Wright stuff: Does he typify the black church?

wright 02 For their story about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s comments yesterday, Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin of The Washington Post focused on the politics of his appearance and speech. Their emphasis is understandable for obvious reasons. Yet the reporters underplayed the religion angle in their story — and thus also weakened their political angle.

Murray and Slevin gave readers the gist of Wright’s remarks — attacks on Wright are an attack on the black church:

Speaking before a sold-out gathering that was broadcast live on cable news networks yesterday, Wright told a mostly African American audience that his preaching has been misconstrued by journalists and political pundits who do not understand black religious tradition, which he said was founded amid slavery and racial intolerance and “still is invisible to the dominant culture.”

“Maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country but for all the people in this country.”

In his prepared remarks, Wright traced the origins of the African American church in a measured tone and academic language.

To their credit, Murray and Slevin also quoted a fellow black pastor, albeit one with close ties to the Rev. Wright:

The Rev. Deborah F. Grant, a close friend of Wright’s and the pastor of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ga., said the scrutiny of Wright is unfair, because he is being examined through a political lens. “He has not been called to be a politician. He’s been called to speak the gospel.”

Yet Grant was the lone voice on behalf of black churches. This is a failure of reporting. Murray and Slevin should have given readers a much better idea of whether Rev. Wright is typical of black pastors. They needed to include the voices of more black pastors and an expert on black American Christianity. Do they view Rev. Wright as left-wing anomaly or a mainstream figure?

This is an important question not just religiously but also politically. Suppose Barack Obama disavows his former pastor, as the Post implies that he should. Would Obama face massive defections from ordinary black Christians? Or would he meet resistance from a few stray black-liberation adherents?

Like any good politician, Obama knows how to count. So you can bet that he knows where his former pastor fits in the black Christian universe. Reporters should also know — and tell their readers accordingly.

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A blessed Holy Week to you, too

PutinLukashenkoLightingCandlesRegular GetReligion readers will not be surprised to know that I noticed the New York Times story that ran with the headline, “Kremlin Rules — At Expense of All Others, Putin Picks a Church.” I noticed it and other people made sure that I noticed it, too.

It covers some of the territory handled by a recent Telegraph feature that I wrote about, a post that produced a giant silence on the comments board. Apparently, more people want to make sure that I know about stories critical of Eastern Orthodoxy than are interested in discussing them.

The Times story is, sadly, highly relevant and contains lots of solid reporting. Here’s a key chunk of it:

There was a time after the fall of Communism when small Protestant congregations blossomed here in southwestern Russia, when a church was almost as easy to set up as a general store. Today, this industrial region has become emblematic of the suppression of religious freedom under President Vladimir V. Putin.

Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin’s surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion, warding off other Christian denominations that seem to offer the most significant competition for worshipers. They have all but banned proselytizing by Protestants and discouraged Protestant worship through a variety of harassing measures, according to dozens of interviews with government officials and religious leaders across Russia.

This close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Mr. Putin’s tenure, a mutually reinforcing choreography that is usually described here as working “in symphony.”

This is not, of course, a new story. I find it interesting that our newspaper of record is very concerned about the oppression of Methodists in Russia — a decade-plus after the initial efforts to crack down on rapidly growing Pentecostal and evangelical movements. Trust me, Methodists are not a booming force in Russian culture. Conflicts between the Russia and Rome are an even older, and more complex, story.

The oppression is inconsistent, which is why the story says it is present in “many areas,” rather than “all.” Russian authorities have tried to define which groups are hostile to Russian culture and which ones are not, a tricky and troubling business at best. The oppression is not as bad as under the Soviets (legal woes are not quite the same think as being butchered inside your sanctuary), but that is no excuse. Here’s another good summary of what is going on:

Mikhail I. Odintsov, a senior aide in the office of Russia’s human rights commissioner, who was nominated by Mr. Putin, said most of the complaints his office received about religion involved Protestants. Mr. Odintsov listed the issues: “Registration, reregistration, problems with property illegally taken away, problems with construction of church buildings, problems with renovations, problems with ministers coming from abroad, problems with law enforcement, usually with the police. Problems, problems, problems and more problems.”

“In Russia,” he said, “there isn’t any significant, influential political force, party or any form of organization that upholds and protects the principle of freedom of religion.”

