Rev. Jeremiah Wright: Pariah or Prophet?
By John W. Whitehead
The media is once again in a feeding frenzy. Its latest victim is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, of which presidential contender Barack Obama is a member.
If you buy into what the media is reporting, much of it culled from old sermons, Wright is an unpatriotic, anti-Semitic, Christian zealot three steps removed from the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Indeed, I have seen perfectly reasonable, intelligent people swayed by this tactic. Granted, when Wright’s statements are taken out of context and aired and re-aired incessantly, the man does come across as a bit of a raving lunatic.
However, Americans should carefully listen to what Wright has to say in its entirety before judging him too harshly. For instance, read the speech that Wright recently delivered at the National Press Club or watch his interview with PBS’ Bill Moyers. You may find that Wright is neither unpatriotic (he served six years in the military), nor any of the other accusations being thrown his way.
In fact, you might even find yourself nodding along with Wright on a number of points and appreciating the work that his church has done in its community. As the Associated Press reports, Wright’s church “has long stood out among churches nationwide for its social work on problems including HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, cancer and drug abuse.”
What the media has created, with the help of Obama’s political opponents, can be termed “Obama trauma,” and the ploy seems to be working. The question is: why is this working? Several reasons stand out.
First, it’s a form of racism. Despite what we might want to believe, America is still a largely divided racist nation, and Wright understands this. For example, when Moyers asked why inflammatory clips from his speeches and sermons are being circulated in the context of Obama’s presidential campaign, Wright responded: “To put an element of fear and hatred and to stir up the anxiety of Americans who still don’t know the African-American church, know nothing about the prophetic theology of the African-American experience, who know nothing about the black church.”
Second, we live in a sound-bite society. People don’t think analytically anymore, not even the media. As Wright said, “Corporate media and miseducation or misinformation or disinformation, I think we started calling it during the Nixon years, still reigns supreme. Thirty some percent of Americans still think there are weapons of mass destruction. You tell a lie long enough, people start believing it.”
Third, those who speak truth to power, as Wright has attempted to do, are always vilified. Wright could have remained silent, but to do so would have denied what he sees as his prophetic calling as a Christian pastor. This man sees himself as a prophet and adamantly believes that America is under God’s judgment and the 9/11 attacks are a sign of that. At the same time, he’s openly taking on many of the same issues that Martin Luther King, Jr., challenged: racism, inequality, poverty, injustice, hatred and war. Yet he’s also preaching an undeniably biblical message of transformation and reconciliation:
God does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other people. God does not want the powerless masses, the poor, the widows, the marginalized, and those underserved by the powerful few to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being more equal than others in that same society… God’s desire is for transformation, changed lives, changed minds, changed laws, changed social orders, and changed hearts in a changed world…. God does not desire for us, as children of God, to be at war with each other, to see each other as superior or inferior, to hate each other, abuse each other, misuse each other, define each other, or put each other down. God wants us reconciled, one to another.
Fourth, it’s political correctness rearing its ugly head once again. I don’t agree with everything Wright has to say. Some of his statements are controversial and may be an expression of a religious viewpoint with which many disagree, but he has a right to say them. That’s the beauty of the First Amendment. It grants us the right to free speech and religious freedom. And when Wright speaks, it is clearly as a pastor. As Wright observed about the difference between him and Obama, “He’s a politician, I’m a pastor. We speak to two different audiences. And he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. Those are two different worlds.”
However, unlike some Christians who strive to merge church and state, Wright seems to understand that religion and politics do not mix. As he observed, “When you start confusing God and government, your allegiances to government—a particular government and not to God, [then] you’re in serious trouble because governments fail people. And governments change. And governments lie.”
Finally, let’s not forget that there are political games afoot, and this is politics at its nastiest. What’s more, with this latest maneuver, the Clintons and the Republicans are winning.
The fallout from what is clearly a smear campaign may well hurt Obama’s bid for the White House, but the dialogue that is taking place right now could turn out to be invaluable in furthering race relations in the United States. And maybe, as Wright remarked in his speech at the National Press Club, “this dialogue on race, an honest dialogue that does not engage in denial or superficial platitudes, maybe this dialogue on race can move the people of faith in this country from various stages of alienation and marginalization to the exciting possibility of reconciliation.”
Yet until Americans have actually read Rev. Wright’s speeches, watched his interviews and listened to his sermons in their entirety, they shouldn’t be so quick to judge the man or listen to talk-show pundits who haven’t done so either.