I have made several points about Jeremiah Wright that have either brought about some not so sympathetic responses or very encouraging dialog and expressions of appreciation. Wright
This is clearly not a win-win debate. I stand by what I have written to this point and believe my central points, about race and racism, are extremely important to the missional mandate of Christ in the American Church. I stand by my point that most of us who are white are not prepared to seriously enter into this much needed dialog.

After returning home from Dallas tonight, and sorting through the news cycle of the last two days, there is much more before us about Wright’s words now. This is especially true after Wright’s post-speech comments at the National Press Club were digested and watched by millions of us.

First, Senator Obama seems to be correct in "throwing Jeremiah Wright under the bus," as the political commentators put it. Wright is clearly doing great harm to his campaign. Will this issue become for his campaign what the "swift boat" issue was for John Kerry? It could be. Time will tell. He could still be nominated but polls show that it will be harder than ever for him to be elected in November. I expect this will all hurt Senator Obama more than we know. (By the way, conservative black author Shelby Steele saw this coming and I mentioned his reasons some months ago.) Early polling says that this new Jeremiah Wright episode already has hurt Obama severely. Will it allow Clinton to catch him? I doubt it but we shall see. She seems adept at remaking her image on a weekly basis. Remember, I am not promoting Obama in saying any of this but making observations about our election process. I am also not promoting any candidate through my ACT 3 ministry. I have made this a clear policy for seventeen years since this mission began. I think the church, and Christian missions organizations, have done grave harm in this arena for way too long. My goal is to encourage thought about public issues from a Christian perspective that is solely my own.

Second, Jeremiah Wright has said some wonderful things that I have defended and tried to put into a proper context. But in his question and answer time at the National Press Club he crossed the line in several significant ways. His suggestion that AIDS is some kind of American conspiracy by which our government spread the disease borders on total craziness. (I have written about conspiracy theories before and will not belabor that point here but I have virtually no time for any of these conspiracy theories. Both the far left and the far right love them!) Further, the notion that the United States promotes terrorism is very far-fetched, to say the least. I can handle necessary sobering reminders that we have used terror in American history; e.g., against Native Americans, African Americans, etc. But to suggest that this historical fact is the moral equivalent of the modern terrorism of radical Islam is more than ridiculous. There is simply NO moral equivalence here unless you buy into the historical revisionism of radicals like Howard Zinn and his ilk. I do not grant America a "free pass" on our serious mistakes morally, both past and present. I am not a nationalist, but I am a patriot. I respect those who hold varying positions on the war in Iraq, to cite just one very emotional example. (There is clearly room for real patriots to oppose this war on a number of grounds.) But the terrorism of radical Islam is not the same as the sins of America for some obvious reasons. While America has never been consistent or perfect it has openly pursued a great ideal rooted in liberty, equality and freedom. And it has pursued that ideal better than any nation that we have ever known in human history. Sadly, we needed a Civil War to cleanse our worst failure to live up to these ideals. And we have needed more than 150 years to work that out, which we still haven’t done. We still have a long, long way to go.

I sincerely love my country, I really do. But I love the kingdom of God much, much more. This distinction seems lost on the Christian right and the Christian left uses it to promote the "I hate America speech" lines. Christians should be more discerning than both of these two extremes. 

I had lunch on Tuesday with an African American minister who discussed all of this with me extensively. He once pastored a sister church to Jeremiah Wright and knows him quite well. He confirmed everything that I have said about Wright on my previous blogs. But he also agreed with what I am saying tonight. He said, "Wright was brilliant in his sermons and spoke the truth but when he began to answer questions and opened himself up in an unguarded way he went way over the top!" Those are my sentiments completely.

Sadly, I also think we are likely to now discover more of this in Wright’s past than we knew. I hope this is not the case but either way he destroyed a great deal of the good he was seeking to do by his rants at the National Press Club.

The news media will likely turn all of this into a full-time circus. What Pastor Jeremiah Wright began will probably end in a way that will help few of us to better understand what he was really trying to say. We will only hear the anger, the foolishness and the moral blame shifting, and all the offensive words to boot. I find this quite tragic.

So, I suggest that we move on from Jeremiah Wright’s rants and attacks and then try to keep a much needed conversation on race going. This conversation is still desperately needed. Race, as a social category, still divides Christian from Christian all over this land. I fear many white churches will simply see Wright as a foolish and angry man and thus never hear the insights that we needed to hear in his powerful words, some of which were obviously inflammatory. That is sad, very sad. The loss is ours in the end. Wright will be gone but our churches are still divided and troubled by race in more ways than we know and we still will not face these as we ought. 

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  1. Gene Redlin May 1, 2008 at 7:26 am

    John, you said:
    So, I suggest that we move on from Jeremiah Wright’s rants and attacks and then try to keep a much needed conversation on race going.
    Move On?
    From what?
    I am puzzled. Move on from a man who makes conspiracy statements blaming others for a dysfunctional population’s ills as another despot did in Germany during the 1930s? Remain silent and forgiving as he stirs anger, hatred and resentment? Unless you believe he doesn’t do so with his diatribes.
    This kind of a man needs to be called what he is.
    About this dialog we are to have about racial issues and divides. I must be asleep. What are those issues? When did you ever have slaves? When did you ever oppress people of another color? How have you kept those of another race down? What are you supposed to learn? What are you not understanding?
    Or is this as I believe it to be a foggy area of white guilt and blaming others when the culture of hip hop failed leadership has resulted in this disaster of cultural collapse that Rev Wright is blaming on a corrupt government.
    I sense that you are buying someone else’s troubles. The only one who can do that is Jesus. And he already paid for all this mess.
    We can’t crucify others or even ourselves to rectify this.
    I want someone somewhere to tell me what I don’t understand. I’m willing to listen but I’ll turn anyone off who tells me my ancestors enslaved others. No they didn’t. My people haven’t even been in this country from Germany for 120 years yet.
    Or am I being judged by the color of my skin?
    Does anyone have a dream anymore? Or are we just stuck in this new iteration of racism.

