Why white people can relax about Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright

I got an email yesterday from a friend of some 30 years who’s a member of Trinity Church, home of the suddenly very famous Rev. Jeremiah Wright. She’s a tad freaked out by all the hoopla. She loves her pastor, of course. She knows him to be a deep, vital, loving man of God whose life and ministry are defined by compassion.

Talking to her made me want to suggest that one of the reasons white people (and yeah, I know I’m white) get so upset about Rev. Wright’s, shall we say, more vigorous assertions, is that they imagine what their white pastor would have to feel in order to say the same things Rev. Wright is now being so roundly condemned for saying.

But what I think we’d all do well to remember is that communication has much to do with style. And style is function of culture. And in black culture—that is, within the black community—the style in which people very often talk is big. Big voices. Big gestures. Big language. Big effects.

Rev. Wright wasn’t literally calling for God’s wrath to be visited upon on America. He was just talking in the flamboyantly oratorical way that’s traditionally used by black preachers in black churches. There are all kinds of visual and tonal cues that tell you when that’s the kind of talk you’re hearing. But if you’re not used to those cues—if you don’t really have much or any experience in black culture—then you might naturally assume that, in Rev. Wright’s case, he means what he says, in the same way that a white preacher would if he or she said the same things.

But that’s a category mistake. That’s failing to account for context—which, in communications, is everything.

Trust me: If my straight-laced, hyper-intellectual white pastor ever hollered from his pulpit, “God damn America!”, I would have no doubt that he’d lost his mind. When I hear Rev. Wright say it, though, I know that he’s just dramatically making a point to an audience keenly attuned to his flamboyant style of communication—to what, contrary to what it might seem to outsiders, are the subtleties of his message.

White people can relax. Rev. Wright doesn’t think everyone in the United States belongs to the K.K.K. He doesn’t want God to destroy America. And his audience doesn’t hear it that way, either.

I got another email yesterday from another black female friend of mine, someone who, way back when I was a teenager, basically saved my life by inviting me into her home and making me part of her family. Here’s some of what this good woman wrote to me:

When you grow up the way I did (in a white world, denying the truth of who and what you are) you are privy to racism in a way that many aren’t. People actually get so comfortable with you, that they let little statements start to “slip” in your presence. They start to finish nasty little comments with, ‘Oh, but not you,’ or ‘But you’re different.’ It was after that started happening that I knew I didn’t want to be different from my own people. That I didn’t want to be separated out. It is a truly painful thing to realize that you have had to learn to embrace your own skin and your own people — when you learn that you have been taught to hate yourself and all the beautiful things about yourself that are unique to your specific ethnic group. From the kink of your hair, to the curve of your hips, to the tone of your voice — you hate yourself. And for me, that is the saddest thing and the cruelest pain that racism can inflict: it can cause a human being to hate the beautiful creature that God has created in them. …. If everyone could see each other as an extension of God, these types of conversations would be unnecessary, and slavery would have never occurred. Slavery has always been economically based, and it didn’t begin in this country. But historically it had always been perpetrated by one group of color against another group of the same color. Ethnically different, yes, but of the same people. It was only in the western world that, finally, it became about color. The entire concept of one race hating another and thinking in terms of inherent superiority or inferiority denies the basic intelligence of God in his creation of humans.

And there you have it.

Happy Good Friday, everyone. And God bless us all.

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  • Ingrid

    John Thank you!

    This is what I was stumbling over. This is exactly the point I was trying to make. Your friend is right and so are you. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! No more incoherent ramblings in your comments section from me.

    Happy birthday and you are mos def the coolest dude I read in blogland. Thank You!

  • Believe me, lately I've been VERY glad for your "ramblings," Ingrid. Thank you.

  • Good Job John Shore! Well said.

    The problem of course is that there are white preachers who say hateful things and apparently do mean it. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell saying Katrina was God's judgement on New Orleans for having so many gay people. John Hagee who sees Catholics as "whores". Rod Parsley saying all Jews must either convert or die.

    And those are the mainstream folk. I'm not even talking about dear Rev. Phelps and his folk who picketed Matthew Sheppard's funeral and picket the funerals of American servicemembers killed in Iraq since of course that's God's judgement on us too for all of that sodomy. Face north Jack.

    As Randi Rhodes (the talk show host, not the dead guitarist) says, "Our way we get to have both church and state."

