2008 Vol 13
The Reverend Jeremiah Wright remarks
to the National Press ClubThe 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
The workshops, the panel discussions, and the symposium will go into much
more intricate detail about this unknown phenomenon of the black church
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
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.
As the vice president told you, that applause comes from not the working
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Those of you who canít see on C-SPAN, we had one or two working press
clap along with the non-working press.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
MODERATOR: Some critics have said that your sermons are
unpatriotic. How do you feel about America and about being an
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
I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How
many years did Cheney serve?
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 -
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
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
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
Father Flagger (ph), by the way, he might be one of the one Ė
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
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
MODERATOR: Do you think people of other races would feel welcome at
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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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