If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dr. Dwight N. Hopkins: Race, Religion and the Presidential Election

Last night I attended a lecture by Dr. Dwight Hopkins at Franklin and Marshall College entitled "Race, Religion, and the Presidential Election." Dr. Hopkins is a professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School (http://divinity.uchicago.edu/faculty/hopkins.shtml) and an ordained Baptist minister. His books include Introducing Black Theology of Liberation, Being Human: Race, Culture and Religion, Heart and Head: Black Theology-Past, Present, and Future, Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology, just to name a few.

Dr. Hopkins presentation was an excellent overview and contextualization of the controversy over Barack Obama's relationship to Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for 20 years. I spoke to Dr. Hopkins after the lecture and said that I hoped he had opportunity to present this lecture to many audiences to provide a deeper context for the skewed and distorted media portrayal of Rev. Wright, Trinity UCC, and Black theology (See my article on Obama, Wright, and Racism in America: http://peace.mennolink.org/cgi-bin/m.pl?a=475).

In his lecture Dr. Hopkins began with the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright that erupted during Obama's presidential campaign. When the controversy broke through the news Dr. Hopkins, who is a member at Trinity UCC, was barraged by the media wanting to know about the black church, black theology, Trinity UCC, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He spent a considerable amount of time explaining and defending each against the distortions created by the media sound bites.

Methodically Dr. Hopkins explained to the audience of young F & M students, and a sprinkling of us older persons, the historical emergence of black theology during the 60's as a Christian response to the Black Power movement. Dr. Jame Cone was at the forefront of this movement with the 1969 publication of his book Black Theology and Black Power. I first came across Black theology in the early 80's in my exploration of a variety of liberation theologies. Dr. Hopkins proposes that Black liberation theology is not a radical, militant alternative for understanding and responding to the black experience in America, but can be found in the black slave narratives and the contemporary black church. Black theology grows out of the the Bible and particularly the socio-political ministry of Jesus Christ.

It was helpful to hear Dr. Hopkins present the differences between Obama and Wright. Wright was the descendant of slaves, generations of black preachers, was involved in the Civil Rights struggle, and personally experienced segregation. There is more "prophetic anger" in his addresing white racism. Dr. Hopkins spoke of Obama as being white, black, and multicultural. Obama grew up post-Civil Rights era in multicultural Hawaii, was raised by a white mother and grandparents, and had a father whose heart was in Kenya. I identify more with Wright's "prophetic" style and his approach to white racism than I do with Obama's. I've wondered whether or not it was a "stylistic" or generational thing. So, after the lecture I asked Dr. Hopkins about whether the different approaches of Obama and Wright toward white racism was an issue of their social or generational contexts or both. He sees Obama and Wright's differing approaches as being shaped by their historical, social, racial, familial, and generational backgrounds.

Dr. Hopkins also gave a more indepth look at Trinity UCC in Chicago. It was a small dying congregation that intentionally decided stay in heart of the city and to be shaped by an "Afrocentric" agenda, even before they called Rev. Jeremiah Wright to be their pastor in 1972. This is the church that Barack and Michelle attended for 20 years. One wonders whether they could have remained members of Trinity if there had not been the distorted media presentation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Trinity UCC.

This lecture provided the context that most white Americans did not know or understand about the black church, black liberation theology, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his personal, generational, and vocational differences from Obama, and their connection at Trinity UCC. Or possibly did not want to know. An open understanding of these contextual issues might still serve as healing balm for the wounds inflicted upon Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Trinity UCC, the black church, and even the Obamas.

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