Following in Footsteps of a Controversial Minister

The Rev. Otis Moss is set to take over as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the church Illinois Sen. Barack Obama attends. Moss talks to Michele Noris about the most famous member of his congregation and the now-controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Jeremiah Wright, the minister whose remarks led to Senator Obama's speech on race, retired from his 6,000-member Chicago church last month. Wright's successor spoke with us earlier today in his first broadcast interview. He's 37 years old, Yale educated and he describes himself as part of the new generation of leaders, Obama spoke up yesterday.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Otis Moss III is the new pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He joins us now from his office.

So, welcome to the program, sir.

Reverend OTIS MOSS III (Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago): Thank you.

NORRIS: Pastor Moss, what did you think of Senator Obama's speech yesterday?

Rev. MOSS III: I thought he did an actually brilliant job of raising and framing, the question of race and poverty and religion in America.

NORRIS: You know, it's interesting Senator Obama quote "condemned" in unequivocal terms some of Jeremiah's Wright's previous statements. He said that some of those statements were appalling. It must have been interesting for you to listen to a member of the congregation, say, that he was appalled by some of the statements that might have come there from the pulpit.

Rev. MOSS III: Well, as a pastor, one always understands that there are people that disagree completely with the pastor. It does not necessarily surprise me, especially with the diversity of the congregation we have at Trinity. A people disagree constantly with the pastor with some of the ministries and a variety of other things that are happening in the church.

NORRIS: Are you uncomfortable with the harsh spotlight that has been placed on the church?

Rev. MOSS III: You know, I've been baptized by fire, I feel like a Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego thrown in the fiery furnace, and it has been an interesting experience. But it's also an experience that has brought the entire church together.

NORRIS: Jeremiah Wright in his sermons and then the clips we've heard repeatedly has suggested that the U.S. has a role in distributing drugs within the black community. That the U.S. is culpable in the spread of HIV and AIDS, that the U.S. has a blind policy when it comes to Israel. Are these the kinds of things that, that you have said from the pulpit since you've taken over leadership in the church?

Rev. MOSS III: I think that would Pastor Wright has to put the forth is a particular distrust that the African-American community has historically had, in reference to the relationship with forward movement in our community. And so, the Tuskegee experiment raises question if you go to any, any barbershop those kinds of questions might raise. And so everyone comes with a particular remix and I come with a particular remix to the pulpit.

NORRIS: But as part of a member of this new generation is that a concept that you embrace that the government was involved in the distribution of drugs or in the spread of HIV and AIDS?

Rev. MOSS III: Well, I think that in terms of that particular narrative, I think that we need to be very, very honest in terms of that are government has the ability to, you know, to place a Hubble telescope in the sky. But, yet, we have not have the political will to shut down drugs coming in to, to our community. And from that perspective, I think that that's something that we can look at in terms of policy that we just have lacked the political will.

NORRIS: One of the things that's been a flash point in this controversy is that your church calls it self, quote, "unashamedly black and apologetically Christian." Do you think it would be appropriate or acceptable for a predominantly white religious institution to call itself unashamedly white and unapologetically Christian or unapologetically Jewish. Would that be appropriate?

Rev. MOSS III: I think it will be appropriate for a congregation to talk about that were unapologetically German and unapologetically Christian but we're unapologetically Greek Orthodox and unapologetically Christian. I think what is lacking in the discussion is the nuance that the idea of white or black per se is socially constructive. So that people of African descent cannot identify whether you are Ibo or Ghanaian and so utilize the term black, only within the African-American community. Those who are the descendants of enslaved Africans, is the question raised: Should you celebrate your culture? Should you celebrate who God made you? And so the question of, you know, is it unashamedly white, is it unashamedly black is something that really needs to be nuanced in that way. And that the majority culture has always had the assumption that we are celebrating culture that is connected to Europe. And so, it is important that we become a kind of multicultural broad spectrum of our understanding of what it means to be a part of the human family.

NORRIS: Do you understand the - why some see that credo and say, wait a minute, that's a double standard. We wouldn't dare say that about our congregation, even though it might be predominantly white, we would never say that it's unapologetically white.

