"If you completely dismiss Jeremiah Wright categorically--and that's what's happening--then you have missed an opportunity to start a real healing conversation. You've missed it, because you completely don't understand," said Dr. Ray Owens, pastor of north Tulsa's Metropolitan Baptist Church.
His comments came through the course of an interview with UTW in which he addressed the recent controversy surrounding Wright, who happens to be an acquaintance Owens has in common with Democratic presidential hopeful and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
Owens has met and conversed with Wright on several occasions, and attended dozens of his sermons and, based on that relationship, told UTW that he's "very surprised" by what he's seen in the news about him.
In his view, the fiery preacher has been "fully demonized" through the use of "12-second sound bites" and selective video clips of his sermons, and through that unfair vilification of Wright, a message America desperately needs to hear is getting buried under political misdirection and media spin.
Wright is widely perceived as racist and as anti-American due to some of his remarks from the pulpit like "God damn America" and "America's chickens are coming home to roost" regarding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as well as comments about Hillary Clinton's privilege as a white person, having "never been called a nigger."
Also, just before his recent retirement as pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Methodist Church of Christ, Wright bestowed a lifetime achievement award upon Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Since Obama's 20-year association with Wright came to light, the preacher's comments and ideology have been regular fodder for daily newspapers' editorial commentary and for cable news channels' nightly talking head shows.
"I think he's been so terribly misrepresented," said Owens.
He said Wright is neither racist nor unpatriotic, but is fulfilling the sometimes unpleasant and often unpopular responsibility religious leaders have of "speaking truth to power."
"What he essentially does is call the country to live up to its ideals... That's what churches do. That's what Jeremiah in the Bible did; he told the nations that damnation was coming their way. Martin Luther King called the acts of this country in Vietnam 'criminal,'" said Owens.
That doesn't necessarily mean he embraces everything Wright preaches, though.
"I'm very surprised he made the move to accuse America of helping to create the HIV/AIDS virus. It was charged and unnecessary and not well documented and, as a scholar, that bothered me," Owens said.
"The comment about the chickens coming home to roost--especially so soon after 9/11 when there were so many families hurting from that--needed a more nuanced interpretation," he added.
Owens said the controversy and negative perception attached to Wright have more to do with his style of preaching than with the actual substance of his sermons, though.
As many of the aforementioned talking head shows and national political pundits have also pointed out, he said Wright's criticisms of American foreign and domestic policies flow from "Black Liberation Theology," as it's called in academic circles--particularly Owens' academic circle.
The theological system in question was a major focus of Owens' studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he earned his doctorate in Philosophy in Religion and Society, as well as a subject of his lectures as a professor at Tulsa's Phillips Theological Seminary and at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa.
The preacher's "off the cuff" guess is that only about 10-20 percent of African American churches would even be familiar with the term "Black Liberation Theology," much less consciously embrace all of its principles, particularly in a way that they'd deliberately express themselves in terms distinctly recognizable as "Black Liberation Theology."
But, he said ideas recognizable as components of the ideology are universal in black churches.
Let My People Go
The theological system's symbolic beginning, he explained, came on July 31, 1966 when a group called the National Committee of Negro Churchmen ran a full-page ad in the New York Times expressing the need for a more aggressive approach to combating racism, based on a combination of biblical principles and ideas from the Black Power movement.
The ideas and sentiments conveyed in the ad were later expounded upon by NCNC member Jim Cone in 1969 in a book entitled "Black Theology and Black Power."
Cone had already laid down many of the same points in his doctoral dissertation, and is now regarded as the Father of Black Liberation Theology.
Owens said it was essentially the theological justification for the emergent Black Power movement, without embracing every aspect of the movement.
"You have to understand, in the late 1960s, early '70s, James Cone had just finished his PhD in theology, Martin (Luther) King had been killed, and the Black Power movement had begun to surge, and Black Liberation Theology was Jim Cone's academic exercise that came out of all of this stuff going on--the tension between the Black Power movement and the old-guard Civil Rights movement," he explained.
