Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency seems to have weathered the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. A hailstorm of criticism from right-wing media pundits followed the release of videotapes of Obama’s pastor preaching from his pulpit in Chicago.
Many called on the candidate to denounce the minister for preaching “hatred of America” and for fomenting racial divisiveness with his criticism of white government and business officials. Instead, Obama gave a remarkable speech on the subject of race in America, a topic generally avoided at all costs by politicians.
It was unusual because we don’t often hear the kind of honesty and heartfelt candor from our politicians that the senator demonstrated. Whatever happens to his candidacy, I think his speech on March 18, 2008, will for many decades be viewed as a defining statement on race in America, a classic example of how skillful words have the power to move us away from our worst, most primitive instincts and toward understanding.
Of course, his critics want more than reason and clarity: They want blood on the floor. They continue to suggest Obama’s association with Wright somehow marks him as unworthy of the presidency, although polls taken since then indicate most voters don’t agree.
It is assumed in many quarters that Obama was fortunate to have separated himself from Wright, who is painted as inhabiting something worse even than the lunatic fringe. His views are supposed to be so far from the American mainstream as to be ominous or even dangerous … certainly not to be given serious consideration.
Yet, when I watch clips of Wright preaching or I read his sermons, I have to say I catch myself agreeing. He doesn’t sound all that radical to me. And from the perspective of people in other countries, the only “mainstream” that ought to matter to us, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright sounds like someone with a keen sense of history, not a “lunatic.”
That Wright sounds “unusual” or “deranged” is more a commentary on our own country’s largely compliant and subservient academic and media voices. We rarely see what the world says about us, so we live an isolation chamber-kind of existence, deaf and blind to how our actions are seen and experienced elsewhere. Then along comes a Wright and his honesty shocks us.
We rarely see what the world says about us, so we live an isolation chamber-kind of existence, deaf and blind to how our actions are seen and experienced elsewhere.
I’ll give a couple examples that are often used to discredit him. First, though, remember that preachers are not supposed to be patriots; their allegiance is supposed to be to a higher authority than any human government. By definition, their role is to raise questions about the actions of the rulers of this world, not kowtow to them.
That has never made authentic, prophetic voices popular with kings, emperors or presidents. So when a preacher is lavishly praised by rulers, you can be pretty sure he’s opted to place his pulpit at the disposal of nationalism, not God.
Nazi Germany’s military legions were always accompanied by Catholic and Protestant chaplains as they set about enslaving Europe. That raises a loud alarm: Which God’s will and which God’s words were those chaplains preaching?
After 9/11, we heard frequent calls from politicians and preachers for God to bless America, us, our leaders, our troops, our missiles. Some of that was simply pep talk for the masses. But instead, shouldn’t true religious leaders have been urging the reverse: For our leaders to bless God; for America to search out God’s path, not merely assuming the celestial powers must automatically be on our side, whatever we decided to do?
So when Wright pointed out that 9/11 might very well have been a consequence of many decades of American arrogance and mistreatment of other nations, a case of chickens coming home to roost rather than of simple envy of our wealth and our “lifestyle,” he sounds to me much more prophetic and honest than the dozens of other American preachers who were immediately calling for a new Crusade to annihilate Islam. And he seems to more closely reflect the worldwide perspective than they do.
A second example is one that Fox News (but not only Fox News) delights in quoting, the question Wright posed concerning AIDS. Could the U.S. government be behind the HIV epidemic, possibly as a way to control the Black population?
To the sophisticated, that sounds crazy. Impossible, the pundits sneer. How could anyone think our government would do something that evil?
How, indeed … unless you remember our government passing out blankets infected with smallpox to Indians captured as prisoners of war ...
Or our government moving thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry into detention centers for the duration of the Second World War ...
Or our government financing syphilis research in Alabama by deliberately infecting dozens of young African-American men with the disease—and refusing to treat them ...
Or our government using involuntary human guinea pigs in experiments with radiation right here in New Mexico. Then the idea advanced by Wright doesn’t seem quite so preposterous.
Barack Obama may not be damaged politically by his association with Rev. Wright. And Wright himself, now retired, won’t be hurt by all this hoopla over his views. It is the rest of us who are at risk. Once again, we’ve been told some views are too dangerous, too different, to be given serious consideration. We are way too delicate to be exposed to the truth; so we get stranded, fearfully alone in the world, isolated from the current of international thought.