Like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I am a minister in the United Church of Christ. I have preached to my congregations that, for instance, I do not regard homosexuality as a sin; and that if we insist on supporting the death penalty, we must recognize that we do so because of our human need for retribution, not because it is a deterrent or a money-saver or God’s will.
I have retold Bible stories with emotional abandon. I have pounded on the pulpit when a child in my congregation was recovering from brain surgery, saying, “God does not send brain tumors to 5-year-olds, so please don’t tell the family ‘God must have done this for a reason.’ ”
And, on the Sunday after Sept. 11, 2001, I preached that we must look carefully at this tragedy to see if it were, indeed, our chickens coming home to roost. A great many of my colleagues did the same.
If my ministry were salient to anyone’s presidential campaign, and there were any videos of my sermons, Fox News researchers could no doubt find a few 30-second bites that make me sound like a lunatic. That’s what they have done with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the ministry of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
The shame is that most other news outlets have repeated those clips as though they were the whole truth. Gazette columnist Carl Strock has believed it so well that he compares Rev. Wright and Trinity UCC to an off-the-wall preacher from the Bronx who vilifies and condemns individuals by name. Visit the Trinity UCC Web site (click here) and see no vilification, but a description of a lively and deep ministry of Christian compassion in the neighborhood and the world.
This month, we remember the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King 40 years ago. Sojourners Magazine reported, “Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t endorse political candidates, . . . but he knew something about attracting controversy from the pulpit. In fact, the week before his death, he was planning a sermon for that Sunday titled ‘Why America May Go to Hell.’ ”
Challenging our government’s foreign and domestic policies is a longstanding preaching tradition with solid biblical roots, back to the original prophet Jeremiah. Visit www.ucc.org for statements from our denomination’s president, John Thomas, and www.uccny.org for a letter from the New York Conference minister, Geoffrey Black, which make this very clear. It is not the preacher’s calling, in the United Church of Christ or anywhere, to preach only what makes listeners feel good, but to challenge that which oppresses, even if it looks like our own government. Conventional, unquestioning patriotism and Christian faith are not one and the same.
Jeremiah Wright has preached for more than 4,000 hours from Trinity’s pulpit. Among those hours are bites of controversy, even statements that would make us white folk cringe. Some are statements I would not have made, and that I might question if I were sitting down with Rev. Wright. But they are not proof that Rev. Wright’s entire preaching career has been one of hate, nor that his parishioners, including Barack Obama, have been in listening oblivion.
Call to trust in God
All the other columnists and media outlets who believed that false characterization, and passed it on endlessly to undermine the presidential candidacy of a person of color, perpetuated the real injustice.
Listening to the whole sermon from Jeremiah Wright that included the “damn America” expression shows that its main message was that governments change, and lie, and are not always to be trusted, but that God does not change or lie, and is to be trusted. It is not a message of hate; it is a call to trust not in governments, but God.
Even nonbelievers and proud nonchurchgoers may be assured — a call to trust in God and not mortals is highly appropriate preaching.
Marian P. Shearer lives in Ballston Lake and is the upstate regional minister for the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. She previously served parishes in Hilton and Albany, N.Y., and Philadelphia, Pa.