They're the campaign issue that refuses to fade away.
The words of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Barack Obama's longtime pastor, continue to fuel controversy, in part because the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is so close this year, in part because the words themselves pose a stark question about America's cross-racial discourse: When does speaking out against injustices cross into hate speech?
Senator Obama's Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, stoked the fires this week, saying, "Given all we have heard and seen, he would not have been my pastor." Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who quit the Republican presidential race, seemed eager to damp the flames as he told MSNBC, "Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment, and you have to just say, `I probably would, too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder, had it been me.' "
For many in the black community, however, the controversy over selected clips of Wright using inflammatory language has been blown out of proportion. More important, they say, it reveals little awareness among whites of the centuries of African-American struggle and its tradition of "prophetic preaching."
In response to the furor, "There's a desire to redouble efforts to portray the beauty and complexities and challenges of our tradition," says the Rev. Brad Braxton, of Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. "Many feel the need to remind people of how the black church tradition has been the soul and conscience of the nation."
Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, for example, spoke powerfully of what was awry in the land and what needed to be done to put things right.
In Wright's case, however, the language of video clips in which he said "God damn America" for its historical treatment of minorities and accused the government of spreading HIV/AIDs sounded hateful to many. Senator Clinton compared Mr. Wright with Don Imus, the shock jock whose MSNBC TV show was canceled last year after he called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." "I spoke out against Don Imus, saying that hate speech was unacceptable in any setting, and I believe that," Clinton told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this week.
Senator Obama himself has condemned the statements and called them stupid.
With the furor continuing, the recently retired preacher of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago canceled his trip to the Black Church Summit this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was to receive an award for his years of pastoring.
Some pastors, both black and white, argue that Wright's damning of America was not wishing ill on Americans but making a theological point that God condemns acts of oppression. The theme of the sermon from which that clip is taken was that people should not depend on government – which sometimes lies and does wrong – but rely wholly on God.
How people hear something depends on their own experience and worldview, says Teresa Fry Brown, who teaches the art of preaching at Emory University in Atlanta. "I listen to 60 sermons a week by black and white pastors, and you could find something in almost any one that is offensive to somebody."
The key as to whether language is hate speech lies in a preacher's overall message, according to Martin Marty, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School and renowned historian of religion. Dr. Marty, who has visited Trinity many times, says, "If Wright only had whites in his searchlight, you might call it [hate speech]. But he goes after the men in his church" about fatherhood, he puts himself and his people under the prophetic spotlight.
Prophetic preaching has been fundamental to the black church since the days of slavery. The Bible and its thundering prophets modeled a way forward that enabled black preachers to speak the hard truths while simultaneously envisioning a better future.
"The black church took the distorted version of Christianity that provided the religious justification for slavery, carved out the racist elements ... and implanted new content that actually moved Christianity in this country closer to Jesus' message," says Dr. Braxton.
First and foremost, the black church is rooted in the Bible. Christian slaves, slipping out to the woods for secret prayer meetings, appropriated the narrative of Exodus for their own story, promising eventual freedom from bondage. Worship became a means of survival and hope.
A former slave described a religious service shortly after Emancipation in this way: "Every heart was beating in unison as we turned our minds to God to tell him of our sorrows here below. God saw our need and came to us. I used to wonder what made people shout, but now I don't. There is a joy on the inside, and it wells up so strong that we can't keep still. It is fire in the bones."
Albert Raboteau – an authority on African-American religious history at Princeton University who quotes the former slave in his book, "A Fire in the Bones" – writes of voices of "righteous anger and prophetic certainty" whose God "was a God of justice ... who intervened in human affairs to cast down the mighty and uplift the lowly. And a whole cloud of biblical witnesses supported their case."
Emancipation did not lead to full-blown freedom, but to Jim Crow laws, thousands of lynchings, Tuskegee medical experiments on syphilis in black men – and to black preachers speaking out as surrogate political leaders while inspiring their people to refrain from despair.
As Dr. King once wrote, there can only be deep disappointment where there is deep love, Braxton says. That's the way he sees Wright's deep disappointment and anger, too – not as hateful speech, but simply "radical," from someone who expects so much more.
Some say it may also be the style of preaching that puts people off, especially those used to a tamer message.
"Prophetic preaching involves critique and social analysis," says Dr. Fry Brown. "One has to be able to assess the needs and issues of a people and then, using language the people understand, say, 'This is what's happening. God is not pleased. We need to do something about it.' "
Drawing directly on biblical texts, the prophetic voice is not against people, and it's not complaining, but engaging people to change, she says. Transformation requires individual change to come first.
Those who know Wright say he's done a remarkable job at that. On Chicago's poor South Side, his church has grown from 87 people to 10,000. It is a multiclass church, black and white, and those who've moved up the economic ladder continue to attend.
While he has made some mistakes, "Jeremiah Wright is a prophet of hope – no doubt about it," Marty says. "People can't wait to get to the church, and you can't leave that place without a sense of hope."