Jeremiah Wright on the Defensive

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After weeks of silence, Rev. Jeremiah Wright is publicly defending his controversial comments from the pulpit, remarks that Sen. Barack Obama has had to answer for on the campaign trail. Rev. Frederick Douglas Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Texas, discusses how the controversy affected Obama's campaign and how Americans view the African American religious tradition.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

A fellow member of Black Clergy speaks out. I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News.

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, as Tell Me More turns one, our money coach, Alvin Hall, the kind of financial checkup we should all do every year. And the Mocha Moms on marking milestones. But first, for decades the Reverend Jeremiah Wright has been famous in Church circles for his powerful sermons and extensive ministries. But he became famous to the rest of America, and some would say infamous, when snippets of his sermons began circulating on YouTube and several news programs several weeks ago. The fiery rhetoric was called anti-American by critics and resulting uproars scorched the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama, a member of Wright's former congregation. Wright himself has been relatively quiet about the matter until a few days ago, when he had started giving speeches and interviews. And yesterday, Wright faced reporters after a prayer breakfast at the National Press Club here in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of speech)

Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Pastor of Senator Barack Obama): This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. It is an attack on the black Church, launched by people who know nothing about the African-American tradition. And why am I speaking up now? In our community, we have something called playing the dozens. If you think I'm going to let you talk about my momma and her religious tradition and my daddy and his religious tradition and my grandma, you got another think coming.

MARTIN: Many prominent religious leaders attended the event. One of them was Reverend Frederick Douglas Haynes the Third. He is the senior Pastor of the Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas and a finalist to become the next leader of the NAACP. Wright spoke at his Church over the weekend and he accompanied Wright to the Press Club event. A few hours later we caught up with Reverend Haynes at the Shiloh Baptist Church here in Washington, D.C. Reverend Haynes gave high marks to Wright's performance.

Reverend FREDERICK DOUGLAS HAYNES III (Senior Pastor, Friendship West Baptist Church): The speech was absolutely remarkable. I'm a seminary graduate. I have earned a doctorate in ministry. I learned so much today that I never received in a classroom setting and I thought I was pretty, you know, pretty good. But the man is brilliant. He's a phenomenal prophet and we got to hear that brilliance today.

MARTIN: In his remarks to the Press Club today he suggested that the attack on him, or the way he's been portrayed, is an attack on the African-American Church. You know, some people say that's just not true. They say that, you know, many people have attended, visit, worship in African-American Churches, but they feel that his particular remarks show the kind of divisiveness, racism if you will, that some people feel is just, sort of, objectionable, at least something worthy of discussion. What do you say to that?

Reverend HAYNES: Well, I say that he's, without a doubt, correct in that it is an attack on a tradition of the African-American Church known as the prophetic preaching tradition, which is in direct line to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose sermons in his last years are rarely repeated because Dr. King was no longer talking about "I have a dream," but he was narrating the nightmare of America. And that's what Dr. Wright has been doing, narrating the nightmare. But we have also missed out on his note of hope. He preached for me on Sunday, of my 25th anniversary, and in the second sermon it was a powerful sermon about how the Church has failed women, and he dealt with misogyny, he dealt with sexism in the Church and sexism in the pulpit. And it was a very indicting sermon on the Church, especially the black Church. But he also ended on a note of hope and healing because that's the gospel message that Jeremiah Wright has been born and bred on, and that's the gospel message that all of us preach. But, again, if you want to spin him in a certain way, you can take anything out of context. I think Shakespeare said, the devil can cite scripture for his own purpose. The devil can take anything out of context, as he did with Jesus, and make it fit whatever demonic purpose he wants.

MARTIN: Why would someone want to do that? I mean, why wouldn't people want to hear his message of hope?

Reverend HAYNES: The sermons that have been referenced occurred, you know, several years ago. And yet, all of a sudden now they make news. I'm convinced that it has a lot to do with the kind of season that we are in and...

MARTIN: You mean a political season, a campaign?

Reverend HAYNES: Without question, without question. But again, I think that when you look at the integrity of the man's homiletics and hermeneutics he has not, in any way, been disrespectful of scripture. At the same time he's not been disrespectful of this nation. Instead, he loves the nation enough to prophetically, and that's a heavy word right there, to prophetically speak the truth in love. Now, it may be harsh but, again, when you love someone and their hair is out of place you don't just, you know, tell them you look real good today, baby. No, you actually say, you know, you may need to put your hair in place. And so, I think he's done that. He's saying, Lady Liberty, you hair is out of place when it comes to how you treat people who are oppressed and marginalized.

MARTIN: Reverend Wright has said several times that these criticisms are coming from people who know nothing about the African-American Church, the traditions of the Church. I mean, there's a reason people say that Sunday morning at 11 o'clock is the most segregated hour in American life.

