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by Michael I Phillips

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April 2008  Vol 13

UNDILUTED

The Reverend Jeremiah Wright remarks to the National Press Club

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, of which Barack Obama is a member, delivered remarks to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday. He then answered questions that were forwarded from press club members to a moderator.

THE REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT JR.: Over the next few days, prominent scholars of the African-American religious tradition from several different disciplines ó theologians, church historians, ethicists, professors of the Hebrew bible, homiletics, hermeneutics, and historians of religions ó those scholars will join in with sociologists, political analysts, local church pastors, and denominational officials to examine the African-American religious experience and its historical, theological and political context.

The workshops, the panel discussions, and the symposium will go into much more intricate detail about this unknown phenomenon of the black church Ė

(LAUGHTER)
Ė than I have time to go into in the few moments that we have to share together.  And I would invite you to spend the next two days getting to know just a little bit about a religious tradition that is as old as and, in some instances, older than this country.

And this is a country which houses this religious tradition that we all love and a country that some of us have served.  It is a tradition that is, in some ways, like Ralph Ellisonís the "Invisible Man."

It has been right here in our midst and on our shoulders since the 1600s, but it was, has been, and, in far too many instances, still is invisible to the dominant culture, in terms of its rich history, its incredible legacy, and its multiple meanings.

The black religious experience is a tradition that, at one point in American history, was actually called the "invisible institution," as it was forced underground by the Black Codes.

The Black Codes prohibited the gathering of more than two black people without a white person being present to monitor the conversation, the content, and the mood of any discourse between persons of African descent in this country.

Africans did not stop worshipping because of the Black Codes. Africans did not stop gathering for inspiration and information and for encouragement and for hope in the midst of discouraging and seemingly hopeless circumstances.  They just gathered out of the eyesight and the earshot of those who defined them as less than human.

They became, in other words, invisible in and invisible to the eyes of the dominant culture.  They gathered to worship in brush arbors, sometimes called hush arbors, where the slaveholders, slave patrols, and Uncle Toms couldnít hear nobody pray.

From the 1700s in North America, with the founding of the first legally recognized independent black congregations, through the end of the Civil War, and the passing of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America, the black religious experience was informed by, enriched by, expanded by, challenged by, shaped by, and influenced by the influx of Africans from the other two Americas and the Africans brought in to this country from the Caribbean, plus the Africans who were called "fresh blacks" by the slave-traders, those Africans who had not been through the seasoning process of the middle passage in the Caribbean colonies, those Africans on the sea coast islands off of Georgia and South Carolina, the Gullah ó we say in English "Gullah," those of us in the black community say "Geechee" ó those people brought into the black religious experience a flavor that other seasoned Africans could not bring.

It is those various streams of the black religious experience which will be addressed in summary form over the next two days, streams which require full courses at the university and graduate- school level, and cannot be fully addressed in a two-day symposium, and streams which tragically remain invisible in a dominant culture which knows nothing about those whom Langston Hughes calls "the darker brother and sister."

It is all of those streams that make up this multilayered and rich tapestry of the black religious experience.  And I stand before you to open up this two-day symposium with the hope that this most recent attack on the black church is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright; it is an attack on the black church.

(APPLAUSE)

As the vice president told you, that applause comes from not the working press.

(LAUGHTER)

The most recent attack on the black church, it is our hope that this just might mean that the reality of the African-American church will no longer be invisible.

Maybe now, as an honest dialogue about race in this country begins, a dialogue called for by Senator Obama and a dialogue to begin in the United Church of Christ among 5,700 congregations in just a few weeks, maybe now, as that dialogue begins, the religious tradition that has kept hope alive for people struggling to survive in countless hopeless situation, maybe that religious tradition will be understood, celebrated, and even embraced by a nation that seems not to have noticed why 11 oíclock on Sunday morning has been called the most segregated hour in America.

We have known since 1787 that it is the most segregated hour. Maybe now we can begin to understand why it is the most segregated hour.

And maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country, but for all the people in this country.

Maybe this dialogue on race, an honest dialogue that does not engage in denial or superficial platitudes, maybe this dialogue on race can move the people of faith in this country from various stages of alienation and marginalization to the exciting possibility of reconciliation.

That is my hope, as I open up this two-day symposium.  And I open it as a pastor and a professor who comes from a long tradition of what I call the prophetic theology of the black church.

Now, in the 1960s, the term "liberation theology" began to gain currency with the writings and the teachings of preachers, pastors, priests, and professors from Latin America.  Their theology was done from the underside.

Their viewpoint was not from the top down or from a set of teachings which undergirded imperialism.  Their viewpoints, rather, were from the bottom up, the thoughts and understandings of God, the faith, religion and the Bible from those whose lives were ground, under, mangled and destroyed by the ruling classes or the oppressors.

Liberation theology started in and started from a different place.  It started from the vantage point of the oppressed.

In the late 1960s, when Dr. James Coneís powerful books burst onto the scene, the term "black liberation theology" began to be used. I do not in any way disagree with Dr. Cone, nor do I in any way diminish the inimitable and incomparable contributions that he has made and that he continues to make to the field of theology.  Jim, incidentally, is a personal friend of mine.

I call our faith tradition, however, the prophetic tradition of the black church, because I take its origins back past Jim Cone, past the sermons and songs of Africans in bondage in the transatlantic slave trade.  I take it back past the problem of Western ideology and notions of white supremacy.

I take and trace the theology of the black church back to the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and to its last prophet, in my tradition, the one we call Jesus of Nazareth.

The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates who are holding them captive.

It frees the captives and it frees the captors.  It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors.

