Thursday, March 20, 2008

How Wrong Was Rev. Wright?

I don't know about you, but I am sick and tired of hearing the sound bytes of Rev. Jeremiah Wright played ad nauseam on the TV and radio. And, I am particularly perturbed at the lack of maturity and thoughtfulness in the discussions surrounding Barack Obama's sensitive and intelligent response to the controversy. On days like today, I just want to tell our whole country, especially our TV news anchors, to grow up.

It is with this frustration in mind, that I came across this short post by fellow Cincinnatian, Troy Jackson, pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. I appreciated his measured words here and I hope you do, too. There is much for us to learn from this controversy--much more than speculation regarding whether or not white men will run to McCain rather than vote for Obama. (Puh-lease, people!)

By the way, Troy Jackson is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and earned his Ph.D. in United States history from the University of Kentucky. His book, Becoming King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (The University Press of Kentucky, 2008) will be available in the fall.

How Wrong Was Rev. Wright?
by Troy Jackson

On a Sunday when Americans flooded houses of worship seeking words of comfort, hope, and healing, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago dared to forgo the singing of "God Bless America." Instead, Senator Barack Obama's pastor claimed the prophetic biblical message of the hour ought to call us to proclaim, "God Damn America."

The words remain jarring and infuriating. Wright's comments seem at best incomplete and untimely. At worst, they imply that God is vindictive, vengeful, and bloodthirsty, even during a time of tragedy--that the judgment of God is appropriately meted out through the tragic deaths of innocent people through terrorist acts of hatred and evil.

On Sept. 15, 2001, Rev. Wright was wrong. His words failed to connect with the pastoral needs of a nation in mourning.

Throughout his career, however, Rev. Wright has been "right" more often than not. He has followed in the traditions of Hebrew Testament prophets, challenging his nation to live up to its own creeds of justice and opportunity for all - including African Americans, other minorities, and the poor.

Wright is in good company. When his provocative language is read alongside the vitriolic words of many Hebrew Testament prophets, Wright's words ring true. The prophets connected their nation's injustice and neglect of the poor with the destruction of Israel, often using vitriolic language. The prophet Amos once described the wealthy women of Samaria as "fat cows." Isaiah referred to once faithful Israel as a prostitute.

Not only are most of Rev. Wright's words biblically correct; they are also historically accurate. The U.S. has participated in many acts of evil. From slavery to Jim Crow segregation, from sexism to the internment of Japanese during World War II, from environmental disasters to the neglect of the poor, America has a record on par with that of Hebrew Testament Israel.

When it comes to foreign policy, the U.S. did financially invest in South Africa during the days of apartheid, used the CIA to enact coups against democratically elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, and remains the only nation to use nuclear weapons. Perhaps these domestic and foreign policy actions prove that Rev. Wright was right.

But this is only a part of the picture. While the U.S. is far from perfect, the nation has made significant progress regarding rights for minorities and women. The U.S. has often been a force for good in the world, from helping to rebuild Japan and Western Europe after World War II to the vast amounts of private and government funds offered to deal with global crises like the HIV-AIDS and malaria crises in Africa. Rev. Wright was not entirely right.

On March 18, Barack Obama used his speech about race to appropriately distance himself from the most vitriolic of his pastor's rhetoric. He has also removed Rev. Wright from a position on his campaign's spiritual advisory committee.

In the Hebrew Testament, prophets were as a rule not insiders in the royal palace. Jeremiah's words of prophetic judgment became so disruptive to the King threw the prophet into jail. Just over 40 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave up his access to President Lyndon Baines Johnson to prophetically speak out against the war in Vietnam. Put simply, prophets and presidents don't mix.

Thankfully, Senator Obama was careful not to condemn the entire prophetic ministry of Rev. Wright. Our nation desperately needs the prophetic voice he has embodied over decades of public ministry. And no matter who our next president is, he or she would be well served to consider the words of Rev. Wright, for he has been more right than wrong.


Celucien L. Joseph said...

This is a thought-provoking article, well-written, and contextual.


traveller said...

Like you, Emily, I am afraid the pundits nor that average American will take the time to think about Obama's speech. It is thoughtful, balanced and directly addresses issues that are normally only the subject of viriol.

It is certainly the most substantive speech by a politician in this, or any recent, US election.

I hope you are well. May this Good Friday be one of blessing for you and your family.

JMS said...

The only other ingredient I would add to Jackson's message is the one that filters through Obama's speech -- that white Americans still do not get it about how deep the hurt and anger goes in black America over the centuries of slavery, segregation, and racism. Scratch the surface of nearly any black American of Wright's age, and you will find a profound suspicion that whites are still out to do harm.

I say this on the basis of two decades serving as the white pastor of a predominately black church.