Reverend HAYNES: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, do you really think people can hear what he's trying to say in the way that he intends it to be heard in these kinds of forums?

Reverend HAYNES: Well, I hope so. Dr. Wright is saying, America, there really is another perspective to this experiment called America. And so, we have a perspective that is as legitimate as anyone else's perspective and all we want to do is educate you about our experience because if you get educated about our experience then maybe we can start to move towards the reconciliation, which was the heart of his phenomenal message today. He talked about liberation for those who are poor, oppressed, and marginalized that results in the transformation of this nation, which moves us to reconciliation so we really become one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice. But that won't happen as long as we witness America from one perspective.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're speaking with the Reverend Frederick Douglas Haynes III of the Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas. We're here speaking about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's public appearances over the weekend and today at the National Press Club. Are you concerned that prominent African-American pastors, or pastors, perhaps, of any demographic profile, will start watching their words from the pulpit, especially if they minister to political leaders?

Reverend HAYNES: Oh yeah. I think that's a very legitimate question. I must confess, in my own mind and heart I have been quite careful in editing or reediting statements I've made over the pulpit recently because, again, there is a network out there that will, you know, put under scrutiny something I say under their microscope. And I want to make sure I'm accurate. But at the same time I recognize that when it comes to spin and taking things out of context, if Jesus was vulnerable to that, I mean, Jeremiah Wright will be vulnerable and so will Frederick Haynes.

MARTIN: But what do you say to those who argue that conservative ministers, like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, like the Reverend Pat Robertson, who said similar things after 9/11, were also criticized?

Reverend HAYNES: Right.

MARTIN: And people say, you know, you can't have it both ways. If you're going to criticize Reverend Falwell, Reverend Robertson for saying, you know, I indict you - using similar language, God will not be mocked. Because they faulted what they considered to be moral laxity on the part of Americans for the 9/11 attacks. They were criticized, had to apologize. What do you say to those who say, well, you know what, turnabout is fair play. There can't be two standards.

Reverend HAYNES: I understand what you're saying. Check the lifespan of the criticism of Jeremiah Wright Jr. for his statements, and juxtapose it to the lifespan of criticism and attacks that have taken place with the persons that you mention. And I dare say, the intensity as well as the longevity of the attacks on Jeremiah Wright will long outlive the attacks on those two. And I think it has something to do with the unresolved issue of race in this country.

MARTIN: Let's talk about you for a minute. As I understand it, you're under consideration to become president of the NAACP. Given your experience in ministry, and also this recent experience around Reverend Wright, whether that informs you in any way about how we need to talk about social justice issues in this new era.

Reverend HAYNES: I received an email just a few moments ago that said, and this is from a white American, and he said, you know, we, in White America, got over the civil rights struggle 30 years ago. And I had to respond to him, I hope not. Maybe that's the problem. We've gotten over the civil rights struggle when the struggle continues. And as long as the struggle continues, and we call ourselves in the 51st state, the state of denial, then sadly this nation is not going to experience healing, hope, and oneness.

MARTIN: There are those who argue that the traditional civil-rights leadership is stuck in the past. They're stuck in the same old fights, talking about it in the same old way. And, indeed, Senator Obama's one criticism of Reverend Wright was that he is stuck in the past, that he's fighting the same old fights, that his language doesn't recognize the ways in which America has changed. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

Revend HAYNES: I think that Senator Obama and Dr. Wright acknowledge the progress that has been made. The fact that we have what I call the O factor, Oprah and Obama. The big O's in this nation who have transcended race, and are loved by so many. That says we have made a lot of progress. However, Dr. Wright has a passionate concern for what Jesus termed the least of these, my brothers and sisters, and they have been left behind. So where we have an Oprah here, an Obama there, a Jordan here, a Tiger Woods there, we also have masses who are stuck. And so as a consequence, I don't know about if I want to attack the civil rights leaders for fighting the same old fights because some of those fights are still out there.

MARTIN: Finally, I know that this experience has been a painful one for Reverend Wright that he spoke about that in interviews with, for example, with PBS's Bill Moyers, how painful it has been to be portrayed in a way that he feels is a misinterpretation. And I know having spoken to a number of members of the clergy, that this has been a painful experience for many of them who feel greatly that he has been misrepresented and they. Do you feel in the end that anything positive has been accomplished, though, because of all of this?

Rev. HAYNES: That is to be determined. If we heard that remarkable speech he gave today and we focus in on the lessons that he was teaching, history lessons, theology lessons, sociological lessons and don't reduce it to spin for political purpose. I am convinced this will be a growing moment for this nation, but it is up to us to choose to spin or to grow. I am hoping we choose to grow.

MARTIN: The Reverend Frederick Douglas Haynes III is the senior Pastor of the Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. We spoke to him at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rev. HAYNES: Thank you, Michel.

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