During the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., we remember the ongoing struggle to end race based oppression in America. In our communities and our religious institutions we celebrate King's life, mourn his death, and we vow to continue the struggle. Meanwhile, Rev. Jeremiah Wright's comments, and our reactions to them, are part of the backdrop.
Let us examine Wright's comments and our reactions to them with more than a simplified black/white understanding. As we remember the change brought about through the civil rights movement, let us look at the position of the Black church in the lives of many today with more than a bottom line good/evil lens. We can use this time of social unrest and political disagreement to develop broader understandings of what it means to be American, what it means to be oppressed, and what it means to hold ourselves, our government, and our institutions accountable.
The unapologetic, racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-American comments of Wright opens a window to American history that many hoped had been closed through the work and sacrifices of activists over the decades. In addition, our reactions to these comments reveal how we tend to look for simplified explanations for the complex challenges that we face today.
Wright is a human being with a set of life experiences and a journey of personal choices. We react to his comments as if he is either a demon against all that is civilized or a deliverer from all that is unjust. Neither is absolutely true, and therein lies the conflict we face. In our assessment of Wright, some of us choose only to see the fact that he led a prosperous congregation that became a positive force in the lives of many. Others of us choose only to see that he has used the pulpit to make racist, intolerant, and unpatriotic comments.
King, too, was human—with his own set of life experiences and personal choices. We tend only to remember King the prophet who spoke against injustice. We often forget that sometimes King's actions contradicted his words. While he spoke so eloquently for the end of oppression, he battled with, and ultimately succumbed to, his personal homophobia throughout his relationship with Bayard Rustin. We want to remember King the visionary who lost his life in the fight to end racism. All the while we seem to forget that he did not address the fact that women in the movement were only treated as valuable when they served the agenda of men.
Today, we credit the Black church with starting and fueling the civil-rights movement. We forget that many churches would not support King and he was not welcome in many pulpits. What many of us choose to remember and what actually happened during the civil-rights movement reveals a dual image of history, the Black church and the struggle for equality. That duality continues today.
Now, because of Wright's comments and reactions to them, the perception that the Black church follows two versions of Christianity is becoming prominent. One Christianity is expressed behind closed doors when Black preachers and their congregations express anti-American rhetoric, blame the government for the spread of disease in their communities, and accuse Jewish people of fueling the tensions in the Middle East. The other Christianity is presented to the public when Black preachers and their congregations try to address the spread of HIV in their communities, work to help incarcerated men and women have a successful reentry into society, and attempt to ease illiteracy in Black communities.
This duality extends beyond the church and into the politics of today. Some of us are so anxious to believe that racism no longer exists in America that we will almost blindly support Barack Obama's bid for the presidential candidacy because he is Black. We ignore the times when he talks around direct questions by raising important issues that affect the quality of our lives. We heave a heavy sigh of relief when we hear him speak about the importance of having conversations about race in this country, and our hopes are raised.
Others of us are so eager to maintain or obtain power and control that we resort to images and attitudes that call to mind the America when slavery was a God-given right, rather than a man-made abomination, Jim Crow was the law of the land rather than the will of the racist, anti-Semitism was the litmus test for all Christians rather than just one more expression of hate, and lynching was a means to maintain control, rather than violent, hate-based murder. The result: our country is divided, yet again, between Black and White. This division comes at a time when most Americans can claim a blend of racial heritages and ethnicities.
We face the most important decision of our generation. We need to decide as individuals and as a country whether we will continue to see color, gender, sexual orientation, and religion when we look at one another, or if we will finally move beyond what has divided us and be an example so that the next generation of Americans will not have to make choices based on imposed social, religious and physical categories.
It is my hope, as it has been for decades, that we will be able to become free from the shackles of the racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual orientation categories that have served so well to separate all of humanity. We are slaves to our categories of Black, White, Christian, Moslem, Jew … and because of this, our oppressions continue. We all must stop looking for 'self' in categories, and start seeing 'us' in humanity. We can take this time when half of America is shocked by Wright's comments and half is relieved to hear them aired, to learn how to see beyond the many categories that we claim and see our common experiences. We can take this time when half of America does not understand how a pastor could speak such language from the pulpit, and half understands completely, to see that oppression touches us all.
Langston Hughes eloquently describes our potential for connection in this excerpt from his poem, Let America be America Again:
'I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—and finding only the same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. I am the young man, full of strength and hope, tangled in that ancient endless chain of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one's own greed! I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—O Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, the poorest worker bartered through the years.'
Until we recognize that we are human, and we have common human experiences, we will never find the unity, peace, and prosperity that we all crave. Until we stop looking for our 'savior' the 'next Martin Luther King' the iconic 'leader for change' and start understanding that each one of us has a choice to make and our choice will determine the direction of our country, we will always find that our next 'new hope' is yet another disappointment.
One choice is to continue to magnify the base, degrading and insulting attitudes of those who are blinded by their hatred by replicating or justifying them. Another choice is to diminish these attitudes by rejecting them, and magnifying the words and actions of those who truly see beyond our divisions. We can follow those who capitalize on the categories that divide us, or we can empower those who envision an America that is indivisible and with justice for all. We can throw down our shackles of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religious affiliation and begin to create true change as we connect with one another through our common human experiences.