Understanding Rev. Jeremiah Wright

The weekend after Sen. Barack Obama's address on race in America and after nearly two weeks featuring pummeling coverage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's fiery sermons, attention remains focused on the former pastor's church. But Martin Marty, who taught Wright 35 years ago, says scrutiny of the reverend's incendiary moments fails to account for all the work Trinity Church has done for one of Chicago's roughest neighborhoods. He also says all the focus on a few unremarkable moments is part of an unfair portrait painted by those unfamiliar with the tone of "liberation theology" ministries.

Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says that by pursuing a church post, Wright went against his university training, which had been preparing him to teach. Marty also says that by going into ministry, Wright was also putting his love of people over a perhaps more glamorous instinct to travel the world.

Marty says Wright picked the hard road. Trinity is in a largely impoverished neighborhood that Marty says is a tough place to fend for yourself, let alone a place to help others. "Yes, there'll be some anger about injustice," he says. "You can't be on the south side of Chicago and not be a victim of a lot of that."

Marty says he doesn't know any church that carries on more ministries to help area residents. Trinity's list is long: Career development, economic empowerment, college placement, credit union, HIV, diabetes and more.

As a white man, Marty says he's never felt uncomfortable visiting Trinity. "You walk in and people greet you at the door," he says. "You're likely to meet someone you know... Physicians, prominent judges...It's a very busy place. You're brought in. They put you in a nice seat and you're ready to go."

As for the specifics of Wright's incendiary sermons, Marty says his slamming of white America is standard in many liberation theologies — movements that include those on behalf of feminists, Latinos and more. Common to such movements, Marty says, is the notion that god has a preferential option for the poor. "It's the standard for all of them," he says. "Poor whites are as much a part of the scope as anyone else."

"It finally comes down to the sermon," Marty says. At Trinity, he says, "the texts are printed out and every member reads along the whole text...molecule of ink by molecule of ink...I've never found anyone who's white leaving there and not really feeling a part of the place."

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