Ministry workers speak on racial justice for Walk the Walk Week
Annemarie Foy | Tuesday, February 23, 2021
As one of the first Walk the Walk Week virtual events, the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion hosted “The Lamentations of Jeremiah: An Intergenerational Conversation on the Crises of Our Time” in honor of Black History Month Monday afternoon. Moderated by the Ansari Institute’s Charles Powell, the Zoom webinar featured panelists Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Minister Tiauna Boyd Webb and a discussion on building a more just society, especially in regards to racial inequality in the U.S.
Wright was the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for 36 years and is still active in its community after retirement. Renowned for his oratorical skills, Wright relied frequently upon the jeremiad, a style of preaching modeled on the Book of Jeremiah and Book of Lamentations that diagnoses societal sins and urges repentance.
Webb is currently the Director of Missions and Programs at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which seeks to mobilize African American faith communities and other leaders to act together on social justice issues. Her personal interest is in Africa, working specifically to address gender-based violence against women and girls.
Powell began by asking Wright about his use of the jeremiad in his sermons. Wright said the prophet Jeremiah was preaching not to his enemies, but rather to his own people.
“I was painfully aware of systemic racism and white supremacy, but I was also painfully aware of how we bought into the narrative that was keeping feet on our necks,” Wright said.
That, he said, became his paradigm. Wright recalled a conversation he had with his grandson, in which the latter ruminated, “Social justice is not a gift for preachers, it is a given.”
Wright said he sees the Black Lives Matter movement’s leading voices as a jeremiad because it follows in the pattern of critiquing the system that does not see all of its citizens as equal.
Powell then asked Webb about the most important message for influential Black leaders to send in these times. Webb said they should emphasize not returning to normal after the pandemic’s end.
“The social order in this country has never worked for Black people,” Webb said. “As this grief is washing over us, as we are seeing family members die, as we are attending funerals over Zoom during work meetings, the top message of influential Black leaders should be that social order isn’t working. … [We can] bring to fruition something different.”
Wright said white Christians need to re-examine their “toxic” thinking, which he described as “the most important epicenter” of racism.
He suggested starting with self-examination and congregational studies by trusted scholars to understand the roots of beliefs and how to move forward.
The conversation turned to addressing the criminal justice system and its disproportionate impact on Black Americans. Wright said in his career as a pastor, he tried to make congregations “feel painfully, personally and publicly aware of how the criminal justice system has affected the people they’re sitting beside at church.”
Webb suggested the audience should examine the sources of prison funding, study the negative impact prisons have on drug users and read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Webb said true reform includes legalizing marijuana — and drugs more broadly, as Oregon has done — and standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
Wright and Webb also discussed the pandemic, which Powell described as “not an equal opportunity killer.”
Wright said poverty is compounded by inequities in health care and education. Many cannot afford healthcare because they can’t get a job, he said.
The panelists continued by discussing climate justice. Webb emphasized the need to link Black communities to initiatives as states transition to clean energy and try to mitigate the effects of climate change. Legislators must have conversations with Black communities who she said often “don’t have awareness and information” about legislation, energy audits and rebates.
Before the end of the discussion, Powell asked Wright to explain the controversy surrounding some of his sermons during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama was a former congregant at Trinity, and opponents sought to discredit him using clips of Wright’s exuberant preaching.
Wright reiterated an apology, but also criticized the media for taking soundbites out of context. He connected this once again to the concept of the jeremiad — he was speaking to his congregants, who “understood every word [he] said.”
In closing, the panelists emphasized the need to continue pushing for social justice.
“We have a rich tradition of hope and of freedom dreaming in the Black church,” Webb said. “If you need a word of encouragement, seek one of Dr. Wright’s books. Learn of the rich history of Trinity.”
“If you speak up and speak the truth, God will know that,” Wright said.