Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Thinking About Jeremiah Wright

Last week was Holy Week, one of the busiest weeks of the year for ministers, so there was little time to post to my blog, but all week long I was reading and watching about the controversy over Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

As far as I can tell, this controversy blew up when video appeared. Apparently ABC sent off for video of Wright's sermons, and once there was video there was a meat for the carnivores of cable news talkshows. Any of them, however, could have tuned into this controversy a year ago, when Obama chose not to have his pastor pray before his speech announcing his candidacy for president. Back then, I blogged about Wright and his church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
  • On my April 14, 2007 post, I wrote about Black Theology and its influence upon Wright and his church. Black Theology's originator, James Cone and his book God of the Oppressed is standard reading in most seminaries, as are the works of African American women theologians, whose work is named Womanist Theology.

  • On April 30, 2007, I wrote about my own experience hearing Jeremiah Wright speak at revival services at Riverside Church in New York. I found his messages to be surprisingly traditional, and even somewhat traditional, in their theological content. He stayed away from politics when I heard him. Of course, being socially liberal and theologically conservative is nothing new in the African American church--if you can call Wright's theology liberal.

  • On July 2, 2007, I wrote about Obama's speech at the national meeting of the United Church of Christ. How I first came to know anything about Obama was through UCC circles. The congregation I served before this one is UCC--although it was largely white and wealthy--a far cry from Trinity's neighborhood in the south side of Chicago. I still hold standing as a minister in the UCC.

So, I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why this has erupted now. All of the sermons from which ridiculously short sound bites are being played over and over on TV are old ones. I guess the timing was right in this presidential campaign for it to stick now.

I've made no bones about how I like Obama--although if the IRS is reading this, please note that I am not endorsing him nor using my church to do so, my opinion of him is my own and not that of my congregation--and after last week I like him even more. I thought his speech was brilliant and dealt with issues of race in America at a level of nuance that our sound-bite-addicted media cannot grasp. Don't get me wrong, I think he had political motives for his speech, but I do think that he chose to face the issues head on in a manner that is all too rare in our culture.

If you haven't read or listened to Obama's speech, you should do so. It's message has been drowned out by commentators speculating about political strategy rather than really talking about its content. (Howard Kurz at The Washington Post has a nice breakdown of how poorly the media has handled this story.)

Going back to Jeremiah Wright, there are a number of things that I believe should be said but that are not being said in the media about Wright's sermons.

In the few seconds of video that have played on TV ad nauseum, Wright appears like a demagogue and a madman, but I have to wonder how many of the commentators have actually listened to an entire sermon by him. Other than what I heard in NY--which was not very political at all--I have to say that I have not listened to an entire sermon by Wright, but I did do a little searching on YouTube and found longer excerpts from his sermons that do place the comments in question in a broader and more understandable context.

For example, there is the sermon he gave after 9-11. All I've seen on TV is him saying "God Damn America" and "the chickens are coming home to roost." But when you watch a ten minute excerpt of that sermon, you see that Wright does not in any way condone the terrorist attack, in fact he condemns it. Furthermore, he was preaching out of Psalm 137 where the Psalmist in grief over his exile from Jerusalem imagines bashing the heads of infants belonging to his captors, and Wright rejects the desire for revenge of the Psalmist and issues a warning to America to also avoid the desire for revenge. He notes the past violent tendencies of America and argues that along with grief, America must consider how its own violent past has contributed to the events of 9-11. He calls the victims of 9-11 innocent, but he also notes that America is caught in a cycle of violence. Finally, he shares from his own prayers and reveals that God has told him that the best thing he can do during this fateful time is to look in the mirror and do some serious self-inspection.

If you were there for my sermon on the Iraq War a month or so back, you might recall that I made a few similar points about America being caught in a cycle of violence and how just as we are now seeing the inadvertent consequences of previous wars, we will see future negative consequences from this one. I might not use Wright's language or imagery, but in general, if I understand him correctly, I think I agree with his point.

By only examining 10 more minutes of his sermon that surround some of the sound bytes being played, his words take on an entirely different meaning. As a minister, I have to say that I am sympathetic to a fellow minister whose words have been taken out of context. I think it is reasonable to ask if the caricature painted over the last week of Jeremiah Wright is an accurate one? Of course not, it is one-sided and shallow. Is Wright perfect? Of course not. Are some of the things he is charged with saying (assuming their context has been fairly examined) over the top? Of course. Are those of us who do not share his experience as a black man in America or as a minister working in inner city Chicago shocked by much of what he says? Of course.

I guess it should be no surprise to anyone who approaches the mainstream media--especially TV-- with a critical eye that they do a poor job discussing complicated issues--especially race and religion. For all the flames this past week, there was far too much light and far too little heat.

have a lot more to pass on regarding Jeremiah Wright. I'll continue to post about him in the coming days and link to some articles I've liked and some I haven't.

Grace and Peace,



Danusha Goska said...

Rev Peep wrote: "By only examining 10 more minutes of his sermon that surround some of the sound bytes being played, his words take on an entirely different meaning."

This is complete hogwash.

You saw a demented hatemonger and you were utterly blind to what he is and to the poison he unleashes on the world. You were utterly without thought for the innocents targeted by such venom.

All you can do is gripe about "the media."

I have been thanking God for the media that made this material public, and I have been aghast at persons like yourself who so utterly lack the ability to see what is right in front of your face -- and you occupy a position of power and leadership! In a Christian church, no less!

I am reminded that there were Christian leaders who thought that Hitler just needed a little "context" to be fully understood, and who lambasted "the media" for "misrepresenting" the fuhrer, who was such a nice guy.

revpeep said...

Thanks for the constructive comment, Danusha! I find comparisons to Hitler are especially helpful to open dialogue!