Scapegoating the Leader’s Leader ?

The media focus on the relationship between U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Obama’s pastor for the last 20 years, Jeremiah Wright (who retired last month as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago), is surprising and disheartening to me. I can’t help but feel that something is sorely amiss in the call to repudiate and neutralise both Wright’s sermons (though most of us have read or heard only the barest snippets in a body of work over 20 years in the making) and the man himself.

Please don’t take my remarks below, or endorsement of other people’s remarks, to mean that I agree with everything Wright says. I haven’t heard most of what he’s said, and I’m aware that what any person says is open to many interpretations. What we say can be understood literally, metaphorically, symbolically, as part of a larger story narrative, intending to bring to mind words of others, a frame for historical events, to promote violence and unity and to inspire the imagination. In fact, sermons taken out of context — read instead of heard, outside the church and the ritual of liturgy — seem particularly liable to be miscontrued. (Just think of Jesus’s words, or most of the Bible or the Koran, and how even adherents of the same religious path differ greatly on beliefs and actions concerning wealth and poverty, living in community, family life, fairness in society, social justice, the body and sex, the legal system, retribution, forgiveness, and so on.)

I’m surprised by how widespread is the belief that most people agree with what their pastors preach, or the idea that most people would leave a church because their pastor’s sermons aren’t always in line with their beliefs. My experience is different — the church is a group of people, the spirit and presence of a pastor is expressed not just in what s/he says in weekly sermons, the mission and vision of the church can supercede the influence of the pastor, the sensory experience of the rituals may matter more anything spoken during worship. Mark Oppenheimer says all this very well in his essay “How the Obama/Wright debate gets religion all wrong”:

“In short, you only think Wright matters is you think that Obama attends Trinity Church because of the beliefs taught there. And while it might seem obvious that people choose a church (or synagogue, or mosque) because they agree with its teachings, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, I’d argue that for most people the beliefs of their church are a small, often insignificant part of why they attend.”

Oppenheimer goes on to enumerate other compelling reasons for being part of a church: the sense of community there, cultural loyalty, the music and ritual, even perks like free babysitting and childcare; and one that resonates with me, “because having a pastor whom they disagree with is more interesting than having a pastor who never says anything controversial.” I like to be challenged during worship, which means I won’t agree with everything I hear from the pulpit.

Franky Schaeffer, son of the late Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer, makes the case that the essence (not every particular) of what Wright said was said years before by his dad, with rather a different response. When Francis Schaeffer “denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr.  … Dad became a hero to the evangelical community and a leading political instigator. … Take Dad’s words and put them in the mouth of Obama’s preacher (or in the mouth of any black American preacher) and people would be accusing that preacher of treason.”

Some have noted in the comments to Frank’s story that Francis Schaeffer spent his life preaching against abortion, against euthanasia, using values and arguments “based and steeped in the bible.” As Scott Hutchinson at Preaching Peace argues in his essay, “No Longer Do I Call You Friend?,” however, many of Jeremiah Wright’s most inflammatory words, even taken out of context as they have been, can be seen as social gospel, in the pattern of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus himself.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell at theroot.com (associate professor at Princeton and seminarian at Union Theological Seminary) makes the same comparison to the Biblical prophets and also sees the similarity of Wright’s oratory to that of American abolishionist Frederick Douglass‘s when he was speaking against slavery. (We studied Douglass in high school as a great American orator.) She says that Douglass and Wright are both speaking in the tradition of the ‘black jeremiad.’  Jeremiah, the Biblical prophet from whom the word ‘jeremiad’ is derived and the namesake of the Rev. Wright, “was among the biblical truth tellers who regularly warned the government that divine destruction was imminent if the nation continued to oppress the powerless. Frederick Douglass was a master of the jeremiad. He called slavery a curse to the nation and argued that, ‘we shall not go unpunished.’ He said it was the patriotic duty of blacks ‘to warn our fellow countrymen’ of the impending doom they courted and to dissuade America from ‘rushing on in her wicked career’ along a path ‘ditched with human blood, and paved with human skulls.’ Jeremiah Wright is a modern Douglass. Both men are like the Old Testament prophets who condemn the injustice and corruption of the rulers of their government.”

While his overall take on the matter seems wrong to me, E.J. Dionne Jr. at the WaPo compares Wright’s “un-American” remarks with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. Some excerpts from some of those speeches are here.

For instance: Here’s King preaching against the Vietnam War at his own Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (4 Feb. 1968):

“‘God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war. . . . And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation. But God has a way of even putting nations in their place.’

“King then predicted this response from the Almighty: ‘And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.‘”

Back to Hutchinson’s essay. He says that “the whirlwind enveloping Presidential candidate Barack Obama and his relationship to spiritual mentor and friend Reverend Jeremiah Wright” seems “a particularly Lenten drama, where we witness the powers of the world at work, demanding blind allegiance, wielding mechanisms of labeling and scapegoating, asserting dominion over matters of faith, threatening a bottom line quite at odds with God’s realm.”

Hutchinson says that rather listening to Obama defend his relationship with Wright even as he distanced himself from the pastor, “one longed for him to give as much, or more attention, to the gospel of Jesus Christ that he gives Reverend Wright recognition for preaching to him. … How about the integrity to challenge when others would shamelessly prooftext Reverend Wright’s sermons, to confront the failure of those howling in protest to listen more deeply and carefully to a word preached from the context of communal pain and alienation, to embrace a common commitment (even in honest disagreement and anger) to discern a deeper, penetrating, eternal voice speaking to us through this experience? Isn’t September 11th part of a larger, tragic cycle of human violence and retribution (while indeed being inexcusable)? Don’t the scriptures indicate that the taking of innocent life comes under the judgment of God?”

