Reverend Jeremiah White’s sermon that inspired the title of Barack Obama’s best-selling memoir and 2004 Democratic National Convention speech suggests the world is full of pain and despair.
Wright’s sermon, “Audacity to Hope” is based on the story of a troubled woman named Hannah who sits atop of a hateful world in tattered clothes and has a bruised heart. Wright says Hannah lives in a quiet Hell, like his many followers who suffer privately, but portrays an image of “sitting on top of the world.”
But because Hannah had the “audacity to hope” she is able to look towards heaven for relief. Obama slightly modified the title of Wright’s sermon for his book “Audacity of Hope” which became a New York Times bestseller.
Click here for an audio version of the speech. The full text is listed below.
Obama has called Wright his “spiritual adviser.” Wright also married Obama and his wife, Michelle, and baptized his two daughters, but more details about Obama’s relationship with Wright are now sought after controversial sermons surfaced in which Wright invokes racial slurs and condemns America.
Like those sermons, there are a few racial references in Wright’s “Audacity to Hope.” Wright mentions people in Hannah’s world are “more concerned about the color of skin than it is about the content of character” and that her world is a “a world more finicky about the texture of hair or what is on the outside of your head than it is about the quality of education or what is on the inside of one’s head.”
This particular address, however, is not nearly as inflammatory as others that have been widely played by media outlets.
Here is the transcribed version of Wright’s “Audacity to Hope”
"Several years ago while down in Richmond, Virginia, the Lord blessed my life by allowing me to be in that city during the same week that the annual convocation was being held at the Virginia Union University School of Theology, and it was at that convocation that I was privileged to and blessed to hear the preaching and teaching of Reverend Frederick G. Sampson of Detroit, Michigan and in one of this lectures Dr. Sampson talked about a picture that I had had to study in humanities courses at that same school, Virginia Union back in the late 50’s.
"And Dr. Sampson talked about the picture so beautifully and so powerfully that memories were brought back to me from those college days in the 50’s and he talked about the painting as being a study in contradictions because what is depicted as the title and what is on the canvas seems to be in direct opposition one to the other. You see, the painting is titled “Hope” and it shows a woman sitting on top of the world playing a harp. Now at first glance, that would be all right, for what more enviable position could one ever hope to achieve than being on top of the world with the whole world, everything and everyone dancing to your music. But when you look closer at the picture, when the illusion of power gives way tot the reality of pain the world at which this woman sits, our world, that is a world which is torn by war, destroyed by hate, devastated by despair and devastated by distrust. The world on which she sits is on the very brink of destruction. Famine ravishes millions of the inhabitants of this world in one hemisphere while feasting and gluttony are enjoyed by inhabitants of another hemisphere. A time bomb ticking is the world on which she sits with apartheid in one hemisphere and apathy in the other hemisphere and enough nuclear warhead scientists tell us to wipe out all forms of life except for cockroaches and that is the world on which this woman sits. A world which cares about more bombs for the enemy than it does about bread for the hungry. A world that is still more concerned about the color of skin than it is about the content of character. A world more finicky about the texture of hair or what is on the outside of your head than it is about the quality of education or what is on the inside of one’s head. That is the world on which this woman sits. You and I think of being on top of the world as being in heaven, but when you look at the woman on Watt’s painting a little closer what you discover is that this woman is in Hell. And that artist Watt dares to entitled the painting “Hope.”
"Then, on top of that, she’s sitting there in rags. Tattered clothes as if she herself has been in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her head is bandaged and her blood is beginning to seep through the bandages. Scars and cuts are visible on her face, her arms and her legs. That’s when you look closer at the picture. And the instrument, on which she plays, her harp, has all but one of its strings broken, torn or ripped out. Even the instrument ha been damaged by what she has been though and she is even more the example of quiet despair than anything else. Yet, the artist dares entitle the painting “Hope.”
"When you look closer at what Watt has done on that canvas, the illusion of power, sitting on top of the world gives way to the reality of pain and isn’t that the way it is with so many of us? Oh, we give the illusion of being in an enviable position, being on top of the world, but when you look closer at our lives what you begin to find is the reality, many times, of a pain almost too deep for the tongue to tell. Like that woman in Watt’s painting where it looks like heaven is actually for many of us, existing in a quiet Hell. I’ve been pasturing for 17 years; I’ve seen top many of these cases not to know what I am talking about. I’ve seen married couples where the husband has a girlfriend in addition to his wife. And it’s something people don’t talk about anymore you smile and pretend you don’t hear the whispers and the gossip and you remember you’ve got the legal papers on him and he would rather try to buy Fort Knox than get a divorce from you. That’s a living hell.
