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Monday, April 07, 2008


By Denniis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

When will it end?

It has been about a month since Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.'s rant against whites and America jarred our consciousness, but some people still can't resist using it for their own purposes. We've heard just about enough from politicians, commentators and others of all sides who are trying to squeeze every opportunity for self-promotion from the controversy.

Even calls for calm and "sacred conversations" seem to add to racial animosities. The latest came in Wright's own church, Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side.

There, leaders of the National Council of Churches gathered Thursday to "affirm this denomination and this congregation," said Rev. Michael Kinnamon, the group's general secretary. It's time, the leaders said, to leave the church alone and to stand up to the threats that some of its members say they have received. Well and good.

Rev. John H. Thomas, national president of the United Church of Christ, said of the sacred conversation about race that the group urged, "That does not mean that our language is always going to be gentle and quiet and graceful, because racism is not gentle and quiet and graceful." Thomas apparently didn't catch the irony that Wright's rant was rough, loud and graceless and could be subject to charges of racism.

Can't we all just shut up?

Apparently not, so here's my two cents: This isn't about Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democratic presidential candidate who was a regular congregant at Trinity and an admirer of Wright. Obama's Philadelphia speech disowning Wright's abhorrent words, but not the man or the congregation, was brilliant, perhaps reminiscent of some of King's best. Obama put into context how Wright reflected an older generation who grew up in an age of Jim Crow and whose outrage at the injustices still boils over. And unlike the many who keep throwing stones at each other across the racial divide so they can continue to leach whatever opportunities they can for themselves from inflaming racial animosities, Obama did something powerful and useful: He declared that we have made significant progress in race relations, and that we can continue to do so. And for progress to continue, Obama himself said, the kind of rhetoric that Wright wallowed in must stop. That's what I call audacious hope.

Just what did Wright do? It's impossible for me to judge the entire "context" in which Wright's comments were made, but Obama is in a position to do so, and he found Wright's comments abhorrent. My own thought was amazement that a man of God would use the pulpit to call on God to assign a nation (or at least the white portion of it) to eternal damnation. Simply put, it was a curse, and in some denominations, a curse still is a sin.

Using a pulpit to curse a group of people is the heaviest kind of stuff, even when "taken out of context." I'll resort to a cliche to illustrate: Suppose Cardinal Francis George had similarly used his pulpit, shouting "God damn America," as Wright did? Suppose George, from the pulpit, accused black America of, well, whatever? There would be little discussion about the context of his statements. The debate would be about the appropriateness of using a sacred space to spit out such odious thoughts. Well, the explanation goes, Wright was carrying on King's tradition of "translating faith into action," of preaching the social gospel. That's weak gruel, but if you want to persist in the deception that Wright is some kind of prophet whose role is to discomfort and anger, so be it.

But, to me, Wright's remarks haven't been as bothersome as the reaction to them—the endless justification and rationalization for words meant to inflame anti-white and anti-American passions. No matter what you say about context, the words themselves were "hateful." At least those are my thoughts, which I admit will themselves cause offense, and, unfortunately, keep the debate going.

But it's time to let it go. All of us. It's time to end the accusations that whites or blacks don't "get it." It's time to end the imputations that deep within us all lurks dark shadows of racism. This won't be the last time that America will scratch the scab of its racist history and draw blood. But it is time to give it a chance to heal.

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