WASHINGTON, D.C. — The consensus was clear after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright finished speaking at the National Press Club Monday morning. The pastor had smacked one out of the park.
Just ask any of the black church leaders and theologians who came out to hear him in person yesterday morning. Nothing he said was shocking or controversial. Wright had spoken truth to power. And his eloquence had made power tremble.
“I thought the presentation was wonderfully balanced and thought out,” said Ian Straker, a professor of church history at Howard University. “It was classic Jeremiah Wright.”
Straker actually had one of the milder responses. Marcus D. Cosby, a member of the conference board that organized the event and an occasional guest-preacher at Wright’s church, called the presentation “absolutely phenomenal.”
Anthony Evans of the National Black Church Initiative in Washington went further still. “It was a brilliant presentation. I believe that God has appointed the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as the modern prophet to teach America how to spell democracy. He is the right prophet at the right time with the right message,” Evans said.
MOST MEMBERS OF the audience were there as part of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, an annual gathering of black religious leaders. This year’s symposium is entitled “Prophetic Witness in the African-American Religious Experience: Crisis, Calling, Critique, and Community.” Wright’s remarks at the National Press Club kicked off the event.
In other words, the audience was full of Wright’s friends and peers. They did not view him as some crazy old uncle either. The press handout for the event called Wright “a man of faith, a homiletic genius, a theological scholar, and a pastor’s pastor.” It further said that Dr. Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ has “long [been] considered in theological circles a model for the Black church.”
Wright took the podium Monday morning to a lusty standing ovation and left with an even stronger one. In between the audience members, including Cornel West, could be heard saying “yes” and “uh-huh” throughout as Wright explained his controversial remarks. They occasionally broke into raucous laughter and cheers.
Most reporters (including this one) watched from a balcony area or from the back of the room. We had to. There was no other space, the event having been announced as sold out last week.
WRIGHT’S SPEECH ITSELF was comparatively mild. He ad-libbed the line about the attacks on him really being an attack on the black church (it wasn’t in the prepared remarks) but mostly dwelt on the origins of his particular theological tradition, “Black Liberation Theology,” and the need to keep it alive.
It was during the Q&A session that things really heated up. In response to questions read by USA Today reporter Donna Leinwand (the tradition in these club events is to have the audiences’ questions written down and handed to a moderator), Wright was alternately passionate, angry, mocking, and at times simply baffling.
He repeatedly challenged the premises of questions, claiming he had been misunderstood, misrepresented or taken out of context — and then amplified the original charge.
The very first question asked him to explain his comment about how 9/11 was America’s “chickens coming home to roost.” Wright said that if the person had not heard then whole sermon the line came from then that nullified the question. He added: “You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it to never come back on you.”
Asked about his connection to Louis Farrakhan, he offered that he and “Louis” didn’t agree on everything but said the media was harping on a comment Farrakhan made 20 years ago — about how Zionism was a gutter religion. Wright also called him “one of the most important voices of the 20th and 21st century.”
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