  • Martha

    Wow John! This is the most coherent thing I've read all year! You're the best! I'm sending this to Obama's people.

  • A. Hanson

    Ever here the saying:' loose lips sink ships'? Some of your blog is correct, some is not. And whats up with above Brian Shields comment? What is gained by that one sided slam–which may very well be out of context? &(which he purports to be fact base on his 'personal knowledge ' of the quoted speakers mindsets). Lets be rid of the trash talk already! Have a nice wkend anyway. I do agree with your take on the slavery history, that is in fact correct.

  • BTW John, Happy Birthday. Hope you enjoy your next half century/20th of a millennium!

    A. Hanson: Sorry you see it as a one-sided slam but I will be happy to research and offer you "chapter and verse" on each of these amazing "men of God" I mentioned. My point in bringing it up was to expand on John's comment that if his white preacher had said the things Rev. Wright did he would have considered the man batshit crazy. My point is these are mainstream white preachers who say incendiary things and no one bats an eye but when an African-American man says it, it gets the crowd all stirred up.

  • Arnette

    Well, DANG! Nobody said Happy Birthday (wait, let me go look)…Sorry Ingrid. Happy Birthday, John. And thanks for a decent comment for once on what has become a real crapfest. A lot of black preachers historically enjoy very particular freedoms from their pulpits and Lord, am I glad nobody is hold ME accountable for every word out of MY Pastor's mouth! Our dear mainstream media feels it is their job to sensationalize every, single thing and it's such a shame. Britney hasn't shown her "self" lately, and all the babies have been born (Halle, J-Lo) so they hadda do something. This is a high, Holy time and I'm just not going to let Rev. Wright's, Geraldine Ferraro's, or anybody else's comments take my focus off the fact that it's Resurrection Time. Jesus died that I might have life and have it more abundantly. THAT's my focus in an America where we're SUPPOSED to be free to say what we want. Happy Easter, y'all.

  • Janiece

    HB John

    What Rev. Wright said was not surprising, considering his theology. I've heard several people from his church say, when being interviewed, "He preaches Black Liberal Theology." When my husband heard that he understood completely. You see, about 5 years before he found Christ, he found Marxism. When he came back from Viet Nam where he had served in the Marine Corps for two years and received a Purple Heart, he was shocked at the appalling treatment of returning Vets. After his discharge from the Marine Corps shortly later, he started to try to put his life back together so he went back to college. He was a political science major and most of his professors were Marxists. Marxism made sense to him then and he joined ranks with those in the anti-war movement, like Jane Fonda. He was very active in Marxist political anti-war activity. I say all that to let you know he knows Marxism when he hears it. When he heard that Rev. Wright preaches Liberal Theology he said to me, "That's nothing more than Marxism." Since then we have heard that same statement being made by a few commentators. He said to me one evening while watching a news program, " I was wondering if anyone would pick up on that. Liberal Theology is Marxism." We don't have a problem with what Rev. Wright said. per se, but we do have a real problem with his theology. And since Sen. Obama has been sitting under his teaching for 20 years and considers him a mentor and close personal friend, it tells us that Sen. Obama has been greatly influenced by those same Marxist teachings.

  • Ann

    a) Happy Birthday, John. 50 is a big number. Half a century and you're still kicking. Congratulations.

    b) what exactly is wrong with Marxism? ah,well

    c) I read your friends' recollections about hearing people criticize blacks, and then addending with 'but not you' and recognized what it was like to grow up in the fifties as a female in the midwest. Of course, not quite as life-threatening, but the same political impetus was born as a result. There is something very scary about prejudice of any kind. I think its interesting that Clinton and Obama are our choices for Democratic presidential candidates, that the first woman and the first black man, both are running at the same time, and wonder that no journalist has dared speak out loud about it.