"I’ve seen married couples where the wife discovers someone else cares for her as a person, not just as a cook, a maid, a jitney service and a call girl service all wrapped into one, but there’s a scandal, what folk might say and the scandal of the children. That’s a living hell.
"I’ve seen divorcees whose dreams have been blown to bits, families who are broken beyond repair whose lives seem now somehow to have slipped through their fingers they’ve lost complete control. That’s a living Hell.
"I’ve seen college students who give the illusion of being on top of the world. Designer clothes, all the sex they want, all the cocaine or marijuana or drugs, all the trappings of having it all together on the outside and empty and shallow and hurting and lonely and afraid on the inside. Many times what looks good on the outside, the illusion of being in power, the illusion of sitting on top of the world, when you get closer is actually existing in a quiet Hell. And that is exactly where Hannah is in First Samuel the first chapter the first eighteen verses.
"Hannah is top dog in this three way relationship between herself AC and Peninah. Her husband loves her more than he loves his wife and other children. He tells her that loves her and a lot of husbands don’t do that. He shows her that he loves her and many husbands never get around to doing that. In fact it is his attention to her and his devotion that cause P to be so angry and to stay on her case so constantly. Jealous. Jealously will get a hold of you and you can’t let it go because it won’t let you go. Peninah stayed on her as we like we say as “white on rice.” Stayed on her constantly, picking on her, making her cry. Taking her appetite away.
"At first glance, Hannah’s position seems enviable; she had all the rights and none of the responsibilities. No diapers to change, beds to set up beside at night no noses to wipe. No nothing else’s to wipe either. No babies draining you of your milk, demanding feedings. Hannah had it all. Top dog. No baby portions to fix at meal times. Her man loved her. Everybody knew he loved her. He loved her more than anything or anybody and that’s why Peninah hated her so much. Now, except for this second wife bit, which was legal back then, Hannah was sitting on top of the world, until you looked closer. And when you look closer what looked like heaven was actually existing in a quiet Hell.
"She not only had the pain of a bitter woman to contend with but nonstop Peninah stayed on her. She not only had that pain of a bitter woman she also had as in Bible days, another pain. The pain of a barren womb. You will remember the story of the widow in second Kings four the woman who had no child. The story of women in biblical days with no children was as story of deep pathos and despair. You do remember the story of Sarah and what she did in Genesis sixteen because of her barren womb before the three heavenly visitors stopped by their tent. You do remember the story of Elizabeth and her husband in Luke one back in Bible days the story of a woman with a barren womb was that if deep pathos and Hannah was afflicted with the pain of a bitter woman on one hand and the pain of a barren womb on the other. Her world was flawed, flaky. Her respectability was tattered and torn and her heart was bruised and bleeding by the constant attacks of a jealous woman. The scars and scratches on her psyche are almost visible as you look at this passage as she cries; refusing to eat anything just like the woman in Watt’s painting what looks like being in Heaven is actually existing in a quiet Hell.
"Now I want to share briefly with you about Hannah, the lady and the Lord. But while I do so I want you to be thinking about where it is you live and the particular pain predicament that is yours. Think about for a moment. Come back to what Dr. Sampson was saying at Virginia Union who said he wanted to quarrel with the artist who had the gall to name that painting “Hope” when all he could see on the picture is Hell. A quiet desperation. But then Dr. Sampson said he noticed he had only been looking at the horizontal relationships. How this woman was hooked up with this world in which she lived, this world in which she sat. Her horizontal dimension, her horizontal relationships. He had failed to take into account her vertical relationships. He had said he had not looked above her head. And when he looked over her head he found some small notes of music moving joyfully and playfully towards heaven. And that’s when he began to understand why the artist entitled the painting “Hope” Because in spite of being in a world torn by war, in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate, decimated by distrust, in spite of being in a world where famine and greed are uneasy bed partners, in spite of being on a world where apartheid and apathy feed the fires of racism and hatred, in spite of being on a world where nuclear nightmare draws closer with each second, in spite of being on a world with a ticking time bomb, with her clothes in rags, her body scarred, bruised and bleeding and her heart all but destroyed with that one string she had left, Hannah had the audacity to make music and praise God.
