removed from my reality. I keep it there, because of the shame. But she knew that she was a descendent of slaves.
Our history was in the walls, and it was in her veins. And she would pray to God, who was her only Master, in the way that she wanted. It was not my turn to speak. It was my turn to listen, and to pray with her.
There was so much in those walls. We were sitting in a context of history that I could never understand.
And, so to answer the question, I’d say that we cannot have a responsible discussion on race in America in the media, by extrapolating sensational sound bites and listening to them over and over again. It’s not just the full context of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons that we are missing. We are missing a beautiful, sorrowful, and complicated history, an entire tradition of people who could speak freely in their sanctuaries without the fear of censure.
I do not agree with Jeremiah Wright. I am saddened by the damage he has done to Barack Obama’s campaign. I shudder at what he has said about AIDS. I fear when he says, “God damn America.” There’s just something deep within me that worries that God will hear him. That God will honor his plea. I watch the National Press Club clips and shake my head. Rev. Wright has been flippant when he should have been serious.
But I also acknowledge he’s speaking in a context that I will never understand, one that pulses in this country, and goes far beyond the context of the sermon. It is a tradition that began in those Houses of Prayer. In the one place where people could speak freely. Where no one could tell them what they ought to say, and how they ought to pray, and how they ought to sing, and how they ought to talk to God.
And so, it is again my place to listen. Not only to Wright’s sermons, but to the vital tradition of liberation that scares me and gives me hope.
We cannot have a responsible conversation in the media. But we can have it in our spiritual communities. And the words of Rev. Wright have stirred up that opportunity.
So, Adam, let me ask you, what are the theological implications of Jeremiah Wright’s words?