Thursday, April 03, 2008
Wright is Right
I was gratified this past Saturday to finally read a front page article in the Chicago Tribune that actually tried to bring some nuance and complexity to the understanding of Reverend Jeremiah Wright's supposedly "extreme" comments about race and America. I get sick of all the three second sound bytes repeated ad nauseum on CNN or Faux News or YouTube or wherever that give absolutely no sense of context for Rev. Wright's statements. I'm also sick of how these quotes are held up with the automatic and largely unquestioned assumption that they are always wrong, extreme, or even racist.

What is missing in all of these conversations is the question of whether in fact Rev. Wright may in fact be right in the things that he said. His statements may be shocking and uncomfortable, but that doesn't make them wrong. But of course, dealing with the actual points Wright was making requires listening to more than a soundbyte. It requires actually listening to the sermons and hearing the whole argument that he was making. When you do that, in my opinion at least, many of the things Wright said actually do start to make a lot of sense.

For instance, Wright's incendiary comment "God damn America", the Tribune article contextualizes it this way:

On the Sunday in 2003 when Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. shouted "God damn America" from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ, he defined damnation as God's way of holding humanity accountable for its actions.

Rattling off a litany of injustices imposed on minorities throughout the nation's history, Wright argued that God cannot be expected to bless America as the anthem requests unless it changes for the better. Until that day, he said, God will hold the nation accountable.
How many Bible believing Christians can justifiably disagree with that? Is it not the case that God does in fact judge the nations? And should Americans really expect God's blessing when we have been and continue to be guilty of all kinds of gross injustices? And here's the $30 million dollar question: how is Wright's comment substantially different at all from what Billy Graham himself once said "If God doesn't soon bring judgment upon America, He'll have to go back and apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah!" (Where are the pundits calling for Presidents and politicians to disavow their relationship with Billy over that?) Both Graham and Wright are right, Americans should not expect God to judge us any less harshly than he has ever judged oppressive and arrogant empires throughout history unless we repent from our unjust ways.

Or what about Wright's comment on the Sunday following 9/11 about "America's chickens coming home to roost"? If you listen to the context of the quote in Wright's sermon (which you can do by clicking here, and I highly recommend doing so) a few things stand out. First, Wright didn't originate that statement. He was in fact quoting US Ambassador to Iraq Edward Peck, who had said exactly that phrase in reference to 9/11 on Fox News the night before. Second, the whole context of Wright's statement was an exegesis of Psalm 137 regarding the insanity of cycles of revenge and violence. Wright's point, and it is a good one, is that violence tends to breed more violence, and that America, as a nation with a particularly violent past, shouldn't expect to be exempt from this reality.

This is a nuanced point. Some might want to equate Wright's comment with Jerry Falwell's blaming of gays, abortionists and the ACLU for 9/11, but the two are different in subtle but significant ways. While Falwell was blaming factors that had no direct relation to 9/11 at all, and essentially saying that 9/11 was a "punishment" by God for these unrelated sins, Wright's comment is more about cause and effect. Violence does beget more violence, not as an arbitrary divine punishment, but as a direct effect. The violence and injustices carried out by America in the past, not to mention our subsidizing of violence in other parts of the world through arms trading and political manipulations, has led to the anti-American sentiment that fuels terrorists like al Qaeda. Essentially Wright is reminding us that, to quote scripture, "we reap what we sow".

Others point to the comments Wright made about white America giving AIDS to black people as evidence of racism and paranoia, and certainly these kind of conspiracy theories are generally unhelpful to real dialogue about the issues. However, is it really so far fetched, so "extreme"? Our government has done similar things before (e.g. the Tuskegee Study), so is it really so unbelievable that some blacks would look at the huge difference in numbers between blacks and whites infected with HIV/AIDS and wonder? At any rate, this should at least be a reminder to us that African Americans have good reason not to be quite as trusting of the universal benevolence of our government.

That's the real issue here when you come right down to it. Wright is not guilty of speaking untruth or blasphemy against God. He is guilty only of blasphemy against the civil religion of American patriotism, the unquestioning belief that our nation is the best and most virtuous nation on earth, and that to suggest otherwise is heresy. And yet by committing this blasphemy Wright is doing exactly what ministers of the gospel are supposed to do - i.e. be a prophetic voice against the powers of empire that work against God's desire for justice in this world. That this is shocking to other Americans is simply a sad commentary about how far off track the church has gotten. It is encouraging to me that ministers like Wright can still be found who aren't afraid to speak truth to power and doesn't pull his punches against injustice and violence even when it's found in his own nation.


posted by Mike Clawson at 4:19 PM | Permalink |


At 4/03/2008 07:51:00 PM, Anonymous Drew

As I have been arguing, Wright is doing nothing more than a jeremiad that riffs on this passage of Scripture - in all of the soundbites that are being distorted: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

I do think that a positive outcome is that the term "black liberation theology" has suddenly become mainstream. NPR had a nice follow-up report here.


At 4/05/2008 08:46:00 AM, Blogger Tripp Hudgins

Thanks for posting this. We need to hear more...

This is my sermon from Easter. It's on the same line as your post.


At 4/14/2008 12:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Wright is spouting off nothing more than racisim. Sorry he is... sometimes we try to make things so philosophical so that we can explain things away... easier to do that than to blame someone for their ridiculous comments.

Simple truth: he is a racist, keep on trying to "philosophize" common sense out of his comments, but the truth is simple.


At 4/26/2008 09:07:00 PM, Blogger Donna

I'm a white atheist and I actually agreed with a good portion of what Wright had to say.


Links to this post

Links to this post:

Create a Link