Much of this is due to extreme forms of nationalism. But there is another reason for the defensive posture, which must be taken into account. I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service several years ago about corruption inside the Russian church that noted:

Outsiders must remember that this is taking place only a few generations after the Communists closed 98 percent of Russia’s churches and, in one brief period, killed 200,000 bishops, priests and nuns and then sent another 500,000 believers to die in labor camps. Millions later died in Stalinist purges. KGB records indicate that most clergy were simply shot or hanged. But others were crucified on church doors, slaughtered on their altars or stripped naked, doused with water and left outdoors in winter.

The KGB records also contain the stories of clerics who yielded. Russian Orthodoxy was a complex mosaic of sin and sacrifice, during the era of the martyrs.

So what is wrong with the story?

My main comment is the same as the last time around, following that Telegraph report. Orthodox readers would consider this half of a story, one lacking some critical and informed Eastern Orthodox voices.

pascha 02There are, you see, Orthodox people — journalists, even — who are highly critical of the Russian hierarchy. In fact, there are Orthodox people who have done some of the best research into the horrors of the Soviet era and its crimes. Like I said before, for a glimpse of that, check out some of the reviews of the brutally honest “The Price of Prophecy” by the American priest Father Alexander Webster. Or get your hands on the book, which, sadly, is out of print but easy to find.

This is a very complex story and there is a lot of information to take in. The Times article needed more voices, if it wanted to show what is happening on the ground in different parts of Russia.

Meanwhile, there is the issue of Putin himself. As I discovered years ago, when I ended up in Russia days after the 1991 coup — click here for more info on that adventure — the believers there have a special word to describe the political posturing that may be going on in this case. This brand of public figure is called a “podsvechnik,” or “candlestick holder.”

Some Orthodox believers even use this term to describe some of their shepherds. Here is another clip from that earlier column I wrote on this topic:

Many ask … if some of the church’s bishops are mere candlestick holders — or worse. Two weeks after the 1991 upheaval that ended the Soviet era, I visited Moscow and talked privately with several veteran priests.

It’s impossible to understand the modern Russian church, one said, without grasping that it has four different kinds of leaders. A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

In conclusion, there is one other reason that many Orthodox believers are somewhat upset about this edgy New York Times story about their church — the timing.

This is Holy Week in the Eastern Christian churches, under the ancient Julian calendar. Today is Good Friday. In the late hours of Saturday night we will begin celebrating Pascha, the greatest feast in all of Christendom, which is called Easter in the West. It’s a hard time to read terrible news about a branch of your church, especially if it is old, incomplete, news.

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Ghosts in the news map

breakingnewsmapI am a big fan of the Strange Maps Web site.

You can find maps showing the leading church bodies per county in the United States and the state of South Carolina divided into four regions, according to the preferred style of condiment used on barbecued food. But the most recent map caught my eye, which you can see right here.

The map was actually featured in the August 2004 issue of Science News magazine and was made by researchers extracting the dateline from about 72,000 wire-service news stories from 1994 to 1998 and modifying a standard map of the Lower 48 US states to show the size of the states in proportion to the frequency of their appearance in those datelines.

StrangeMaps reports:

As any journalist knows, news has to be about people — they either make it, or are affected by it. No people, no news. It therefore stands to reason that heavily populated areas of the US, like California or the Northeast, generate most of the news stories. But even allowing for population, some locations account for a disproportionately high number of news items.

It is interesting, but not that surprising, that Washington, D.C., and New York generate such a significant portion of the news.

Still, I think there might be some religious news ghosts in this map.

Is Colorado as visible as it is because of Colorado Springs’ many evangelical groups? How many mainline church bodies are still headquartered in New York City? Any other ghosts you see in these maps? And what stories are getting missed because they don’t take place in highest-population or politically-powerful areas? Is the Bible Belt a non-news zone? The All-American Heartland?

Hmmmm…. What if this map is contrasted with these maps? Or how about (heaven forbid) this one?

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Baltimore: Peace, unity and gunshots

bullet holes in glassAnyone who knows anything about Baltimore — whether through news or through entertainment — knows that our inner-city neighborhoods are plagued by violence, with young, African-American males almost always on both sides of the guns.

