On March 29, 2008, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright is scheduled to receive Brite Divinity School's Black Church Leader Award. Brite and Texas Christian University share a Fort Worth campus, but are independent schools. This week, TCU is probably wishing they were even more independent.
The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star Telegram have reported on the controversy that led to a decision to move Wright's award ceremony off campus. A TCU senior official told me that both schools have received many angry phone calls in opposition to Wright's award. Consequently, "in light of what happened at Virginia Tech and for the safety of the students," the event will be held off-campus at a site yet to be identified. The official added that "Brite is a small school and getting swamped with calls."
The only Brite staff person authorized to speak about the matter is President D. Newell Williams. Neither Williams nor his administrative assistant were available for comment. I am not suggesting they are dodging questions. No doubt they're struggling to figure out how to best handle this situation without damaging the school. They're academics, not media consultants.
Meanwhile, Brite Divinity School posted a statement on its website addressing the issue. Here are excerpts from that statement:
"After careful review, and understanding the sincere concerns many have voiced in response to recent media reports, Brite has for the following reasons affirmed the Black School Studies Program's decision, made months ago, to recognize the contributions of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. at the fourth Annual State of the Black Church Awards Banquet.
Contrary to media claims that Wright preaches racial hatred, church leaders who have observed his ministry describe him as a faithful preacher of the gospel who has ministered in a context radically different from that of many middle class Americans.
Brite does not endorse all of the statements or views of any of the church leaders recognized by the Divinity School. Brite is recognizing Dr. Wright for his forty-year ministry linking divine justice and social justice. "
On its face, Brite's statement suggests that school officials do not believe that any of Wright's statements reported by the media reflect "racial hatred," nor do they deem any to be inconsistent with the Christian gospel. Any element of controversy appears to be excused on the basis of having been delivered in a "radically different" context than that experienced by "middle class Americans."
Their implied thesis it this: The standard for gauging the appropriateness of preaching in black churches is lower than in white, middle-class churches -- the profile of many Disciples of Christ Churches, the denomination with which Brite and TCU are historically affiliated. Since the controversy surrounding Trinity United Church of Christ's alignment with black liberation theology emerged, we've learned that the over 8,000 member congregation includes an economically wide spectrum of members, once including the billionaire Oprah Winfrey, and now including a U.S. Senator.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ (Rev. Wright's denominational affiliation), recently released a statement defending Wright and criticizing the "relentless airing of two or three brief video clips of [Wright's] sermons." Thomas also states,
"One is tempted to ask whether these commentators ever listen to the overcharged rhetoric of their own opinion shows. Even more to the point is to wonder whether they have a working knowledge of the history of preaching in the United States from the unrelentingly grim language of New England election day sermons to the fiery rhetoric of the Black church prophetic tradition."
Commentators may not have the working knowledge Thomas mentions, but I do, since I hold a Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD), majoring in Preaching & Bible, from a well-respected Protestant seminary. And, while the Rev. Thomas can certainly find historical instances of forceful preaching, he engages in historical hyperbole by implying that hate preach is an acceptable, classic, homiletical genre. To claim, as Rev. Wright has, that the U.S. government developed the HIV/AID virus to kill blacks is absurd. The 17th Century burning of witches in Salem is a lamentable part of American church history, too, but surely Thomas would not cite that as a precedent for bad behavior today.
But then, Thomas is just offering covering fire to one of his own -- one he considers a prophet. It's what church judicatory officials do. But, hate preach is hate preach: from whoever's mouth it is spoken, from whatever pulpit it is delivered, in whatever church it represents, in whatever historical context it is set. It is what it is.
Back to Brite's Controversy: these two questions were submitted to Brite's president via email with the promise that his response would be shared with AT readers.
1. Question: In light of the controversial statements made by the Rev. Wright that have surfaced recently, do you feel that he was properly vetted in conjunction with the honor that he is to receive?
2. According to ABC News, Rev. Wright has referred to U.S. Secretary of State Rice as "Condoskeeza Rice." "Skeeza" is an idiom known in the black community as meaning "whore" or "slut." Section 3.4.b.(1) of the Brite Divinity School Handbook, 2007-2008, page 7, states that a "Community Commitment" at Brite means that "members of the Brite Divinity community covenant together to embody a context of integrity in all aspects of our lives but especially in our academic vocation. This includes (but is not limited to) not lying, cheating, stealing, causing harm to self or others, defacing property, slander, libel, or defamation of character." Referring to Ms. Rice as a whore would seem to violate Brite's own covenant relative to the concepts I've highlighted. Question: Should someone the school is honoring be held to a lower standard than the school's students?
We'll let readers know if we receive a response.