  • harvey l melton

    well, my first sermon was on seeing evryone or at least trying to see everyone through gods eyes.that wasnt a very popular sermon to say the least but that is how i try to see people and realise that we are first all sinners, wether we are''saved'' or not we all sin until death. first we need to work on ourselves by the time we get ourselves right then it will be too late to worry about anyone else. sure we all should use common sense and seperate ourselves from those that would cause us and our families harm no matter how they are wraped.and we all have a god given right to defend our selves and our family against tyranny in any form. it is not the politicians that has always paid the ultimate price for the wrongs in govt. and america, it is alwya we the people. we will get through these tough times because we are not where we are today by laying down to be walked on. now personally i feel that we have no good choices for the highest office in this land. that has nothing to do with race but with qualifications, i personally do not believe thier is any current canadate that is really up to the job, but it will be one of them and thier resolve will be tested, thier backbone will be strengthened or broken, GOD be with us all and GOD Bless America again.-harv

  • Janiece

    Here is a great explanation of Black Liberal Theology. This is from a Christian website, not a political one.


    Anne, Good point about Obama and Clinton.

    Blessed Easter everyone.

    Oh and John, Good Friday wasn't the saddest say in the Christian year. It was sad in the human sense, but if it hadn't been for Good Friday we never would have been able to say "He is RISEN and He REIGNS today and always." The saddest day will be Judgement Day when some of those we love may not be with us in heaven, because they refused to repent of their sin and accept Christ's free gift of Eternal Life.

  • ellen stevens

    Thank you for sharing your friend's email. After ten years of trying to adopt, my husband and I are about to adopt two siblings from Africa. We are thrilled, excited, and terrified. I want to raise them to be healthy, strong, vibrant, God-honoring and self-embracing African Americans. As a white couple, this will be a new challenge for me. One that I will definitely need the AA community's help with. Your post was a great source of admonition and hope.


  • Janiece

    OK, I need to correct something.

    My husband just informed me that I used the wrong term. I should have said Rev. Wright teaches "Black Liberation Theology" not "Black Liberal Theology" I didn't know there was a difference but he said there is a big difference. Black Liberation, as with all Liberation Theology, is Marxist. Someone can adhere to Liberal Theology and not believe in Marxism, but the opposite is not true.

    If one truly understands Liberation Theology, they will recognize that is Marxist.

    The website I gave still gives a great explanation of the whole subject.

  • HAPPY 50TH JOHN!!!





  • Mona

    Happy Birthday John.

    I consider myself neither black nor white.

    As a Native American is it ok for "me" to say God damn America — or just who do I go to for permission??? <it's a rhetorical question of course. But obviously – the answer is different depending on your racial identity.

    I know where I go for permission – and though I struggle with my peoples plight I know God has the answer.

    I shall not bother any of the good posters here again.

  • Of course that whole business about it being easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven sounds awfully marxist to me…

  • Happy Birthday, John. It's all down hill now! Trust me, I'm racing down the other side of the mountain. And just wait until all of your hair falls out. Improves one's aerodynamics. 🙂

    To add to the comments of your friend from 30 moons ago, I was doing some research a few years back and I came across a history by and about black history at the beginning of the industrial revolution era in America. Northern marketers for the northern industrialists convinced a whole lot of black southern share croppers that a great life awaited them in the North. All they had to was uproot themselves and go work in the factories in places like Detroit, Chicago, etc. They migrated like sardines packed into box car after box car to those cities. What they discovered was a whole lot of angry white people whose American dream of easy living working for the factories was being severely threatened by black skinned competitors.

    I thinks the morale of the story was racism in the north began because of this situation. White people being somewhat intelligent probably learned real quick what southern whites used to legitimate slavery by discrimination. It may have even saved some of their jobs.

  • Don

    I don't think you watched the same video I watched. I have pastored the same church for almost 22 years and the bible say "preach the word" not politics or hate speech but the gospel. no matter what he might have meant as you believe many people are easlily lead astray.

  • Elizabeth

    Happy 50th B-day, John! Hope it's awesome!

    Elizabeth and H.H.

  • Sigh …

    John, thank you, and happy birthday.

    Rev. Wright has been preaching for decades, and now millions of critics claim to know everything there is to know about him based on about two minutes worth of hand-picked clips.

    How's the world takeover going, by the way?

  • Happy Birthday John nice to meet another of the "beautiful people" with a "beautifyl outlook" don't at too much cake!

  • Ross

    As a Christian, the problem I have with Wright is that he doesn't preach a Biblical Christ centered message. Wright preaches Black Liberation Theology. For those who don't know, it's basically Marxism replacing the Gospel. For a good summary of BLT, click on the link above that Janiece provides.