This is not a new story, yet it remains a news story. The violence still has a way of landing on A1 in the Baltimore Sun. The latest variation on this hellish theme? A gunfight that interrupted the funeral service of another young man killed by violence — in a triple shooting, no less — while the minister was trying to preach a sermon about unity and peace.

Things were already rowdy inside the crowded Unity United Methodist Church before the gunfire — eight shots in all — began outside. The new toll: One dead, one critically wounded.

Many of the mourners were active “in the drug life,” according to the minister, and the funeral was for Anthony Lamont Izzard Sr., 26, the youngest of 13 children, with two children of his own and a fiancee. Sun reporter Gadi Dechter noted that he was known in the neighborhood as “King Losta” and “Poppie” and that, according to court records, he had been convicted of several drug dealing charges.

“It is safe to say that the funeral brought this activity, but to what extent we don’t know,” said Agent Donny Moses, a police spokesman. Authorities had not identified any suspects last night. “At this point, we’re not sure we have any witnesses,” he said. “Everybody was inside the church, or so they say.”…

After securing the area, authorities allowed Izzard’s body to be transported to Mount Zion Cemetery in Lansdowne. Only about 50 mourners attended the burial, which Rush said he hurried through because he didn’t feel safe. He has been a minister for 26 years and has presided over many funerals for victims of urban violence. “But this is the first one I ever did where a shooting actually took place at the service,” Rush said.

And there is the theme that jolts the story, the ghost that leaps out of this well-written, but sadly familiar story. The pastor is now having to rethink whether or not he can continue to do funerals — of this sort. Will he have to do research on the deceased — street research — in order to find out whether it is safe to host a funeral?

Make sure you read to the end. The religion angle is powerful at the end of this well-written hard news story. Still, I wonder if this is a case where the reporter truly buried — there is no other word that will do — the lede:

Rush said he had known Izzard since he was a baby. Izzard’s father died 11 months ago of cancer, the minister said, and his mother was “kind of out of it” with grief. Rush said Izzard’s violent death and criminal history led him to preach a message of peace yesterday. “My thing was that we have to learn to come together as one, as a people, and stop the violence,” he said. “We need to bring some unity toward ourselves.”

It is a theme he has been plying for years, at similar funerals, but after yesterday’s violence, Rush said he would think twice before accepting another such assignment.

On the exterior of Unity United hangs a banner: “Put down the guns. Love or perish.”

It’s a small thing to note that this reference should have been “Unity Church” or “Unity United Methodist.” The painful irony would have remained, in either case.

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B16: Pope calls for doctrinal faithfulness

pope benedict xvi 7Pope Benedict XVI may be in his 80s, but he keeps a schedule that is tiring just to observe. There have been so many appointments, so many meetings, so many worship services. One of the significant events was a prayer service with representatives from other Christian church bodies. And as dramatic as people may think his Regensburg speech was, his comments at St. Joseph’s in Yorkville gave the gathered much to chew on.

The event didn’t receive as much coverage as I’d wished, but those that did write it up handled it well. A transcript of the remarks indicates a direct rejection of the “ecumenism” that is characterized by doctrinal compromise and indifference. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA TODAY started off with a bang:

Pope Benedict XVI met with leaders of other Christian faiths on Friday evening, telling them that only by “holding fast” to sound doctrinal teaching can they confront secular ideology and the individualism that “undermines or even rejects transcendent truth.”

Although each of these churches split from Roman Catholicism across centuries, the pope talked about their common birth and unity in belief in the Holy Trinity — God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and their common concerns in a world where “the very possibility of divine revelation, and therefore of Christian faith, is often placed into question by cultural trends widely present in academia, the mass media and public debate.

“Christians are challenged to give a clear account of the hope that they hold,” he said.

Because she was covering a speech about handling doctrinal differences, Grossman emphasized doctrinal matters. The substantive and lengthy treatment was nice to read.

Gary Stern of the Journal-News has been doing a great job with his papal coverage. He wrote up another interesting portion of the speech — Benedict’s condemnation of relativism:

But Benedict also warned that a creeping moral relativism that pervades academia and the mass media is also affecting certain Christian communities that may be moving away from Christian tradition.

“Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called prophetic actions,” he said.

He did not cite the communities he was referring to, but Christian leaders who support gay rights often speak of taking prophetic actions for modern times.

“Only by holding fast to sound teaching will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world,” Benedict said. “Only in this way will we give unambiguous testimony to the truth of the Gospel and its moral teaching.”