The prophetic theology of the black church, during the days of chattel slavery, was a theology of liberation.  It was preached to set free those who were held in bondage spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically.  And it was practiced to set the slaveholders free from the notion that they could define other human beings or confine a soul set free by the power of the gospel.

The prophetic theology of the black church during the days of segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and the separate-but-equal fantasy was a theology of liberation.

It was preached to set African-Americans free from the notion of second-class citizenship, which was the law of the land.  And it was practiced to set free misguided and miseducated Americans from the notion that they were actually superior to other Americans based on the color of their skin.

The prophetic theology of the black church in our day is preached to set African-Americans and all other Americans free from the misconceived notion that different means deficient.

Being different does not mean one is deficient.  It simply means one is different, like snowflakes, like the diversity that God loves. Black music is different from European and European music.  It is not deficient; it is just different.

Black worship is different from European and European-American worship.  It is not deficient; it is just different.

Black preaching is different from European and European-American preaching.  It is not deficient; it is just different.  It is not bombastic; it is not controversial; itís different.

(APPLAUSE)

Those of you who canít see on C-SPAN, we had one or two working press clap along with the non-working press.

(LAUGHTER)

Black learning styles are different from European and European- American learning styles.  They are not deficient; they are just different.

This principle of "different does not mean deficient" is at the heart of the prophetic theology of the black church.  It is a theology of liberation.

The prophetic theology of the black church is not only a theology of liberation; it is also a theology of transformation, which is also rooted in Isaiah 61, the text from which Jesus preached in his inaugural message, as recorded by Luke.

When you read the entire passage from either Isaiah 61 or Luke 4 and do not try to understand the passage or the content of the passage in the context of a sound bite, what you see is Godís desire for a radical change in a social order that has gone sour.

Godís desire is for positive, meaningful and permanent change. God does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other people.  God does not want the powerless masses, the poor, the widows, the marginalized, and those underserved by the powerful few to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being more equal than others in that same society.

Godís desire is for positive change, transformation, real change, not cosmetic change, transformation, radical change or a change that makes a permanent difference, transformation.  Godís desire is for transformation, changed lives, changed minds, changed laws, changed social orders, and changed hearts in a changed world.

This principle of transformation is at the heart of the prophetic theology of the black church.  These two foci of liberation and transformation have been at the very core of the black religious experience from the days of David Walker, Harriet Tubman, Richard Allen, Jarena Lee, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, and Sojourner Truth, through the days of Adam Clayton Powell, Ida B. Wells, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Barbara Jordan, Cornell West, and Fanny Lou Hamer.

These two foci of liberation and transformation have been at the very core of the United Church of Christ since its predecessor denomination, the Congregational Church of New England, came to the moral defense and paid for the legal defense of the Mende people aboard the slave ship Amistad, since the days when the United Church of Christ fought against slavery, played an active role in the underground railroad, and set up over 500 schools for the Africans who were freed from slavery in 1865.

And these two foci remain at the core of the teachings of the United Church of Christ, as it has fought against apartheid in South Africa and racism in the United States of America ever since the union which formed the United Church of Christ in 1957.

These two foci of liberation and transformation have also been at the very core and the congregation of Trinity United Church of Christ since it was founded in 1961.  And these foci have been the bedrock of our preaching and practice for the past 36 years.

Our congregation, as you heard in the introduction, took a stand against apartheid when the government of our country was supporting the racist regime of the African government in South Africa.

(APPLAUSE)

Our congregation stood in solidarity with the peasants in El Salvador and Nicaragua, while our government, through Ollie North and the Iran-Contra scandal, was supporting the Contras, who were killing the peasants and the Miskito Indians in those two countries.

Our congregation sent 35 men and women through accredited seminaries to earn their master of divinity degrees, with an additional 40 currently being enrolled in seminary, while building two senior citizen housing complexes and running two child care programs for the poor, the unemployed, the low-income parents on the south side of Chicago for the past 30 years.

Our congregation feeds over 5,000 homeless and needy families every year, while our government cuts food stamps and spends billions fighting in an unjust war in Iraq.

(APPLAUSE)

Our congregation has sent dozens of boys and girls to fight in the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, and the present two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  My goddaughterís unit just arrived in Iraq this week, while those who call me unpatriotic have used their positions of privilege to avoid military service, while sending ó (APPLAUSE)

Ė while sending over 4,000 American boys and girls of every race to die over a lie.

(APPLAUSE)

Our congregation has had an HIV-AIDS ministry for over two decades.  Our congregation has awarded over $1 million to graduating high school seniors going into college and an additional $500,000 to the United Negro College Fund, and the six HBCUs related to the United Church of Christ, while advocating for health care for the uninsured, workersí rights for those forbidden to form unions, and fighting the unjust sentencing system which has sent black men and women to prison for longer terms for possession of crack cocaine than white men and women have to serve for the possession of powder cocaine.

Our congregation has had a prison ministry for 30 years, a drug and alcohol recovery ministry for 20 years, a full service program for senior citizens, and 22 different ministries for the youth of our church, from pre-school through high school, all proceeding from the starting point of liberation and transformation, a prophetic theology which presumes Godís desire for changed minds, changed laws, changed social orders, changed lives, changed hearts in a changed world.

The prophetic theology of the black church is a theology of liberation; it is a theology of transformation; and it is ultimately a theology of reconciliation.

The Apostle Paul said, "Be ye reconciled one to another, even as God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godís self."

God does not desire for us, as children of God, to be at war with each other, to see each other as superior or inferior, to hate each other, abuse each other, misuse each other, define each other, or put each other down.

God wants us reconciled, one to another.  And that third principle in the prophetic theology of the black church is also and has always been at the heart of the black church experience in North America.

When Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were dragged out of St. Georgeís Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, during the same year, 1787, when the Constitution was framed in Philadelphia, for daring to kneel at the altar next to white worshippers, they founded the Free African Society and they welcomed white members into their congregation to show that reconciliation was the goal, not retaliation.

Absalom Jones became the rector of the St. Thomas Anglican Church in 1781, and St. Thomas welcomed white Anglicans in the spirit of reconciliation.

Richard Allen became the founding pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the motto of the AME Church has always been, "God our father, man our brother, and Christ our redeemer."  The word "man" included men and women of all races back in 1787 and 1792, in the spirit of reconciliation.

The black churchís role in the fight for equality and justice, from the 1700s up until 2008, has always had as its core the nonnegotiable doctrine of reconciliation, children of God repenting for past sins against each other.

Jim Wallis says Americaís sin of racism has never even been confessed, much less repented for.  Repenting for past sins against each other and being reconciled to one other ó Jim Wallis is white, by the way Ė

(LAUGHTER)

Ė being reconciled to one another, because of the love of God, who made all of us in Godís image.

Reconciliation, the years have taught me, is where the hardest work is found for those of us in the Christian faith, however, because it means some critical thinking and some re-examination of faulty assumptions when using the paradigm of Dr. William Augustus Jones.

Dr. Jones, in his book, God in the ghetto, argues quite accurately that oneís theology, how I see God, determines oneís anthropology, how I see humans, and oneís anthropology then determines oneís sociology, how I order my society.

Now, the implications from the outside are obvious.  If I see God as male, if I see God as white male, if I see God as superior, as God over us and not Immanuel, which means "God with us," if I see God as mean, vengeful, authoritarian, sexist, or misogynist, then I see humans through that lens.

My theological lens shapes my anthropological lens.  And as a result, white males are superior; all others are inferior.

And I order my society where I can worship God on Sunday morning wearing a black clergy robe and kill others on Sunday evening wearing a white Klan robe.  I can have laws which favor whites over blacks in America or South Africa.  I can construct a theology of apartheid in the Africana church (ph) and a theology of white supremacy in the North American or Germanic church.

The implications from the outset are obvious, but then the complicated work is left to be done, as you dig deeper into the constructs, which tradition, habit, and hermeneutics put on your plate.

To say "I am a Christian" is not enough.  Why?  Because the Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride beneath the decks on that slave ship.

How we are seeing God, our theology, is not the same.  And what we both mean when we say "I am a Christian" is not the same thing. The prophetic theology of the black church has always seen and still sees all of Godís children as sisters and brothers, equals who need reconciliation, who need to be reconciled as equals in order for us to walk together into the future which God has prepared for us.

Reconciliation does not mean that blacks become whites or whites become blacks and Hispanics become Asian or that Asians become Europeans.

Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them.  We retain who we are as persons of different cultures, while acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior to us.  They are just different from us.

We root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred, or prejudice.

And we recognize for the first time in modern history in the West that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles, and different dance moves, that other is one of Godís children just as we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness, just as we are.

Only then will liberation, transformation, and reconciliation become realities and cease being ever elusive ideals.

Thank you for having me in your midst this morning.

(APPLAUSE)

MODERATOR:  We do want to get in our questions.  Thank you. Thank you, everybody.

I do want to repeat again, for those of you watching us on C- SPAN, that we do have a number of guests here today. And so the applause and the comments that you hear from the audience are not necessarily those of the working press, who are mostly in the balconies.
You have said that the media have taken you out of context.  Can you explain what you meant in a sermon shortly after 9/11 when you said the United States had brought the terrorist attacks on itself? Quote, "Americaís chickens are coming home to roost."

WRIGHT:  Have you heard the whole sermon?  Have you heard the whole sermon?

MODERATOR:  I heard most of it.

WRIGHT:  No, no, the whole sermon, yes or no?  No, you havenít heard the whole sermon?  That nullifies that question.

Well, let me try to respond in a non-bombastic way.  If you heard the whole sermon, first of all, you heard that I was quoting the ambassador from Iraq.  Thatís number one.

But, number two, to quote the Bible, "Be not deceived.  God is not mocked.  For whatsoever you sow, that you also shall reap."  Jesus said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you.  Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles.

(APPLAUSE)

MODERATOR:  Some critics have said that your sermons are unpatriotic.  How do you feel about America and about being an American?

WRIGHT:  I feel that those citizens who say that have never heard my sermons, nor do they know me.  They are unfair accusations taken from sound bites and that which is looped over and over again on certain channels.

I served six years in the military.  Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?

(APPLAUSE)

MODERATOR:  Please, I ask you to keep your comments and your applause to a minimum so that we can work in as many questions as possible.

Senator Obama has ó shh, please.  Weíre trying to ask as many questions as possible today, so if you can keep your applause to a minimum.

Senator Obama has tried to explain away some of your most contentious comments and has distanced himself from you.  Itís clear that many people in his campaign consider you a detriment.  In that context, why are you speaking out now?

WRIGHT:  On November the 5th and on January 21st, Iíll still be a pastor.  As I said, this is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright.  It has nothing to do with Senator Obama.  It is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.

And why am I speaking out now?  In our community, we have something called playing the dozens.  If you think Iím going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition, and my grandma, youíve got another thing coming.

MODERATOR:  What is your relationship with Louis Farrakhan?  Do you agree with and respect his views, including his most racially divisive views?

WRIGHT:  As I said on the Bill Moyersí show, one of our news channels keeps playing a news clip from 20 years ago when Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion.

And he was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter is being vilified for, and Bishop Tutu is being vilified for.  And everybody wants to paint me as if Iím anti-Semitic because of what Louis Farrakhan said 20 years ago.