"Many in the African American community were viewing black power and its whole value system: its commitment to black self-help and its separatist ideology, its move away from non-violent, direct action to leaving the door open for violent reaction--all of that was viewed by many in the African American community as a departure from traditional African American Christian values," continued Owens.
He described the theology as a defense of some of the principles of the Black Power movement as "not necessarily non-Christian."
Owens said Black Liberation Theology invokes Jesus Christ's self-description as "coming to set the captives free," but also reaches farther back to the Exodus story as "central to African Americans' understanding of their own relationship to God."
The Tulsa preacher said Cone invoked "things in the Bible which seemed to support something like a self-defense model," as well as "certain things in African American history, like Nat Turner, who led one of the bloodiest slave revolts in the history of the slavery institution here."
"For Cone, African American Christian experience has always been about liberation--from their early Christianization in the United States, they always coupled their religious experiences with their quest for liberation," Owens said.
That concept of liberation, he explained, evolved from liberation from slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation to liberation from Jim Crow laws, and then to "liberation from more covert kinds of racism" in the 1960s.
"But, liberation is always a religious ideal for African American people," said Owens.
Today, that hoped for "liberation" is from "racial injustice in this country and the world," he said, as well as "to highlight, celebrate, and communicate the religious achievements and traditions of black people."
"Almost any African American church led by an African American pastor will reflect those kinds of theological sentiments in terms of 'God is on the side of racial justice,' 'God is for racial reconciliation,' 'God is for opening greater opportunities for African American people,'" Owens added.
The religious scholar emphasized, though, that the ideal of "liberation" does not equate to black supremacy or to black separatism.
"It is absolutely not--throughout his books, James Cone makes it clear that he has no desire to create a system of supremacy for black people," said Owens.
He also said of Jeremiah Wright that he "actually very well represents the tenets of black theology in his preaching, and to some extent the comments that created the controversy."
However, the complexity of the theology defies identification with any one person, he noted, explaining that many within today's tradition of Black Liberation Theology even contest notions in Cone's book.
"My students read more than eight books on black theology and still don't understand all the complexities," he said.
So, Owens said it would be "ludicrous" to reduce the ideology, or even Wright himself, to Wright's publicized remarks and actions giving rise to the recent controversy.
As he sees it, though, the controversy surrounding Wright doesn't stem from racism on his part, but because he was critical of the nation.
"That's what has a lot of people upset," he said.
"It was the comments that speak, what he would say, 'truth to power.' America is a national power, and it's power that is not above criticism--not above criticism from the prophet of God--and that is very much along the line of Black Liberation Theology," said Owens.
"I agree with some of the things he says," he declared, but not necessarily with the way in which he says them.
"He does it in a very provocative and racy sort of way. I like to be provocative myself, but I've never been that racy," he said.
As an example of a point on which he agrees with Wright, Owens pointed to his infamous "God damn America" sermon, explaining that its inflammatory rhetoric was intended to underscore the "distinction between God and government."
"The government is not God, and in many ways, the United States government has positioned itself as God. That's his criticism. I think he's right there," said Owens.
"I think some of the policies of the current administration are reckless, and the kind of comments we get out of this administration and others that suggest that those who criticize the country or criticize the war are not patriotic. I don't think Jeremiah Wright is unpatriotic," he continued.
"He's a very bright man, He's very committed to the stated values of this country, but he feels very strongly, and I agree with him on a lot of his points, that this country doesn't live up to its stated values," the Tulsa preacher said.
Owens also said reports of Wright's purported racism against white people are belied by the fact that he managed to earn and maintain for 30 years a prominent leadership role in a Christian denomination that's comprised 99 percent of white people.
"Jeremiah Wright has great respect for people who are white, but he has a very unsettling critique of the problem of race, and many of us believe that," he said.
He was asked, though, if that's the case, why would Jeremiah Wright publicly align himself with such an outspoken racist as Louis Farrakhan by giving him a lifetime achievement award last year?
