Martin E. Marty: To his former professor, congregant, and friend, Jeremiah Wright has been both





Through the decades, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. has called me teacher, reminding me of the years when he earned a master's degree in theology and ministry at the University of Chicago — and friend. My wife and I and our guests have worshiped at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where he recently completed a 36-year ministry....

Now, for the hard business: the sermons, which have been mercilessly chipped into for wearying television clips. While Wright's sermons were pastoral — my wife and I have always been awed to hear the Christian Gospel parsed for our personal lives — they were also prophetic. At the university, we used to remark, half lightheartedly, that this Jeremiah was trying to live up to his namesake, the seventh-century B.C. prophet. Though Jeremiah of old did not "curse" his people of Israel, Wright, as a biblical scholar, could point out that the prophets Hosea and Micah did. But the Book of Jeremiah, written by numbers of authors, is so full of blasts and quasi curses — what biblical scholars call "imprecatory topoi" — that New England preachers invented a sermonic form called "the jeremiad," a style revived in some Wrightian shouts.

In the end, however, Jeremiah was the prophet of hope, and that note of hope is what attracts the multiclass membership at Trinity and significant television audiences. Both Jeremiahs gave the people work to do: to advance the missions of social justice and mercy that improve the lot of the suffering. For a sample, read Jeremiah 29, where the prophet's letter to the exiles in Babylon exhorts them to settle down and "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile." Or listen to many a Jeremiah Wright sermon.

One may properly ask whether or how Jeremiah Wright — or anyone else — experiences a prophetic call. Back when American radicals wanted to be called prophets, I heard Saul Bellow say (and, I think, later saw it in writing): "Being a prophet is nice work if you can get it, but sooner or later you have to mention God." Wright mentioned God sooner. My wife and I recall but a single overtly political pitch. Wright wanted 2,000 letters of protest sent to the Chicago mayor's office about a public-library policy. Of course, if we had gone more often, in times of profound tumult, we would have heard much more. The United Church of Christ is a denomination that has taken raps for being liberal — for example for its 50th anniversary "God is still speaking" campaign and its pledge to be open and affirming to all, including gay people. In its lineage are Jonathan Edwards and Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, America's three most-noted theologians; the Rev. King was much at home there.

Friendship develops through many gestures and shared delights (in the Marty case, stops for sinfully rich barbecue after evening services), and people across the economic spectrum can attest to the generosity of the Wright family.

It would be unfair to Wright to gloss over his abrasive — to say the least — edges, so, in the "Nobody's Perfect" column, I'll register some criticisms. To me, Trinity's honoring of Minister Louis Farrakhan was abhorrent and indefensible, and Wright's fantasies about the U.S. government's role in spreading AIDS distracting and harmful. He, himself, is also aware of the now-standard charge by some African-American clergy who say he is a victim of cultural lag, overinfluenced by the terrible racial situation when he was formed.

Having said that, and reserving the right to offer more criticisms, I've been too impressed by the way Wright preaches the Christian Gospel to break with him. ...


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