    We all know that the oratory style of black preacher is often much different from his white counterpart (praise God for these differences). But Wright preaches a false gospel that in my opinion is not born of the Holy Spirit but is of the devil leading his congregation astray in the process…collectively and individually.

  • Happy Birthday John!

    I think for me, the problem with Rev. Wright is he leads this group of people and needs to realize that he needs to be above reproach. Thus, what he says matters! A preacher using racial language only begets racial ideology. At the very least, it begets misunderstanding and confusion.

    If we look at Christ for our example, he came to bring salvation to all and he did so in love. In the remarks that have been advertised of Rev. Wright, I don't hear love. I hear anger and hurt and retribution.

    Also, wouldn't it have been a better message, (and wouldn't it be a better message today) to forgive the transgressions of the past and look for means of reconciliation and move forward?

    One of my favorite quotes from Charlotte Bronte is, "I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward."

    I am not black, so I can only empathize with their situation. However, I was raped many years ago in the military. I sounded a lot like Rev. Wright back then. But at some point I realized that I had to forgive and move on so I could do what God has called me to do. I think it is time, on both sides of the fence (white and black) that we move into reconciliation and forgiveness so we can unite as Americans, people, and children of God

    Remaining Steadfast,


  • Happy Birthday John and thanks for making so many readers – including me – happy.


  • Hjordes

    Happy 50th!

  • Hjordes

    By the way, I enjoy attending the black churches that worship with spirit, praise, fire, and BIGness. It's awesome. It's real.

    But marxist, liberation theology sickens me, and especially when it is mixed with the Word and spewed from the pulpit. It is a leech on the soul, sucking away the joy at the gains we have made, and debasing the progress we've worked so hard and paid so much for with its negativity and Anger. It is divisive.

    I recognize that I'm a glass-half-full type of person, but this stuff isn't even glass-half-empty. It's more like there is no glass at all, so despair ye; rise and go forth, exclaiming with anger. Call upon the wrath of God. View all people who are not you with distrust and suspicion.

    Okay, I'll admit that yes, I do get riled up myself at injustice, bigotry, sexism, war, the horrors of history… I get emotional. A couple months ago I plastered one of my dining room walls with Sojourner Truth stuff. (My family is used to my expressions and loves me anyway.)

    But always, always, these expressions of the pain of history are rooted in joy and hope, not condemnation and despair. It's my way of honoring my heroes, and carrying on their work, and blessing – yes, blessing! – America.

    Who said, "Never trust your government but love your country"? I like that quote. Marxist liberation theology is more like, "Hate the government, hate the country, and love me or I'll call you a name."

  • FreetoBe

    Happy happy day—-Birthday & Resurrection!

  • Second Michele


    Happy Birthday, and Happy Easter!

  • Sabina

    Happy Birthday John, I pray you had a wonderful time at the theater. The only comment I have on Rev. Wright is that I've attended his services over the past several years and find him to be an awesome man of God.

  • Debra Brady

    John, This is the first time I've read your blog. Hope you had a glorious celebration of 50 years. I'll be doing the same in June! Thank you for speaking on on the subject and addressing cultural contexts for preaching. I've been distressed by the uproar. For those of you who thingk Rev. Wright isn't biblical, I'm wondering what parts of the Bible you are or aren't reading! Check out the prophets who used similar language to rail against Israel for their lack of faithfulness. And the same for you who are nervous about Marxism influent on Liberation Theology. In addtion to the suggestion of Brian Shields' comments (btw, many South American Christians influenced by Liberation Theology pray for us United Statesians in the context of the camel through the eye of the needle because they look at our obsession with power, wealth and dominance and can't see Christ in us or how we are going to get that needle's eye), re-read Acts 2:43-47. I'm not a Marxist and can, as any of you, cite lots of problems with that ideology. However, to say that Liberation Theolgoy has been influenced by Marxism should not cause us to dismiss the inights and critique that Liberation Theology brings to the Christian community.

  • John, commenting on the first part of your post, I share a birthday with you and for me Good Friday was a "yay" day because I felt doubly blessed. That not only did God so love me that He made a sacrifice of his beloved son for me (and everyone) but also that on the same day some 30+ years ago, my parents so loved me they brought me into this world. Secretly, I felt even more special and no longer envious of the people who share Christ's b'day 😉 Still reading from Kenya. Oh, Happy belated 50th. Elle