“The most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”
The Jeremiah Wright controversy coloring presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign has highlighted this sentiment, which was spoken first by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Underneath the outrage that came from the public surfacing of Wright’s comments is a lack of knowledge and understanding about the Black Church and the significant role that is has played in the lives of African Americans ever since Africans first stepped foot on the American continent. Even worse, national media used the Wright controversy to “racialize” Obama, suggesting that Wright’s uninhibited comments could be used to understand Obama as a black man who belongs to a Black Church.
Although the Black Church is beholden to Christianity and Christian beliefs — to which Africans were not exposed until the influence of white European peoples and culture — it is in appearance, and in spirit, largely different from its white counterparts.
Since its modest beginnings, the church has endured scrutiny, threats of violence and other impediments mostly generated by white Americans, who, during the time of slavery, viewed the religious gatherings of black slaves as threatening to the status quo. Embedded in the scrutiny of Rev. Wright and his ministry is the same accusatorial and hateful rhetoric that white slave owners once used against their slaves’ forms of worship. Sound bytes and decontextualized quotations have portrayed Wright, his former church, and consequently the Black Church at large, as a place of anger, rage and hate, and the American people took the media’s words and representations at face value without fully arming themselves with the facts and knowledge of history.
The Black Church has played an integral role in the lives of African Americans throughout American history; Black Church leaders have proven equally important and influential. Many were writers, polemicists, orators and organizers during the abolitionist, suffrage and temperance movements, not to mention iconic figures during the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. The Black Church is a place where African Americans have sought shelter, solace, compassion and companionship during the most dangerous and violent of times; it has functioned as a place of grieving and of healing during the roughest patches of African-American history. It is a place of celebration and joy during moments of triumph and success. The Black Church has been one of the leading support systems for African Americans not only in their spiritual pursuits, but in their educational, economic and political endeavours as well.
The expansive history of the Black Church, however, has been silenced due to a lack of scholarly, historical attention given to the subject and because of the reality that the Rev. King referenced in his quotation above; our churches still remain as segregated as our neighborhoods and schools once were.
The resulting absence of mutual comprehension and understanding between racial-ideological groups also highlights why so many critics called for Obama to go beyond simply denouncing his former pastor’s words and giving his “race speech” in Philadelphia, to cutting all ties with the pastor. His refusal to do so underlines the importance of the Black Church, faith and Christianity to a large segment of the African-American community.
With the disclosure of Wright’s speeches and the revelation of Obama’s relationship to him, the media and the American populous were confronted with one aspect that makes the presidential candidate an identifiably black man in America. But rather than seeing this fact as entirely negative and allowing it to hinder Obama’s possible ascendancy, it should have been seen as a positive testament to his spirituality and capability as a leader. Obama’s situation challenges the American public and its popular media to look beyond a few derisive statements made by the Rev. Wright and to trust that the positive aspects of Christianity and of the Illinois senator’s spirituality will shine through, enhancing his attractiveness as a presidential candidate.
Thameka Thompson is a junior in Silliman College.