Steve said...

So sorry to have to bring it up, but we are in a war - a war declared by people steeped in hatred looking for any way to see our nation rent asunder, and here is a black nationalist completely disregarding the beacon of freedom that America has been for at least the past two generations.

May we wonder what President Roosevelt would have done with a German preacher shouting for separatism and for punishment on our country? A Japanese preacher?

We have completely reoriented our national government and poured hundreds of billions of dollars into righting the wrongs of our past and carrying out a largely Democratic Party-prescribed program of equalization of opportunity. I, for one, even after three decades of working with all races in my state's most racially diverse city, including Head Start, am ready to hear the Malcolm X wannabes offer the same thanks we have been hearing from Europeans for sixty years and immigrants for the past two centuries.

All these social engineers who are falling all over each other trying to put garnish and rose petals on this motor-mouthed fool do him and themselves no favor. To add an epilogue to the entire sad episode, it appears that his designated succcessor in Chicago will be more of the same divisive tribe.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Steve, we may have to respectfully disagree about this one.

There is no doubt that America has been a "beacon of freedom" for many millions of people for many generations. But, those people, until the last century, did not include women or people of color. There are lasting implications for the sins of our past, which cannot be brushed aside simply because of present military conflicts (one of many).

Unfortunately, there is no denying that this country was built on the genocide of one people-group and the mass enslavement of another. Our nation is a mix of good and bad--very good and very bad. And, the prophets of God in the OT did not deny the good when they preached against the bad. Nor did they wait for opportune times of peace to preach truth, either. You know as well as I do that God's truth is not necessarily militarily convenient.

I am NOT saying Rev. Wright's message was right, timely, or defensible. I am NOT making any argument for "social engineering" or any other such "programs." But, I am saying that there is a time to listen to tough words and remember that no amount of teary renditions of "God Bless America" will change our nation's spotted past and its present implications.

Grace to you, Steve,


Cal said...

I think that part of the race problem continues to be fueled by hate filled messages from people like Rev. Wright on one side and by guys like Rush Limbaugh on the other side. If most of us were left alone and didn't make these prophets words our own, we would get along much better.The race issue would become a mute point and our common faith in Christ would bring us together.


traveller said...

Steve, while I understand your point I would encourage you to read Obama's speech or listen to it in its entirety, if you have not already done so. If you have, it might be worth doing again. Understanding why Rev. Wright said what he did could help us develop a Godly response.

I do not believe we are in a war with people like Rev. Wright any more than we are in a war with Islam.

If more grace was given to those with whom we may disagree there might be less polemics from all.

Hagar's Daughter said...

I agree with Troy Jackson in that the timing of Rev. Wright's sermon was at the wrong time; the country was in pain.

Around the same time there was a well-known, conservative pastor who did not damn the country, but blamed certain individuals for that tragic day. There were others, but one in particular comes to mind (God rest his soul). It was one of the most hateful "sermons" I had ever heard yet it did not cause this amount of controversy; maybe because it was wrapped in a "God Bless America blanket."

I think that we, Americans and the Church of Jesus Christ in America, are being manipulated in order to distract us from social issues/public policy.

We can love America and still critique it; blind patriotism is not patriotism at all. This is a wonderful country to live in even with its faults.

God Bless

Rex Ray said...

Troy Jackson’s words of saying Rev. Wright was right more often than he was wrong, is about like saying a man has done more good than his one act of murder.
But he will be remembered as a murderer.

Also, Jackson said, the U.S. “…remains the only nation to use nuclear weapons.” He said this as ‘condemning’ the U.S. when in reality compared to the lives it saved on both sides, it was the logical and most humane thing to do, and I am very glad “nuclear’ stopped the war.

I’m afraid the harm done to Blacks in the past has created a generation of Blacks with a chip on their shoulder. For proof compare the Blacks per thousand who are in prison. They are not being ‘picked on’; they’re there because they broke the law. Why did they break the law? I believe they think it’s OK to steal or whatever against ‘Whites’ because it’s ‘payback time.’

My sixteen year old grandson was working in a grocery store, and was hit from behind with a large wine bottle in the process of four Black kids stealing beer and donuts.

Maybe the attitude of people like Rev. Wright influenced these kids thinking.

traveller said...

There is a really interesting and powerful story at this link from NPR.

I wonder if more of us reacted as this victim what the result would be? Be sure and listen to Julio Diaz tell the story in his own words.

CB Scott said...

How Wrong was Rev. Wright?

Well, Emily, in my not so humble opinion, very, very wrong. And so is Obama, Clinton, and McCain.

Oh, yeah, lest I forget; Rush is wrong also.

Looks like we are in real trouble, don't you think?