Just a Typical Black Person
Good thing for Martin Luther King admirers - blogs, talk radio, and 24/7 cable news "analysis" weren't around in the Sixties.
King might not have the status of patron saint in the temple of American civil religion. Then again, King is safely dead. While America may be the land of "second-chances," its people are definitely not the type to give props to a prophet while he or she is alive.
In criticizing U.S. policy in Vietnam, King said America was "one of the main purveyors of violence" in the world. Imagine King, with his sing-song black preacher cadence, saying that over and over and over again on CNN.
Longtime readers of this column might say this is typical Sean Gonsalves fare. And it's true. So, let me explain just how typical I am.
I'm just a typical American who happens to be black, and no matter what Limbaugh says about Barack's grandma, there's a difference between typical and stereotypical.
Like most typical black people my age, from the time I was a little boy, through high school, right up until early adulthood, I spent a lot of time in the black Baptist Church. Tuesday night prayer meetings. Wednesday night bible study. And Sunday service.
It's "typical" because something like 90 percent of all African-Americans are nominally-affiliated believers. And that's why I can say with certainty that no black person in America was shocked to hear Rev. Jeremiah Wright's "controversial" preaching and are probably more shocked at the hysterical and hypocritical manufactured controversy surrounding Wright.
I know we're in the new PC era of "colorblindness," where the word "racist" has been flipped on its head by the fading neo-right to mean: any public talk about race, without doing the Bill Cosby/Thomas Sowell routine, is "racist."
People are free to think whatever they want but just so we're clear: a racist, by definition, is someone who explicitly or implicitly believes one racial group is morally and intellectually superior to others. Only in a warped world is it considered "racist" to talk publicly about the legacy of white supremacy.
So let me tell you 'bout my typical black mother. She's a church-going woman and she made sure my younger brother and I were church-going kids. No if, and, or she would whoop our butts. And not just church. My mother was a big fan of Sunday school too.
Boredom and longing to watch the 49ers or Raiders on TV aside, my Sunday school teachers sparked in me a deep and abiding interest in studying the bible (King James Version).
As a child of extreme energy and passion, I was drawn to the books of the Prophets (Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah etc.) - at first because it was fun to see my Sunday school teachers squirm when asked a hard question about, say, Elijah murdering hundreds Baalists, after he already proved his point. You'd think the fire would have be enough to settle the Who's-God-is-Real contest but nope - Elijah just had to put the sword to every non-believer in sight.
It wasn't until I began seriously studying the prophetic tradition that I came across the work of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel. First, Heschel taught me what a prophet is not: "A prophet is neither a messenger, an oracle, a seer, nor an ecstatic," but "a witness to the divine pathos, one who bears testimony to God's concern for human beings."
Reading the prophets words, "one cannot long retain the security of a prudent, impartial observer. The prophets do not offer reflections about ideas in general. Their words are onslaughts, scuttling illusions of false security, challenging evasions, calling faith to account, questioning prudence and impartiality."
As any black church-goer will tell you, prophetic preaching is the communal lifeblood of black religious experience in America. Always has been. Rev. Jeremiah Wright comes out of that experience - an experience I personally encountered the Sunday I attended Oakland's Allen Temple.
Wright used the Samson and Delilah story as his text, raising the question Delilah kept asking Samson: "What makes you so strong?" Then he asked his black audience: And what makes you so strong, black people?
He wanted to know, how is it that, after all black people have experienced - from slavery and lynching to segregation and economic deprivation - we could still produce such a wide array of heroic personalities. He listed well-known black achievers from Sojourner Truth to, yes, Bill Cosby, periodically punctuating his laundry list with the "what makes you so strong" question.
I shared a portion of Wright's sermon in a column about 10 years ago, which prompted the USA Today to ask me to write a black history month piece. I received hundreds of e-mails and letters in response, mostly from white readers asking for a copy, saying they loved it because the sermon was an uplifting affirmation of the human spirit; that while people are often victimized, it doesn't mean they can't ultimately be victorious.
It was in another column - an Easter column - that I shared the last part of Wright's "What Makes You So Strong?" sermon; re-telling his re-telling of when the late great theologian Paul Tillich visited the University of Chicago Divinity School in the 50s.
Wright was a seminary student at the time and Tillich came to give a three hour lecture "proving" that the historical resurrection of Jesus was a myth, concluding his talk by saying that because black American religious experience is based on a supposed relationship with "a Risen Lord" - who, in fact, didn't exist - black American spirituality was nothing more than "emotional mumbo-jumbo."
Tillich asked the packed lecture hall: "Are there any questions?" The silence was deafening, Wright said, until an old black preacher with white hair stood up in the back of the auditorium. The old preacher reached into his brown bag lunch and pulled out an apple. As he loudly, chomped and munched on his apple, the old black preacher asked:
"Was this apple I just ate - bitter or sweet?" Tillich responded: "I can't answer that question because I haven't tasted your apple." The old preacher put Tillich's condescension in its place. " And neither have you tasted my Jesus," he said. Game over.
Again, the response I got from mostly white readers was overwhelming. In fact, an evangelical book publisher (Guideposts) asked if they could re-print it in an upcoming book, Let There Be Laughter: A View from the Pew. I said yes. After all, I stole it from Wright. The book was published in 2005.
Now along comes the Wright "controversy" and Barack was forced to confront the issue of race. In doing so, he spoke to us like adults.
Unfortunately, some adults just don't want to have grown up conversation. They want to talk about Wright's "controversial" (prophetic) preaching. Funny how nobody wants to talk about McCain's relationship with the controversial white preacher John Hagee.
I guess it's asking too much of "Christian" America to notice the huge difference between a preacher steeped in the biblical prophetic tradition and "Christians" like Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph. You don't see members of Wright's church going out and putting "hatred and anti-Americanism" into practice by becoming domestic terrorists. Nope. Members of Wright's church just go out and do things like run for president and energize an entire generation of new voters.
You know the world's crazy when hope is confused with hate.
Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and assistant news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org