Over the last several days, I watched Rev. Jeremiah Wright in discussions of faith, theology, history, and culture on television. The three-plus hours I devoted to PBS and CNN amounted to some of the most sophisticated and thoughtful programming on American culture and racial issues that any news station has offered in recent years. And, for those who really listened to Rev. Wright, he moved from being a political liability in the current presidential campaign to demonstrating why he is one of the nation's most compelling spokespersons of the African-American community and of progressive Christianity.
On Friday, Bill Moyers interviewed Wright in an hour-long conversation. (Watch it here.) On Sunday, Wright preached at an NAACP fundraiser in Detroit that attracted 10,000 people. (Watch parts 1 [intro], 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.) Finally, on Monday morning, Wright addressed a packed National Press Club in Washington, D.C. However different the venues, a surprisingly common thread wound through all three speeches -- that a realistic understanding of history forms the spiritual basis of hope and healing.
In the Moyers interview, Wright admitted that one of the major influences on his ministry was the august historian Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago (a white Lutheran and a true gentleman scholar), who challenged his students to relate the "faith preached in our churches" to the "world in which our church members leave at the benediction." He then quoted African-American historian Carter G. Woodson, saying that black Americans had been—and one can argue, by inference, Anglo-Americans as well—"miseducated."
I suspect that both Woodson and Marty share the perception that Americans suffer from "miseducation" regarding history. This "miseducation" means looking to the glorious parts of history and not to its despair, of having an incomplete picture—only a "piece of the story"—regarding the past. Bad history leaves out the bits that make us cringe, doubt ourselves, or question our morality. Leaving out the uncomfortable parts may reinforce cherished views, but it lacks the power of internal critique or self-correction.
Realistic history includes the good and the amoral, the profound and the profane. It gives us the ability to understand the fullness of human experience and learn from mistakes and sin. A robust vision of the past, Wright stated, enables Christians "not to leave that world and pretend that we are now in some sort of fantasy land, as Martin Marty called it, but to serve a God who comes into history on the side of the oppressed."The God of history is also, as Wright reminded his audience on Sunday, "a God of diversity." ...
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