I believe that people of all faiths have to work together in this country if weíre going to build a future for our children, whether those people are ó just as Michelle and Barack donít agree on everything, Raymond (ph) and I donít agree on everything, Louis and I donít agree on everything, most of you all donít agree ó you get two people in the same room, youíve got three opinions.

So what I think about him, as Iíve said on Bill Moyers and it got edited out, how many other African-Americans or European-Americans do you know that can get one million people together on the mall?  He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century.  Thatís what I think about him.

Iíve said, as I said on Bill Moyers, when Louis Farrakhan speaks, itís like E.F. Hutton speaks, all black America listens.  Whether they agree with him or not, they listen.

Now, I am not going to put down Louis Farrakhan anymore than Mandela would put down Fidel Castro.  Do you remember that Ted Koppel show, where Ted wanted Mandela to put down Castro because Castro was our enemy?  And he said, "You donít tell me who my enemies are.  You donít tell me who my friends are."

Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy.  He did not put me in chains. He did not put me in slavery.  And he didnít make me this color.

MODERATOR:  What is your motivation for characterizing Senator Obamaís response to you as, quote, "what a politician had to say"? What do you mean by that?

WRIGHT:  What I mean is what several of my white friends and several of my white, Jewish friends have written me and said to me. Theyíve said, "Youíre a Christian.  You understand forgiveness.  We both know that, if Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected."

Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoeverís doing the polls.  Preachers say what they say because theyíre pastors.  They have a different person to whom theyíre accountable.

As I said, whether he gets elected or not, Iím still going to have to be answerable to God November 5th and January 21st.  Thatís what I mean.  I do what pastors do.  He does what politicians do.

I am not running for office.  I am hoping to be vice president.

(LAUGHTER)

MODERATOR:  In light of your widely quoted comment damning America, do you think you owe the American people an apology?  If not, do you think that America is still damned in the eyes of God?

WRIGHT:  The governmental leaders, those ó as I said to Barack Obama, my member ó I am a pastor, heís a member.  Iím not a spiritual mentor, guru.  Iím his pastor.

And I said to Barack Obama, last year, "If you get elected, November the 5th, Iím coming after you, because youíll be representing a government whose policies grind under people."  All right?  Itís about policy, not the American people.

And if you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about ó although it got edited out ó you know, thatís biblical.  God doesnít bless everything.  God condemns something ó and d-e-m-n, "demn," is where we get the word "damn."  God damns some practices.

And there is no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done.  That doesnít make me not like America or unpatriotic.

So in Jesus ó when Jesus says, "Not only you brood of vipers" ó now, heís playing the dozens, because heís talking about their mamas. To say "brood" means your mother is an asp, a-s-p.  Should we put Jesus out of the congregation?

When Jesus says, "Youíll be brought down to Hell," thatís not ó thatís bombastic, divisive speech.  Maybe we ought to take Jesus out of this Christian faith.

No.  What I said about and what I think about and what ó again, until I canít ó until racism and slavery are confessed and asked for forgiveness ó have we asked the Japanese to forgive us?  We have never as a country, the policymakers ó in fact, Clinton almost got in trouble because he almost apologized at Gorialan (ph).  We have never apologized as a country.

Britain has apologized to Africans, but this countryís leaders have refused to apologize.  So until that apology comes, Iím not going to keep stepping on your foot and asking you, "Does this hurt?  Do you forgive me for stepping on your foot?" if Iím still stepping on your foot.

Understand that?  Capiche?

MODERATOR:  Senator Obama has been in your congregation for 20 years, yet you were not invited to his announcement of his presidential candidacy in Illinois.  And in the most recent presidential debate in Pennsylvania, he said he had denounced you. Are you disappointed that Senator Obama has chosen to walk away from you?

WRIGHT:  Whoever wrote that question doesnít read or watch the news.  He did not denounce me.  He distanced himself from some of my remarks, like most of you, never having heard the sermon.  All right?

Now, what was the rest of your question?  Because I got confused in ó the person who wrote it hadnít Ė

MODERATOR:  Were you disappointed that he distanced himself?

WRIGHT:  He didnít distance himself.  He had to distance himself, because heís a politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was anti-American.  He said I didnít offer any words of hope. How would he know?  He never heard the rest of the sermon.  You never heard it.

I offered words of hope.  I offered reconciliation.  I offered restoration in that sermon, but nobody heard the sermon.  They just heard this little sound bite of a sermon.

That was not the whole question.  There was something else in the first part of the question that I wanted to address.

Oh, I was not invited because that was a political event.  Let me say again:  Iím his pastor.  As a political event, who started it off? Senator Dick Durbin.  I started it off downstairs with him, his wife, and children in prayer.  Thatís what pastors do.

So I started it off in prayer.  When he went out into the public, that wasnít about prayer.  That wasnít about pastor-member.  Pastor- member took place downstairs.  What took place upstairs was political.

So thatís how I feel about that.  He did, as Iíve said, what politicians do.  This is a political event.  He wasnít announcing, "Iím saved, sanctified, and feel the holy ghost."  He was announcing, "Iím running for president of the United States."

MODERATOR:  You just mentioned that Senator Obama hadnít heard many of your sermons.  Does that mean heís not much of a churchgoer? Or does he doze off in the pews?

WRIGHT:  I just wanted to see ó thatís your question.  Thatís your question.  He goes to church about as much as you do.  What did your pastor preach on last week?  You donít know?  OK.

MODERATOR:  In your sermon, you said the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.  So I ask you:  Do you honestly believe your statement and those words?

WRIGHT:  Have you read Horowitzís book, "Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola," whoever wrote that question?  Have you read "Medical Apartheid"?  Youíve read it?

(UNKNOWN):  Do you honestly believe that (OFF-MIKE)

WRIGHT:  Oh, are you ó is that one of the reporters?