"I would go with you there. But, Louis Farrakhan has gotten a lot of black men off drugs," he answered.
Owens noted that many African Americans, "even though they abhor his anti-Semitic remarks," still hold Farrakhan in high regard, he said, "because we've dealt with the pain of so many black men on drugs, and he has done better than any other organization in the United States of helping those men to get clean and be responsible."
He also rejected criticism that Wright's comments about Hillary Clinton were racist.
"It raises racial tensions, but what's really racist about it? Hillary Clinton has never been called the 'N'-word. In this particular context, there was nothing controversial about this," said Owens.
He said Wright's "unsettling critique about the problem of race" in that particular sermon had to do with what's known as "White Privilege."
"The premise of Black Liberation Theology is, because of the ideology of white supremacy that has guided the direction, the politics, the policies of this nation since its incipient stages, you enjoy a certain privilege, based on your whiteness. It doesn't always play out that way, but oftentimes, you do. That's what Jeremiah Wright's comment was aimed at: Hillary Clinton, by virtue of her whiteness, enjoys a certain amount of privilege that Barack Obama didn't have," Owens explained.
"What he's saying is, a candidate like Hillary Clinton will never understand what that's like. As a black man, when I walk into Dillard's I've got to prove that I'm a customer and not a thief and behave in a way that proves that," he added.
"A fairer assessment would have dealt with her gender, too," he qualified, noting that "male privilege" is also a factor in America's national behavior, which Wright did not address.
Skin Tone and Blemishes
While Owens believes the controversy surrounding Wright's comments has been overplayed, he said the situation has the positive side effect of providing an opportunity for discussion across racial lines.
"I believe that, until black and white people and other people of color learn how to talk about race, we're going to have to keep running into stuff like this," he said.
"I think people across racial lines need to create forums to have serious conversations," Owens added.
He said some groups in Tulsa, one of which he is a part, are starting to do just that.
"We call ourselves the 'Downtown Clergy.' Clearly my church is not a downtown church, but it was an attempt on their parts to reach out to me and try to create some conversation around race," Owens said.
He said that's what Obama attempted in his recent speech, and "went farther than anyone I've ever seen running for national office has been able to do on this issue."
But, he added, "to some extent, his hands are tied," explaining that race is still too incendiary an issue for politicians to fully and adequately address and still survive the election process, which is why clergy like himself and Wright might be more appropriate facilitators of discussion.
"We need to have real conversations, and real leadership that can create the forums to bring that about," said Owens.
"We need to talk openly and honestly about the rage, about the anger on the part of people of color. African American people continue to feel very angry, continue to feel very suspicious about, you know, about white people who have authority over them in the workplace, in city government . . . Some of that rage and anger is overstated, but not all of it is. Some of it is very real and is rooted in something very real," he said.
Owens acknowledged, though, that some of that rage comes from deeply ingrained perceptions many African Americans have about their place in society, and not necessarily from present realities.
"Maybe the police are really not after me, but, by golly, I don't like him behind me. There's always that antagonistic feeling," he said.
African Americans wouldn't be the only people speaking at this table, though.
"The issues raised are very complex, and all sides involved actually have something valuable to contribute, he said, adding, "We should talk about the resentment that a lot of white people feel, particularly working class, working poor whites who say, 'I don't feel "privileged" at all.' How do we address that?"
Owens continued, "And African American people need to hear that and have those conversations, but it takes leadership. There are very few leaders, anywhere, who can help facilitate those conversations, because white people are--and this is a generalization here--many, many white people are so offended by African American rage that they can never hear it, and that's what we've heard in these past few weeks.
"Jeremiah Wright is not a particularly angry black man. He's a fiery African American preacher. He's a part of a tradition. It somewhat troubles me, I guess, that so many people don't have any appreciation or understanding for the kind of critique he was trying to engage there, because it's turned on us, as a nation. And we are not a perfect nation. We have a very imperfect history, and a very imperfect present."
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