Other than the imprecision of the term “gay rights” — I loved that Stern didn’t pussyfoot around what Benedict was getting at. The Catholic News Service covered the speech, like Grossman, and went immediately to the Episcopal Church’s New York Bishop to see what he thought about the remarks.

And while his remarks did go further, attacking the so-called “local option,” he also condemned the effect of relativism in non-mainline churches, too. Grossman included his remarks against overemphasizing personal experience and taste, too. She did a great job of removing some of the Greek or otherwise mainstream media unfriendly words to summarize his thoughts:

Benedict said the power of the preaching of the Christian faith “has lost none of its internal dynamism. Yet we must ask ourselves whether its full force has not been attenuated by a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies. … ”

Secular worldviews, “in alleging that science alone is ‘objective,’ relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling. Scientific discoveries, and their application through human ingenuity, undoubtedly offer new possibilities for the betterment of humankind. This does not mean, however, that the ‘knowable’ is limited to the empirically verifiable, nor religion restricted to the shifting realm of ‘personal experience.’

“For Christians to accept this faulty line of reasoning would lead to the notion that there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes. The result is seen in the continual proliferation of communities which often eschew institutional structures and minimize the importance of doctrinal content for Christian living.”

As we transition from the spot news coverage to analysis of the significance of Benedict’s words to Americans, I hope that this important speech is not forgotten.

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Ghost in the Bittergate fuss

obama clinton cheActually, there isn’t a ghost in the Barack Obama “Bittergate” fuss. The religion element has been right there front and center (or to the left of center) all along.

In case you have been on another planet and have not memorized the quotation, the Democratic front runner said, speaking of working-class people:

“And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

So if you go to Google News right now and search for a logical set of words — perhaps “bitter,” “religion” and “Obama” — you end up with a swarm of stories and columns. No surprise. There’s no way to take the religion question out of this brouhaha.

Of course, Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as Obama, are already known as churchgoers, in a way progressive oldline Protestant context. Everyone knows that they are pro-religion and active believers.

So the story evolved. Before long, it turned into a debate about another crucial political word — elitism. Suddenly, the senator who endured Arkansas before ascending to Washington, D.C., and then New York was tossing back shots and talking about shooting guns. Obama was trying to bowl. I expect, any day now, one of them to claim “Fanfare for the Common Man” as a campaign theme. Wait! That’s classical music. Sorry.

So this was too much for the elite folks at the Washington Post Style section, which led to reporter Paul Farhi’s piece entitled ” ‘Elitist’: The Rarefied Term That’s a Low Blow.” The article starts off strong:

Other than being called a criminal, a philanderer or a terrorist sympathizer, is there an accusation in American politics worse than being branded an “elitist”?

The word supposes something fundamentally effete and out of touch, a whiff of brie and latte. There’s something about it that grates against our Jacksonian, egalitarian self-image.

Barack Obama invited his opponents and the media, um, elite to wheel out the evil E last week by suggesting that some people in small towns “cling” to guns and religion, among other things, because of their embitterment. The comment created a rare moment of common cause for Hillary Clinton and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom characterized Obama’s comment as “elitist.”

So the religious element is in there at the start.

Now read the rest of the piece. The quest for the populist touch wanders all over the place, but it never returns to home base. We cover beer vs. merlot, corn dogs vs. country clubs, bowling vs. windsurfing, ranches vs. estates and all kinds of other things. We gain this insight, noting that “elitist” has more to do with what’s between your ears than in your wallet.

Donald Trump has money, but few think “elitist” when thinking of Trump. Elitism is instead an attitude, a demeanor, a vocabulary, a self-possessed air. It suggests condescension and contempt, a lack of empathy, an arrogant aloofness.

Admittedly, it’s a fine line. It’s okay to be perceived as smart (Bill Clinton) but it’s not okay to be perceived as bookish and intellectual (Adlai Stevenson). And it’s okay to be elite. Olympic athletes are elite, as are Marines and Navy SEALs. But it’s not okay to be insufferably proud of your elite skills, which is just obnoxious.

There is even this laugh-out-loud howler that shows how little the Style folks know about the latte liberal zones of the Midwest and Southwest. If you live in Texas, you’ll want to read this one sitting down.