MODERATOR:  No questions -

(CROSSTALK)

WRIGHT:  No questions from the floor.  I read different things. As I said to my members, if you havenít read things, then you canít ó based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything.

In fact, in fact, in fact, one of the ó one of the responses to what Saddam Hussein had in terms of biological warfare was a non- question, because all we had to do was check the sales records.  We sold him those biological weapons that he was using against his own people.

So any time a government can put together biological warfare to kill people, and then get angry when those people use what we sold them, yes, I believe we are capable.

MODERATOR:  You have likened Israeli policies to apartheid and its treatment of Palestinians with Native Americans.  Can you explain your views on Israel?

WRIGHT:  Where did I liken them to that?  Whoever wrote the question, tell me where I likened them.

Jimmy Carter called it apartheid.  Jeremiah Wright didnít liken anything to anything.  My position on Israel is that Israel has a right to exist, that Israelis have a right to exist, as I said, reconciled one to another.

Have you read the Link?  Do you read the Link, Americans for Middle Eastern Understanding, where Palestinians and Israelis need to sit down and talk to each other and work out a solution where their children can grow in a world together, and not be talking about killing each other, that that is not Godís will?

My position is that the Israel and the people of Israel be the people of God who are worrying about reconciliation and who are trying to do what God wants for Godís people, which is reconciliation.

MODERATOR:  In your understanding of Christianity, does God love the white racists in the same way he loves the oppressed black American?

WRIGHT:  John 3:16, Jesus said it much better than I could ever say it, "for God so loved the world."  World is white, black, Iraqi, Darfurian, Sudanese, Zulu, Coschia (ph).  God loves all of Godís children, because all of Godís children are made in Godís image.

MODERATOR:  Can you elaborate on your comparison of the Roman soldiers who killed Jesus to the U.S. Marine Corps?  Do you still believe that is an appropriate comparison and why?

WRIGHT:  One of the things that will be covered at the symposium over the next two days is biblical history, which many of the working press are unfamiliar with.

In biblical history, thereís not one word written in the Bible between Genesis and Revelations that was not written under one of six different kinds of oppression, Egyptian oppression, Assyrian oppression, Persian oppression, Greek oppression, Roman oppression, Babylonian oppression.

The Roman oppression is the period in which Jesus is born.  And comparing imperialism that was going on in Luke, imperialism was going on when Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that the whole world should be taxed.  They werenít in charge of the world.  It sounds like some other governments I know.

That, yes, I can compare that.  We have troops stationed all over the world, just like Rome had troops stationed all over the world, because we run the world.  That notion of imperialism is not the message of the gospel of the prince of peace, nor of God, who loves the world.

MODERATOR:  Former President Bill Clinton has been widely criticized in this campaign.  Many African-Americans think he has said things aimed at defining Senator Obama as the black candidate.  What do you think of President Clintonís comments, particularly those before the South Carolina primary?

WRIGHT:  I donít think anything about them.  I came here to talk about prophetic theology of the black church.  Iím not talking about candidates or their positions or their feelings or what they have to say to get elected.

MODERATOR:  Well, OK, weíll give you a church question.  Please explain how the black church and the white church can reconcile.

WRIGHT:  Well, there are many white churches and white persons who are members of churches and clergy and denominations who have already taken great steps in terms of reconciliation.

In the underground railroad, it was the white church that played the largest role in getting Africans out of slavery.  In setting up almost all 40 of the HBCUs, it was the white church that sent missionaries into the south.

As I mentioned in my presentation, our denomination all by itself set up over 500 of those schools.  You know them today as Howard University, Fisk, LeMoyne-Owen, Tougaloo, Dillard University, Howard University.

So theyíve done ó Morehouse, Morehouse.  Donít forget Moorhouse, Spelman ó that white Christians have been trying for a long time to reconcile, that for other white Christians to understand that we must be reconciled is to understand the injustice that was done to a people, as we raped the continent, brought those people here, built our country, and then defined them as less than human.

And more Christians, more of us working together, not just white Christians, but whites and blacks of every faith, ecumenically working together.

Father Flagger (ph), by the way, he might be one of the one Ė

(APPLAUSE)

Ė models out what it means to be reconciled as brothers and sisters in Christ and brothers and sisters made in the image of God.

MODERATOR:  You said there is a lack of understanding by people of other backgrounds of the African-American church.  What are some of those misunderstandings?  And how would you purport to fix them, particularly when some of your comments are found to be offensive by white churches?

WRIGHT:  Carter Godwin Woodson, about 80 years ago, wrote a book entitled "The Miseducation."  I would try to fix it starting at the educational level in the grammar schools, as Dr. Asa Hilliard did in his infusion curriculum, starting at the grammar schools, to tell our children this story and to tell our children the true story.

Thatís how I go about fixing it, because until you know the true story, then youíre reacting to my words and not to the truth.

MODERATOR:  Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the father but through me."  Do you believe this? And do you think Islam is a way to salvation?

WRIGHT:  Jesus also said, "Other sheep have I who are not of this fold."

(APPLAUSE)

MODERATOR:  Do you think people of other races would feel welcome at your church?

WRIGHT:  Yes.  We have members of other races in our church.  We have Hispanics.  We have Caribbean.  We have South Americans.  We have whites.

The conference minister ó please understand the United Church of Christ is a predominantly white demonstration.  Again, some of you do not know United Church of Christ, just found out about liberation theology, just found out about United Church of Christ, the conference minister, Dr. Jane Fisler Hoffman, a white woman, and her husband, not only are members of the congregation, but on her last Sunday before taking the assignment as the interim conference minister of California, Southern California Conference of the United Church of Christ, a white woman stood in our pulpit and said, "I am unashamedly African."