Rev. MOSS III: I think that anyone who operates within the religious tradition knows that they are bringing certain pieces to the table in terms of their culture. And it is not a double standard. The real double standard is saying that you can't say it. To say that, we can't say you're unashamed of being black, then the opposite must be, then we must say that we are ashamed of being black.

NORRIS: Pastor Moss, what do you do going for, if Barack Obama remains a member of your congregation, it sounds like he's going to do just that.

Rev. MOSS III: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: It seems like people are going to be watching very carefully everything you say, everything you do at the pulpit.

Rev. MOSS III: I'm excited about that because I'm hoping some people will get saved in the process, that they will come to know the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. They will come to know that it is through the church which is a citadel of hope that will be able to help people who are (unintelligible) despair.

NORRIS: Otis Moss III, thank you very much for speaking to us.

Rev. MOSS III: Thank you very much. It's been a delight talking with you.

NORRIS: Pastor Otis Moss III is with Trinity United Church of Christ, that's in Chicago, Illinois. He joined us from his office.

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A Closer Look at Black Liberation Theology

Presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) defended his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on Tuesday, even as he repudiated some of the pastor's inflammatory sermons. But Wright's comments likely come as no surprise to those familiar with black liberation theology, a religious philosophy that emerged during the 1960s.

Black liberation theology originated on July 31, 1966, when 51 black pastors bought a full page ad in the New York Times and demanded a more aggressive approach to eradicating racism. They echoed the demands of the black power movement, but the new crusade found its source of inspiration in the Bible.

"God's presence in the world is best depicted through God's involvement in the struggle for justice," says Anthony Pinn, who teaches philosophy and religion at Rice University in Houston. "God is so intimately connected to the community that suffers, that God becomes a part of that community."

Freedom and Liberation

Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says black liberation theology often portrays Jesus as a brown-skinned revolutionary. He cites the words of Mary in the Magnificat — also known as the "Song of Mary" — in which she says God intends to bring down the mighty and raise the lowly. Hopkins also notes that in the book of Matthew, Jesus says the path to heaven is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. And the central text for black liberation theology can be found in Chapter 4 of Luke's gospel, where Jesus outlines the purpose of his ministry.

"Jesus says my mission is to eradicate poverty and to bring about freedom and liberation for the oppressed," Hopkins says. "And most Christian pastors in America skip over that part of the book."

Hopkins attends Trinity United Church of Christ, where Rev. Wright just retired as pastor. In the now-famous sermon from 2003, Wright said black people's troubles are a result of racism that still exists in America, crying out, "No, no, no, not God bless America! God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people."

According to Hopkins, that was theological wordplay — because the word "damn" is straight out of the Bible and has a specific meaning in the original Hebrew.

"It means a sacred condemnation by God to a wayward nation who has strayed from issues of justice, strayed from issues of peace, strayed from issues of reconciliation," Hopkins says.

A Loud, Passionate, Physical Affair

Anthony Pinn of Rice University acknowledges that black liberation preaching often sounds angry. But he says the anger does not advocate violence but is instead channeled into constructive routes. Trinity UCC, he notes, has 70 ministries that help the poor, the unemployed, those with AIDS or those in prison. Pinn says the words can be jarring to the untrained ear, but they're still valid.

"Folks, including myself, may be taken aback by the inflammatory nature of the rhetoric, but I don't think very many of us would deny that there is a fundamental truth: Racism is a problem in the United States," Pinn says.

Black liberation preaching can be a loud, passionate, physical affair. Linda Thomas, who teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, says the whole point of it is to challenge the powerful and to raise questions for society to think about. Thomas says if white people are surprised by the rhetoric, it's because most have never visited a black church.

"I think that many black people would know what white worship is like," Thomas says. "Why is it that white people don't know what black worship is about? And I think that is because there is this centrality with white culture that says we don't have to know about that."

Obama presents himself as uniquely situated to bridge those two cultures because of his biracial heritage. In his speech on race Tuesday, the presidential hopeful said he could no more disown his controversial pastor than he could disown his white grandmother.

"These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love," Obama said.

He denounced the harshness of Wright's words — not because they were false, he said, but because they did not acknowledge the strides that the U.S. has made in the fight against racism. Obama said his own candidacy shows how far the country has come.

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