Some liberal college towns are caricatured as elitist (Cambridge, Berkeley) but other liberal college towns (Madison, Austin) are not.

The essay goes all over the place, but avoids the actual issues at the heart of the Bittergate controversy itself, which is “guns” (code for rural) and “religion” (which, coming from a person who is a religious believer, must be a coded reference to a kind of religion that is dumb and sub-standard).

So here is the question: Why did the Style piece avoid the religion ghost, which, in this case, was not a ghost because it was at the heart of the story from day one?

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T.D. Jakes vs. CNN, online

44ad9c04 001e0 0120e 400cb8e1It is a blunt, stinging attack, linking one of the most popular voices in the contemporary black church with the ultimate symbol of black courage and sacrifice.

The story by CNN’s John Blake opens this way:

In a stinging passage from a “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. condemned white churches for rejecting his pleas for support.

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies,” King wrote from jail during the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, demonstrations.

The contemporary white church has largely accepted King as a religious hero. Yet some observers say there is one religious community that continues to shun King — the black church.

Forty years after his death, King remains a prophet without honor in the institution that nurtured him, some black preachers and scholars say. They also say King’s “prophetic” model of ministry — one that confronted political and economic institutions of power — has been sidelined by the prosperity gospel.

The key word, of course, is “some” — as in “some black preachers and scholars say.” It’s a story built on the oh-so-familiar divisions in the contemporary church, yet framed to look like a battle over the legacy of King.

The key is that headline — “Modern black church shuns King’s message” — is printed right above a photo of Pentecostal superstar T.D. Jakes. The story draws a line between “self help” and “political activism,” but it is also hard not to notice that it is also a divide between the world of black churches that tend to align with mainline Protestants and a liberal political agenda and those that tend to lean to the cultural right, which may mean limited or overt cooperation with moral and cultural conservatives.


Read the CNN piece
, please. Then read the response that CNN — to the network’s credit — allowed Jakes to write in response.

This gets rather blunt, but read it all.

The Jakes commentary opens with this quote:

“Bishop Jakes has always been a strong supporter of my father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the King family. Bishop Jakes, along with many other ministries of his ilk, all continue to convey the dream and the message of my father in the services they provide to oppressed people around the world. Some may say that the ministers of today have different techniques, but the core of the message and the goal remain the same.”

– Martin Luther King III

Read both pieces and then answer me this: Is this division, between Jakes and the CNN sources so critical of him, primarily political or theological? Or did the folks at CNN simply go with a half-finished story, rather than truly listen to what the right side of the black-church spectrum has to say about the work of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and those who back his approach to prophecy?

It also helps to remember that the King family also contains some controversial voices. Why? I bet you can guess. CNN really needed to talk to people on both sides of this divide in the black pulpits and pews.

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Anglicans: Say what?

hereford cathedral priddis 270Here’s another quick one, while we all dive into the pre-papal visit tsunami.

I have one question for GetReligion readers. Is the following Onion-style, April 1 connected satire? Only, to my knowledge, Interfax has never gone in for the whole BBC fake news on April 1 tradition (you must click here for this year’s stunt).

So we are left with this text, which is the whole item.

The Anglican Church to face a new clerical reform

London, April 1, Interfax – Certain Anglican Commonwealth churches will simplify rules of ordaining clerics next year.

“Realities of today’s life require revision of certain canons and rules. We have agreed to women clergy and ordination of open gays, but we shouldn’t stop on the achieved,” the Rev Anthony Priddis, the Bishop of Hereford said in his interview to the Monday Telegraph.

Three years ago he gained popularity for supporting a woman-priest who had changed sex.

According to Priddis, next year not only Christians would be able to become Anglican priests.

“When you a person is hired, especially to a British state religious organization he shouldn’t be discriminated for his confession. The Anglican Church should give an example of fighting against xenophobia in our multicultural tolerant society and give equal opportunities to all people no matter if they believe in God, gods or any other power,” the bishop stressed.

Priddis has not excluded the possibility of future ordaining atheists in the Anglican Church, the weekly reports.

Clues? I cannot find a Telegraph interview saying this. Can you?

There will always be an England. I mean, hey, everyone knows that flying penguins is April 1 satire. But Anglican bishops ordaining atheists and members of other faiths? That one is too close to call. If you are doing satire, you need to make it obvious.

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