(APPLAUSE)

MODERATOR:  You first gained media attention, significant media attention for your sermons several weeks ago.  Why did you wait so long before giving the public your side of the sound bite story?

WRIGHT:  As I said to Bill Moyers ó and he also edited this one out ó because of my motherís advice to me.  My motherís advice was being seen all over the corporate media channels, and itís a paraphrase of the Book of Proverbs, where it is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

The media was making a fool out of itself, because it knew nothing about our tradition.  And so I decided to let them make a fool as long as they wanted to and then take the advice of Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Lies, lies, bless the lord.  Donít you know the days are broad?"

Donít make me come across this room.  I had to come across the room, because they start ó understand, when youíre talking about my mama, once again, and talking about my faith tradition, once again, how long do you let somebody talk about your faith tradition before you speak up and say something in defense of ó this is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright.

Once again, let me say it again.  This is an attack on the black church.  And I cannot as a minister of the gospel allow the significant part of our history ó most African-Americans and most European-Americans, most Hispanic-Americans, half the names I called in my presentation theyíve never heard of, because they donít know anything at all about our tradition.

And to lift up those ó they would have died in vain had I just kept quiet longer and longer and longer and longer.  As I said, this is an attack on the black church.  It is not about Obama, McCain, Hillary, Bill, Chelsea.  This is about the black church.

This is about Barbara Jordan.  This is about Fanny Lou Hamer. This is about my grandmamma.

MODERATOR:  Do you think it is Godís will that Senator Obama be president?

WRIGHT:  I said I would offer myself for candidacy for vice president.  I have not offered myself for candidacy of God.  I canít presume to know what God would want.

In my tradition, however, what everybody has been saying to me as it pertains to the candidacy is what God has for you is for you.  If God intends for Mr. Obama to the president, then no white racists, no political pundit, no speech, nothing can get in the way, because God will do what God wants to do.

MODERATOR:  OK, we are almost out of time.  But before asking the last question, we have a couple of matters to take care of.

First of all, let me remind you of our future speakers.  This afternoon, we have Dan Glickman, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association, who is discussing trading up movies in the global marketplace.  On May 2nd, Bobby Jindal, the governor of the state of Louisiana, will discuss bold reform that works.  On May 7th, we have Glenn Tilton, CEO, United Airlines, and board member of the American transport association.

Second, I would like to present our guest with the official centennial mug and ó itís brand new.

WRIGHT:  Thank you.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Youíre welcome.  And weíve got one more question for you.

(APPLAUSE)

Weíre going to end with a joke.  Chris Rock joked, "Of course Reverend Wrightís an angry 75-year-old black man.  All 75-year-old black men are angry."  Is that funny?  Is that true?  Is it unfortunate?  What do you think?

WRIGHT:  I think itís just like the media.  Iím not 75.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

MODERATOR:  Iíd like to thank you all for coming today.

 

We are on the cusp of a new politics in America. It should be dated from March 18, 2008, the date of Barack Obama's landmark speech "A More Perfect Union."
The usual pundits have looked mainly at the speech's surface theme: race. They weren't wrong. It was indeed the most important statement about race in recent history.

But it was much more. It was a general call to a new politics and an outline for what it needs to be. Just as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was about much more than the war dead on that battlefield, so Obama's speech -- widely hailed as in the same ballpark as Lincoln's -- went beyond race to the nature of America, its ideals and its future.

To get an appreciation for the greatness of Obama's speech, we have to start with its context: What were the problems Obama faced in writing it, and what were the constraints on him?

He was under severe political attack, both from Republican conservatives and from the Clinton wing of his own party. Here's what he was facing:

  • Racial divisions and identity politics had been injected into the campaign by his opponents and the media. The effect was to position him, as an African-American, as being opposed to the interests of whites and Hispanics.

  • An attack on his and his wife's patriotism.

  • A claim that he was really a Muslim.

  • A repeatedly shown film clip of his long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who had married him and his wife and baptized his daughters, making embarrassing remarks taken as anti-American and anti-Semitic.

  • One of the hallmarks of his campaign has been good judgment on foreign policy; his opponents claimed that his connection to Wright had shown bad judgment.

  • Another hallmark of his campaign has been authenticity, telling the truth. Two of his advisors had made remarks -- one on NAFTA and one on Iraq -- that opponents had twisted to make it seem that he was lying. He had to establish himself as truthful.

  • Another hallmark of his campaign has been values. His opponents had claimed that his values were unknown and that the public didn't know who he was.

  • His opponents had claimed that he could not stand up to strong opposition.

  • He was in the center of an intensely divisive campaign while pressing unity as a major theme.

  • His opponents had claimed that his eloquence was all talk and no action.

In addition, Sen. Obama faced certain constraints on what he could say:

He understands that people vote primarily on the basis of character and how he would govern: on values, authenticity, trust and identity, and only secondarily on fine policy details (See Thinking Points). He could not ignore the problems and hope they would go away. They wouldn't. Since he was being attacked on all of these character and governance issues, he had to confront them all.

He had been putting forth a vision of bipartisanship opposite that of Sen. Clinton. In her bipartisanship, she moved to the right, giving up on fundamental values. In his bipartisanship, he understands that "conservatives" and "independents" often share fundamental American values with him.

Instead of giving up on his values, he finds those outside his party who share them. His speech had to have such an appeal.

The honesty and openness of his declared new politics required him to be consistent with his previous statements.

He could not explicitly go negative and still continue to campaign on civility and unity. He could only go positive and evoke implicit negatives.

He could neither accept his opponents framing of him, nor argue explicitly against that framing. If he did either, he would just strengthen their frames.

He had to impose his own framing, while being true to his values and his campaign themes.