"The vertical dimension balanced out what was going on the horizontal dimension. And that is what the audacity to hope will do for you. The apostle Paul said the same thing. Paul said you have troubles? Glory in your troubles. We glory in tribulation. That’s the horizontal dimension. We glory in tribulation because, he says, tribulation works patience and patience works experience and experience works hope. That’s the vertical dimension. And hope makes us not shame. The vertical dimension balances out what is going on in the horizontal dimension. And that is the real story here in Samuel the first chapter. Not the condition of Hannah’s body, but the condition of Hannah’s soul. Her vertical dimension.
"She had the audacity to keep on hoping and to keep on praying and to keep on praying when there was no visible sign on the horizontal level that what she was praying for, hoping for, waiting for would ever be answered in the affirmative. That what she wanted most out of life had been denied to her. Think about that. Yet in spite of it, she kept on hoping. The gloating of Peninah did not make her bitter, she kept on hoping. When her family made its pilgrimage to the sanctuary she renewed her petition there, pouring out her heart to God. She may have been barren in her womb, that’s the horizontal dimension; she was fertile in however in her spirit, her vertical dimension. She prayed and she prayed and she kept on praying year after year, no answer and she kept on praying. She prayed so fervently in this passage that Eli though she had to be drunk. There as no sign on the horizontal level that for which she was praying for would ever be answered and Paul said something about that, too. No visible sign. Hope, the vertical dimension, he says, hope is what saves us for we are saved by hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For what a man sees, why does he have hope for it, but if we hope for that which we see not, no visible sign, then do we with patience wait for it, almost an echo of what the prophet Isaiah said: they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. The vertical dimension balances out what is going on in the horizontal direction.
"In your life, there may not be any visible sign of a change in your individual situation whatever your private Hell is. But that’s just a horizontal level. Keep the vertical level intact, like Hannah and you may like the African slaves be able to sing “over my head I hear music in the air, over my head I hear music in the air, over my head I hear music in the air, there must be a God somewhere.”
"Keep the vertical dimension intact like Hannah. Have the audacity to hope for that child of yours, have the audacity to hope for that home of yours, have the audacity to hope for the church of yours. For whatever it is you’ve been praying, keep on praying and you may like my grandmother sing “There’s a bright side somewhere, there’s a bright side somewhere.” There is a bright side somewhere. Don’t you rest until you find it, for there is a bright side somewhere. The real lesson that Hannah gives us from this chapter, the most important word that God has here is how to hope when the love of God is not plainly evident. It’s easy to hope when there is evidence all around you of how good God is, but to have the audacity to hope when that love is not evident and you don’t know where that somewhere is that my grandmother sang about, or if there will ever be that brighter day. That is the true test of a Hannah-type faith. To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope, to make music and praise God on and with whatever it is you have left even though you can’t see what God is going to do. That is the real word God would have us hear from this passage and from this painting.
"There is a true-life illustration that demonstrates the principles so powerfully played in this pericapy. And I close with it. My mom and my dad used to sing a song I have not been able to find in any of the published hymnals. It is an old song out of the black religious tradition, called “Thank You, Jesus.” It is a very simple song and some of you have heard it. It goes, “I thank you, Jesus. I thank you, Jesus, I thank you, Jesus.” But to me they would always sing that song at what seemed like the strangest times. When the money got low in our home, or when the food was running out, or when I was getting in trouble they would start singing that song. And, I never understood it because as a child it seemed to me they were thanking God we had no money, or thanking God that we had no food or were thanking God I was in trouble or making a fool out of myself as a kid. But I was only looking at the horizontal level. I did not understand, nor could I see back then, the vertical hookup that my mother and my father had. I did not know then they were thanking Him in advance for all that they dared to hope for that He would do one day to their son, in their son and through their son. That’s why they prayed, that’s why they hoped and that’s why they kept on praying. No visible sign on the horizon and that’s why I thank God I had praying parents because now some 35 years later when I look at what God had done in my life I understand clearly how Hannah had the audacity to hope, why my parents had the audacity to hope and that’s why I say to you hope is what saves us. Keeping on hoping, keep on praying. God does hear and answer prayers."