WASHINGTON-The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor to presidential candidate Barack Obama, said Monday (April 28) that recent media focus on his sermons is an “attack on the black church.”
Asked at a National Press Club appearance about why he was speaking out when it could be a detriment to Obama’s campaign, Wright framed the controversy within a wider context.
“This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama,” he said before a packed ballroom filled with media and ministers in town for a black church conference at Howard University School of Divinity.
“It is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.”
Until recently, Wright had sought to avoid the spotlight since television reports began airing segments of his sermons in which he referred to the government as the “U.S. of K.K.K. A” and said “America’s chickens are coming home to roost” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Such comments have become fodder for political activists and pundits who have questioned if they are hurting the Illinois senator’s quest for the Democratic nomination.
Lately, Wright, who will retire from Trinity United Church of Chicago in June, has moved before the microphones, conducting a PBS interview with Bill Moyers, and speaking at a prominent NAACP dinner.
He has argued that the Christianity of the slave and the slaveholder are not the same. He has said that he is a pastor and Obama is a politician. He also declared that when a manner of speech or worship is “different,” that doesn’t mean it should be considered “deficient.”
“Black worship is different from European and European-American worship,” he said Monday. “It is not bombastic. It is not controversial. It’s different.”
In a 25-minute speech, Wright addressed the history of the black church and its prophetic tradition, saying the church works for liberation, transformation and reconciliation. With the recent controversy-and calls for interracial dialogue by both Obama and their United Church of Christ denomination-Wright said he hopes that tradition is moving from “invisible” to “invaluable.”
In the question-and-answer period after his remarks on Monday, Wright said his “chickens” quote referred to remarks made by a former ambassador to Iraq near the time of the sermon. But he added: “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.”
Asked how he responded to critics who called his sermons unpatriotic, Wright was defiant.
“I served six years in the military,” he said. “Does that make me patriotic? How many years did (Vice President Dick) Cheney serve?”
After keeping quiet for more than a month, Wright said he felt he needed to speak up now.
“If you think I’m going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition, and my grandma, you’ve got another thing coming,” he said.
Asked if he thought God wanted Obama to be president, Wright left that decision in divine hands: “God will do what God wants to do.”
Wright noted that though he didn’t appear publicly with the Illinois senator when he announced his presidential candidacy, he prayed with him privately beforehand.
“I started it off downstairs with him, his wife, and children in prayer,” Wright said. “That’s what pastors do.”
A handful of protesters outside the press club building called Wright “racist” and carried signs saying “Wright is Wrong” and “Obama’s Chicken Comes Homes to Roost.” But inside, the ministers in the audience praised him for speaking of the prophetic role of churches in general and black churches in particular, moving them beyond stereotypes.
“There may be people who would try to take something out of this and make it negative,” said the Rev. T. DeWitt Smith, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a historically black denomination.
“I think it was a moment for moving forward with the understanding that the black church is not on the border but we are strongly in the center with prophetic ministry.”