He could not go on the defensive; that would just encourage his detractors. He had to show leadership. Though he might have felt frustrated or even angry, leadership demanded that he be his usual calm self, embracing, not attacking, even those who opposed him. He had to be what he was talking about.

Try to imagine being in this position and having to write a speech overnight. And yet he wrote not a speech, but the speech -- one of the greatest ever.

As a linguist, I am tempted to describe the surface features: the intonation, the meter, the grammatical parallelisms, the choice of words. These contribute to eloquence. I'm sure the linguistics community will jump in and do that analysis. Instead, I want to talk about the structure of ideas.

Any framing study begins with communicative framing, the context. Contextual frames carry ideas. Sen. Obama is patriotic, and he had to communicate not only the fact of his patriotism, but also the content of it. And he had to do it in a way that fit unquestionable and shared American values. Where did he give his speech kicking off his Pennsylvania campaign? Not in Scranton or Pittsburgh or Hershey, but in Philadelphia, home of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and at once home of one of America's largest African-American communities. What building was it in? Constitution Hall. How did he appear onstage? Surrounded by flags. He is tall and thin, as were the flagstaffs, which were about the same height. He was visually one with the flag, one with America. No picture of him could be taken without a flag shaped like him, without an identification of man and country.

How did he start the speech? With the first line of the Constitution:

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union ..." He called the speech "A More Perfect Union." And that's what it was about. Union: about inclusiveness not divisiveness; about responsibility for each other not just oneself; about seeing the country and world in terms of cooperation, not competition or isolation. More perfect: admitting the imperfections of being human and making a commitment to do better; distinguishing the ideals on parchment from the reality that our actions must forge. A more perfect union: looking to a better future that it is up to us to make, and that can only be done by transcending divisiveness and coming together around the ideals of our Constitution.

That is what he has meant by "hope" and "change." It is the general message. And race, though a special case, is one the hardest issues to address. And though his opponents will continue to promote and exploit racial divisiveness, race is an area where huge progress has been made and needs to be made visible.

If there is to be a test of character and leadership -- a test of honesty, openness, strength, and integrity on his part, and good will and American values on the part of American citizens, race is as tough a test case as any.

Not a test of Obama, but a test of America. A test of whether Americans will live American ideals. No pussyfooting. No sweeping it under the rug. This election sets a direction for the country. Will we face our problems and follow our ideals or not? Obama can hold the mirror up to us, and he can endeavor to lead the march. What he asks is whether we are ready to continue the march, "a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America."

Most of the adjectives are familiar in political speeches: just, equal, free and prosperous. What is the crucial addition, right in the middle, is "caring." A day later, Anderson Cooper asked him on CNN what he meant by patriotism. His response began with "caring about one another." The choice of words is careful. In his Martin Luther King Day speech this year, Obama spoke repeatedly of the "empathy deficit," the need to be "more caring."

Empathy, as I showed in my book Moral Politics, is at the heart of progressive politics in America. And as UCLA historian Lynn Hunt has shown in her book Inventing Human Rights: A History, the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness became self-evident by 1776 through the development of empathy. Democracy is based on empathy, on the bonds of care and responsibility that link us together and make us a nation.

It is the mark of a great speech, not just to mention its themes but to exemplify those themes. Empathy, union and common responsibility are the ideas behind the speech, as well as the ideas behind the New Politics; and as the speech shows, they are behind the idea of America itself. The speech works via empathy, via the emotional structure built into the speech and into our national ideals. The speech works because, almost line by line, it evokes those foundational ideals -- the ideals we have and feel, but that have been far too long hidden behind political cynicism, political fear, and the concern for advantage. And it is the mark of political courage to confront those monsters head on at the most critical point in a campaign for the presidency, when one could play it safe and just count delegates but instead chooses the right but difficult path.

At this point, the symbolic structure of the speech becomes easier to see.

He begins by discussing the achievement of the Declaration of Independence in uniting the states, while seeing its flaw -- the country's "original sin of slavery," part of the deal to get South Carolina to join the union. The nation is great, and still flawed -- and loved for its greatness despite its flaws.

The same is true of Reverend Wright. Reverend Wright's history symbolizes the history of his generation of African-Americans -- a bitter history of oppression by whites in an America in denial: segregation, legalized discrimination, lynchings, a brutal fight for basic civil rights. His bitterness and that of his generation is real and understandable. We can empathize with him. And we empathize even more when we learn of his positive accomplishments: service in the Marine Corps and speaking to Obama "about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor. And he lived what he preached: "housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS." He preached empathy, he lived empathy, and we empathize with him for that.

And yet Reverend Wright's statements as shown in the TV clips were wrong. Not just incorrect, but morally wrong: divisive and harmful, raising what is wrong with America above all that is right with America. Obama condemns those statements. But he won't fall into the same mistake, raising what is wrong with the man above all that is right with the man. Obama loves and is loyal to his flawed country, just as he loves and is loyal to this flawed but fundamentally good man. Just as he loves his wonderful white grandmother who is flawed by occasional racial stereotypes. His relationship with Reverend Wright shows in Obama a positive character: love and loyalty while acknowledging the reality of flaws and not being taken in by them. It is good judgment, not bad judgment -- about Wright and about America.

But Obama is not just black; he is half white. His wife has in her veins the blood of both slaves and slave owners. Obama's empathy is not just for black America but equally for white America. He speaks of the real troubles of poor white Americans, and their real and legitimate feelings of anger and resentment. But both black anger and white resentment are counterproductive.

They create divisiveness when unity is needed to overcome "the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze -- a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many." The poor -- black and white and brown -- are all victims of the real culprits, whose weapon is fear and divisiveness. Race gets in the way. It is a distraction from dealing with corporate greed.