  2. John H. Armstrong May 1, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Because you are my friend, and thus I respect you as such, I do not wish to rebut your comments, point for point, in a public way. I will write something on the various “distinctions” that should be made in terms of how we can better understand racism now and maybe more fully at another time.
    In short, you seem to see racism in a monochrome way; i.e., if you personally are not a racist then there is no problem. It is simply a heart issue for each of us as you seem to understand. You and I are not racists Gene, at least in any sense that fits this narrow description.
    What I am talking about is more institutional and involves learning to listen to how cultures and peoples “perceive” and understand us and our message. At its heart this is what missiologists do in terms of grasping context in various people groups.
    No, you and I did not own slaves. But we clearly benefited from a culture in which hundreds of years of slavery created a very different world for us than for most black Americans. Our black brothers and sisters know this, see it and feel very strongly that we do not understand their world at all.
    So, having said this I prefer to discuss anything further with you in person. You are my dear friend and you are trying to understand this with a clean heart and I respect that more than I can write. We just need to “hear” each other better I am quite sure.

  3. c May 1, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    Dr. Armstrong,
    I cannot say enough how I thank you for these prayerful posts and comments. To hear your honest efforts to understand the complicated issues of race is deeply encouraging and inspiring to me.
    Gene, I understand how the red flags may go up when you hear Rev. Wright’s incendiary words. But I think John’s point is to move on to discuss the bigger issue of race that still permeates society. In no way do I think you are a racist. But we cannot deny that race still divides and segregates people. We have made leaps and bounds through the civil rights movement. Yet schools have increasingly become more segregated after Brown v. Board, especially in urban areas of St. Louis, Boston, and LA, with many schools being 90-95% black, and the conditions of these schools have stayed virtually the same in the last 20 years. (Read Gary Orfield’s article “Segregation 50 Years after Brown…” to see the full statistics). The quality of living for these areas is astonishing. You and I would never want any child to attend school in these kinds of circumstances, yet many policymakers believe funding these areas is like throwing money into a “black hole.” (I have heard those words verbatim). Many notable sociologists and educators are deeming it apartheid. Most conservatives understandably do not support welfare programs, but why penalize children who were born into a social strata that they did not choose?
    Education is just one example; I can go on about the systemic racism that still occurs, and this is against blacks and whites. I have both black and white family members who have experienced racism in direct, tangible ways. It cuts deep. And I believe the American church needs to acknowledge the realities of this issue and seriously and prayerfully address it.
    I have talked to black friends who say they just do not feel welcome in a church that is predominantly white. My relative is black and a respected medical doctor who gets pulled over at least once a year because of the car he drives. My friend’s son is black attending an elite private university and gets questioned by cops when he’s walking on campus.
    And about hip hop: Hip hop arose in the 1970s in New York as a response to social injustices. It was politically and consciously aware and empowered inner-city youths; many people believe it is the reason why gang violence reduced during that time in Bronx and Harlem. Unfortunately, as hip hop commercialized, gangster rap eclipsed hip hop, and MTV glamorized decadence and violence. Who runs MTV? Not black studio heads. My black friends are disgusted by the portrayal of black people that has been painted by media. Of course, you can debate whether media is creating or merely reflecting a portrayal, but there is no doubt that it is perpetuating an idea of urban city life and black youth.

  4. RogerC May 1, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    What would Joseph do?

  5. Nick Morgan May 2, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    I believe this is one of the best posts I have read so far in the whole Rev. Jeremiah Wright/Barak Obama “saga” that has recently erupted. I admit, I have had a very difficult time “hearing” some truths Rev. Wright has been saying because I have been very distracted by his angry and bitter tone and his resorting to various conspiracy theories, many of which have been absolutley debunked!!! However, you make very valid points here without either excusing Rev. Wright’s “rants” nor ignoring what it is he is trying to say. Having worked in a very racially divided midwestern city now for over 17 years; working with many black co-workers and mostly in the poorer black neighborhoods, I have tried to become more aware of the “institutional” racism you speak about. I have heard many of the same “conspiracy theories” by angry black co-workers, so I have a tendency to think “oh not again!” when I hear these things. However, even though I don’t believe I’m a “racist” in the narrow sense either, being white it is very difficult for me to hear and perceive reality through the perspective of my black brothers and sisters. Because of this, I’m continually in need of learning to hear what they are really saying rather than reacting so quickly to what seems like the same old angry rhetoric. Yes, it’s their responsibility before God to deal with their own anger and resentment; but it’s mine to try to listen and hear the real needs and concerns of my black brothers and sisters without being so quick to judge or dismiss their claims. May God bring healing and reconciliation to all of us His children; black and white especially in the US. Keep challenging us to think beyond the surface brother! God bless!

  6. Jack Isaacson May 31, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Sen. Barack Obama has resigned his 20 year membership at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in the aftermath of inflammatory remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and more recent remarks at the church by another minister.
    Is this a wise move on the part of Sen. Obama ?

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