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."
Probed on his apparent claim that the government created the HIV/AIDS virus and spread it to the black community, he replied: "I believe our government is capable of anything."
He even made a direct threat to his most famous congregant. "I said to Barack Obama last year that, if you get elected, then November 5 I am coming after you because you will be representing a government whose policies grind under people," Wright said.
WRIGHT'S Q&A SESSION did leave some of the people upset -- with the questions.
"I thought some of the questions were kind of unfair and intended to keep the controversy going not so much to understand Rev. Wright as a pastor," said one participant, a former congregant of Wright's now living in Richmond. Wright was "just doing his best to answer the questions in the manner with which they came."
Howard University's Straker said Wright took the questions a little personally but that he had reason to be frustrated. Wright was being "condemned and maligned" for remarks when people "haven't heard the entire context."
"Yes, Wright has condemned white racism but he has never condemned white people. In fact, in comparison to others in that rhetorical tradition, his work has been rather mild and his call for reconciliation is a distinctive addition." Stacker explained.
Nobody seemed to worry much about whether Wright's speech would hurt a certain someone's chances of getting elected. "I don't think he is out to hurt Senator Obama. I think everyone knows that. I think he is out to help him as much as he can but he is also out to protect that church tradition with everything that is within him because he is accountable to God," Cosby said.
Asked to explain why he was speaking out now, Wright paraphrased from the book of proverbs: "It is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."
He didn't mean himself, though. Rather he meant that the media had opened its collective mouth and removed the doubt. As for Wright, he was just setting the record straight. "How long can you let somebody talk about your faith tradition before you speak up and say something?" he asked.
Funny how these proverbs work.
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