Hutchinson makes clear that he’s not condeming Obama: “His dilemma is ours, albeit on greater public display. … For me, this is a recognition scene.  .. I am beckoned to make an honest appraisal of the titans of this world that demand my allegiance and the spiritual ‘pretzel logic’ they insist I embrace. I must also be honest about the ways I accede to those demands.”

(I am noticing my own pretzel logic this tax season, as the country seems to be in recession and house values are falling. I’m trying to maximize the tax return, thinking about how charitable gifts can be used to do so, worrying about the (paper) losses to my retirement funds, etc., and recognising in a corner of my being that this is not living as Jesus lived. My money anxieties and greed are not furthering the gospel. To the contrary.)

Others have commented on the similarity of Wright’s “God damn America!” to the prophets’ and Jesus’s “Woe unto you!” Just a few examples: Prophets: Isaiah 3:9, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 10:1-3, Jeremiah 13:27, Jer. 23, Habakkuk 2:12,15,19, Ezekiel 13:3,8, Hosea 7:13; Jesus: Matthew 23:23-33 or its parallel in Luke 11:42-54, and Matthew 18:7 and Luke 6:24-28.

United Methodist pastor Eric Folkerth’s comments at TPM are particularly thoughtful. Also helpful, Kevin Considine’s comments at religionand spirituality.com. Kevin is a graduate student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

On the surface, “Woe unto you” seems more ambiguous about where the woe comes from than “God damn” does about where the damning comes from. We don’t know if “woe” is a punishment for evil deeds or a consequence of those deeds. It’s certainly possible that it’s the latter. A simple example that removes the ambiguity might be if I said to someone who eats twice his required calorie intake every day and who doesn’t get any exercise, “Obesity unto you!” Yes, obesity is what will probably happen, and it may feel like punishment, but it’s clear that I’m not bringing anything to pass, that it’s his actions, colliding with reality, that lead to some pretty predictable consequences. The meaning of Isaiah 3:9 seems to be similar to this: “Woe unto their soul for they have rewarded evil unto themselves.”

On the other hand, “God damn” seems to be unambiguous. We have an external causal agent, God, and a type of action, i.e., damning, which is de facto a punishment. I’m not so sure of this, though; it may be just a rhetorical way of recognising that actions and consequences are part of the natural order of reality, the way, some might say, that God created them. Or it could be an actual request or demand of God that God condemn people to suffering.

If the latter, while I can relate to the feeling and desire to bring suffering to those who I believe are causing others to suffer, I don’t think this is a truly Christian call, and I think it is always counter-productive as a way to reduce suffering. Jesus in the Drama of Salvation by Raymund Schwager SJ and Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross are particularly good explorations of Biblical passages that seem to posit God’s condemnation and punishment but that ultimately can be understood as God handing us over to the consequences of our actions; God, in other words, doesn’t intervene (see obesity example above).

The full text of Obama’s speech is here.

As Betsy pointed out in the comments (thanks), you can watch Wright’s 9/11 sermon (from which the “chickens coming home to roost” line was taken) in context on YouTube, and his “God Damn America” sermon in context on YouTube as well.

25 March 2008 Update:

Gary Kamiya’s article in Salon today — “Rev. Jeremiah Wright isn’t the problem: The hysteria over Obama’s former pastor’s attacks on America shows we’re still in thrall to knee-jerk patriotism” — is worth reading:

“But beyond the fake shockand the all-too-familiar racial politics, what the whole episode reveals is how narrow the range of acceptable discourse remains in this country. This is especially true of anything having to do with patriotism or 9/11 — which have become virtually interchangeable. Wright’s unforgivable sin was that he violated our rigid code of national etiquette. Instead of the requisite ‘God bless America,’ he said ‘God damn America.’ He said 9/11 was a case of chickens coming home to roost. Now we must all furrow our brows and agree that such dreadful words are anathema and that no presidential candidate can ever have been within earshot of them. … It didn’t matter that Wright uttered his curse in the context of demanding that America live up to its ideals — all that mattered were those three talismanic words. Anyone this angry, our media gatekeepers solemnly informed us, must be rejected. …

“Turkey has a notorious law, Article 301, that makes “insulting Turkishness” a crime. We’re a lot closer to this than we like to think. …

“Our currently mandated version of patriotism is banal and genteel, as if we are afraid to dig beneath the surface of America and find out what’s really there. But there is another tradition of patriotism — a prophetic one. It is dark, angry, disturbing, even terrifying. And it cannot be dismissed, for its exponents include figures who exist at the very heart of the way Americans define themselves and their nation,” including John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.”

7 April 2008 update: More today on the similarity between some of what Wright said and some of what MLK Jr said at the blog of America: The National Catholic Weekly.

30 April 2008 (can you believe it?) update: Essay entitled “Black Church, Black Theology, and the Politics of Religion in America: A Reflection on the Theology-Race Controversy” by Lee H. Butler, Jr., Ph.D. Professor of Theology and Psychology, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Black Faith and Life at Chicago Theological Seminary, and President, Society for the Study of Black Religion.

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