Another culprit that stands in the way is the media, which uses race for its own ends -- as spectacle (the O.J. trial), tragedy (Katrina), and "fodder for the nightly news." Obama is courageous here. He is taking on a media that has been especially underhanded with him, helping the Right spread guilt by association by showing the Reverend Wright tape snippets over and over. For a candidate to talk straight to the media about what it is doing to harm the country is courageous, to say the least.

A bit of courage for a candidate who seeks the votes of Republicans is to point out that a serious flaw of Reverend Wright's is also a central flaw of conservatism: "the notion of self-help, or what conservatives call individual responsibility. It is central to conservative Christianity as well:

whether you go to heaven or hell is a matter of individual responsibility. It is a mistake in both religion and politics.

What is called for is nothing less than what all the world's great religions demand -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect our spirit as well.

American politics and religion come together on these moral grounds:
empathy and responsibility both for oneself and others.

And with all the Christian references in the speech, it is hard to imagine him as a Muslim.

Obama begins the close of his speech with a riff on how talk is action:

"This time we want to talk about ..." followed by the plights of Americans, plights that arouse our empathy -- or should. Speech, Obama tells us, is action. Collective speech changes brains and minds, and when the minds of voters change, material change is possible. And if ever a speech was an act, this speech is it.

The closing portion is pure empathy -- the story of Ashley and the old black man. Ashley, a white girl, out of empathy for her struggling mother, ate mustard and relish on bread for a year to save on food money. She became a community organizer out of empathy for those in her community who were struggling. At an event she organized, she asked everyone to say why they were there. She told her story, others told theirs, and when they came to the old black man, he said simply, "I'm here because of Ashley." The empathy of an old black man for a young white woman. A moral for us all.

The true power of the speech is that it does what it says. It not only talks about empathy, it creates it.

The speech achieves its power not just through the literal and the obvious. Family metaphors abound: the nation is a family; the nation's future is its children; it's flawed past is its older citizens, scarred by past flaws. "The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids ..." The nation is a family, and we have to care for our kids.

It is a common metaphor that an institution is seen as a person, with the special case that a nation is understood in terms of its leader. In this speech, Obama becomes contemporary America: as America is of mixed race, he is of mixed race; as Americans have benefited from advances over past flaws, so he has benefited. His story is an "only in America story," an American dream story. His candidacy is only possible in America. Indeed his genes are only possible in America. How could he be anything but patriotic when he is America? And how can we, identifying with him, be anything but patriotic when we are America?

No, this is not, as the New York Times says on its website, "a speech on race." It is a speech on what America is about, on what American values are, on what patriotism is, on who the real culprits are, and on the kind of new politics needed if we are to make progress in transcending those flaws that are still very much with us.

Finally it is a speech about policy and how he would govern. When he says "This time we want to talk about ..." he is listing a policy agenda:

education, healthcare, overcoming special interests, creating good jobs, saving homes, fighting corporate greed that works against the common good, creating unity, bringing the troops home from Iraq, and taking care of our veterans. As a list, this looks like Sen. Clinton's list. But there is a crucial difference.

Sen. Clinton speaks constantly of "interests." In doing so, she is doing what many other Democrats have done before her, engaging in interest group politics, where policy means finding some demographic group that has been ill-served by the market or government, and then proposing a governmental redress: a tax break here, a subsidy there, a new regulation. Obama does not speak of interests and seeks to transcend interest groups and interest group politics. That is at the heart of this speech. When we transcend interest groups, we transcend interest group politics.

And when he says, "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents ..." he is making a foreign policy statement, that foreign policy is not just about states and national interests, but about people and the world's family.

What makes this great speech great is that it transcends its immediate occasion and addresses in its form as well as its words the most vital of issues: what America is about: who are, and are to be, as Americans; and what politics should be fundamentally about.

The media has missed this. But we must not.

The media has gone back to the horse race, reporting counts of delegates and superdelegates, campaign attacks, who endorses whom, and this week's polls. Hardly irrelevant, but not the main event.

The main event is the new politics, what has excited Americans about this election, what has brought young people out to political speeches, and what has led voters to wait for hours in the cold just to catch a glimpse of a candidate for president who has been saying what they have been waiting to hear. It is this:

The essence of America was there in its founding documents, carried out imperfectly and up to us to keep alive and work toward as best we can. At the heart of our democracy is empathy-made- real, a political arrangement through which we care for one another, protect one another, create joint prosperity and help one another lead fulfilling lives.

America is a family and its future is our children -- to be nurtured and attuned to nature, fed and housed well, educated to their capacities, kept healthy and helped to prosper, made whole through music and the arts, and provided with institutions that bring them together in these ongoing responsibilities.

The strength of America is in its ideals and how we act them out. Americans have come here from around the globe, with family, ethnic and cultural ties to virtually every country and with human ties to people everywhere. Our actions in the world must reflect this.

All of this is politics. Politics is essentially ethical, it is about what is right. And the nuts and bolts of determining legitimate political authority -- the fund-raising, the on-the-ground organization, the speeches, the campaign ads, the voter registration and the counting of ballots -- should reflect these values as well.

That is the politics Americans have yearned for, and though we don't have it yet and it won't be here tomorrow, it is what so many of us are working for and that we have glimpsed through this speech.

No matter who wins the Democratic nomination and the presidential election in 2008, these ideals are not going to be fully realized right away. No candidate is perfect on this score, nor could be. But this is the vision. It sets the goals that I believe most Americans seek. We can make progress toward it in hundreds of ways. But in its vision it will always be the New Politics we seek as Americans, in 2012, 2016, 2020 and beyond.

George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley; senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute; and author of the forthcoming The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain (Viking/Penguin) , available June 2, 2008.

© 2008 Open Left All rights reserved.

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