Published on Tuesday, March 25, 2008 by CommonDreams.org
by Sean Gonsalves
Good thing for Martin Luther King admirers - blogs, talk radio, and 24/7
cable news "analysis" weren't around in the Sixties.
King might not have the status of patron saint in the temple of American
civil religion. Then again, King is safely dead. While America may be
the land of "second-chances," its people are definitely not the type to
give props to a prophet while he or she is alive.
In criticizing U.S. policy in Vietnam, King said America was "one of the
main purveyors of violence" in the world. Imagine King, with his
sing-song black preacher cadence, saying that over and over and over
again on CNN.
Longtime readers of this column might say this is typical Sean Gonsalves
fare. And it's true. So, let me explain just how typical I am.
I'm just a typical American who happens to be black, and no matter what
Limbaugh says about Barack's grandma, there's a difference between
typical and stereotypical.
Like most typical black people my age, from the time I was a little boy,
through high school, right up until early adulthood, I spent a lot of
time in the black Baptist Church. Tuesday night prayer meetings.
Wednesday night bible study. And Sunday service.
It's "typical" because something like 90 percent of all
African-Americans are nominally-affiliated believers. And that's why I
can say with certainty that no black person in America was shocked to
hear Rev. Jeremiah Wright's "controversial" preaching and are probably
more shocked at the hysterical and hypocritical manufactured controversy
I know we're in the new PC era of "colorblindness," where the word
"racist" has been flipped on its head by the fading neo-right to mean:
any public talk about race, without doing the Bill Cosby/Thomas Sowell
routine, is "racist."
People are free to think whatever they want but just so we're clear: a
racist, by definition, is someone who explicitly or implicitly believes
one racial group is morally and intellectually superior to others. Only
in a warped world is it considered "racist" to talk publicly about the
legacy of white supremacy.
So let me tell you 'bout my typical black mother. She's a church-going
woman and she made sure my younger brother and I were church-going kids.
No if, and, or she would whoop our butts. And not just church. My mother
was a big fan of Sunday school too.
Boredom and longing to watch the 49ers or Raiders on TV aside, my Sunday
school teachers sparked in me a deep and abiding interest in studying
the bible (King James Version).
As a child of extreme energy and passion, I was drawn to the books of
the Prophets (Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah etc.) - at first because
it was fun to see my Sunday school teachers squirm when asked a hard
question about, say, Elijah murdering hundreds Baalists, after he
already proved his point. You'd think the fire would have be enough to
settle the Who's-God-is-Real contest but nope - Elijah just had to put
the sword to every non-believer in sight.
It wasn't until I began seriously studying the prophetic tradition that
I came across the work of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel.
First, Heschel taught me what a prophet is not: "A prophet is neither a
messenger, an oracle, a seer, nor an ecstatic," but "a witness to the
divine pathos, one who bears testimony to God's concern for human
Reading the prophets words, "one cannot long retain the security of a
prudent, impartial observer. The prophets do not offer reflections about
ideas in general. Their words are onslaughts, scuttling illusions of
false security, challenging evasions, calling faith to account,
questioning prudence and impartiality."
As any black church-goer will tell you, prophetic preaching is the
communal lifeblood of black religious experience in America. Always has
been. Rev. Jeremiah Wright comes out of that experience - an experience
I personally encountered the Sunday I attended Oakland's Allen Temple.
Wright used the Samson and Delilah story as his text, raising the
question Delilah kept asking Samson: "What makes you so strong?" Then he
asked his black audience: And what makes you so strong, black people?
He wanted to know, how is it that, after all black people have
experienced - from slavery and lynching to segregation and economic
deprivation - we could still produce such a wide array of heroic
personalities. He listed well-known black achievers from Sojourner Truth
to, yes, Bill Cosby, periodically punctuating his laundry list with the
"what makes you so strong" question.
I shared a portion of Wright's sermon in a column about 10 years ago,
which prompted the USA Today to ask me to write a black history month
piece. I received hundreds of e-mails and letters in response, mostly
from white readers asking for a copy, saying they loved it because the
sermon was an uplifting affirmation of the human spirit; that while
people are often victimized, it doesn't mean they can't ultimately be
It was in another column - an Easter column - that I shared the last
part of Wright's "What Makes You So Strong?" sermon; re-telling his
re-telling of when the late great theologian Paul Tillich visited the
University of Chicago Divinity School in the 50s.
Wright was a seminary student at the time and Tillich came to give a
three hour lecture "proving" that the historical resurrection of Jesus
was a myth, concluding his talk by saying that because black American
religious experience is based on a supposed relationship with "a Risen
Lord" - who, in fact, didn't exist - black American spirituality was
nothing more than "emotional mumbo-jumbo."
Tillich asked the packed lecture hall: "Are there any questions?" The
silence was deafening, Wright said, until an old black preacher with
white hair stood up in the back of the auditorium. The old preacher
reached into his brown bag lunch and pulled out an apple. As he loudly,
chomped and munched on his apple, the old black preacher asked:
"Was this apple I just ate - bitter or sweet?" Tillich responded: "I
can't answer that question because I haven't tasted your apple." The old
preacher put Tillich's condescension in its place. " And neither have
you tasted my Jesus," he said. Game over.
Again, the response I got from mostly white readers was overwhelming. In
fact, an evangelical book publisher (Guideposts) asked if they could
re-print it in an upcoming book, Let There Be Laughter: A View from the
Pew. I said yes. After all, I stole it from Wright. The book was
published in 2005.
Now along comes the Wright "controversy" and Barack was forced to
confront the issue of race. In doing so, he spoke to us like adults.
Unfortunately, some adults just don't want to have grown up
conversation. They want to talk about Wright's "controversial"
(prophetic) preaching. Funny how nobody wants to talk about McCain's
relationship with the controversial white preacher John Hagee.
I guess it's asking too much of "Christian" America to notice the huge
difference between a preacher steeped in the biblical prophetic
tradition and "Christians" like Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph. You
don't see members of Wright's church going out and putting "hatred and
anti-Americanism" into practice by becoming domestic terrorists. Nope.
Members of Wright's church just go out and do things like run for
president and energize an entire generation of new voters.
You know the world's crazy when hope is confused with hate.
Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and assistant news editor with
the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org