Chi Trib’s Manya Brachear is at pains to have her readers think kindly of Obama’s preacher’s sermonizing:
On the Sunday in 2003 when Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. shouted “God damn America” from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ, he defined damnation as God’s way of holding humanity accountable for its actions.
Rattling off a litany of injustices imposed on minorities throughout the nation’s history, Wright argued that God cannot be expected to bless America as the anthem requests unless it changes for the better. Until that day, he said, God will hold the nation accountable.
And that’s when Wright uttered the three infamous words that have rocked Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
She provides context, as if it’s unfair to read the three words as rude, crude, and hateful.
long-winded oratory found itself at odds with the sound-bite culture that feeds the 24-hour news cycle and YouTube. Thirty-second snippets of 30-minute sermons led pundits to question how Obama could remain a member of Wright’s flock.
It’s “far more complex” than that, says Brachear. Wright actually “walked churchgoers along a winding road from rage to reconciliation, employing a style that validated both.”
“He’s voicing a reality that those people experience six days a week,” said Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Trinity member. “In that sense, he’s saying they’re not insane. That helps them to function the other six days of the week.”
By validating their rage, apparently. Does he question it? Help them get over it? Going to church can be therapeutic. But it’s a strange Christian worship experience that puts your hostility in a sacred place, to be nourished and cherished.
Shocking words like “God damn America” lie at the core of prophetic preaching, said Rev. Bernard Richardson, dean of the chapel at Howard University. “The prophets in Scripture . . . their language wasn’t pleasing to hear, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that,” he said.
But Wright’s “God damn” is not the language of the prophets, who in any case are too hard an act to follow, but the language of the street, the bar room, anywhere people lose their tempers and lash out.
Wright is or was a speaker of the word from a Christian pulpit. He has a duty to the spirit of the place, unless he has redefined it for his own purposes, we might say in his own image. He uses his position to baptize his listener’s lesser impulses.
Martin Marty is quoted and immediately rebutted:
Wright “goes beyond the bounds. That’s why it’s so hard to translate and why excerpts don’t do well,” said Rev. Martin Marty, a retired professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. “In today’s world, where you can debate these things instead of blast away like the prophets did, it’s sort of an alien language for most people.”
But while the rhetoric may come across as harsh, experts say its goal is to convince bitter skeptics that reconciliation is indeed possible.
“The anger comes from compassion,” Richardson said. “It can feel hard. It can sound hard. It’s cutting. It cuts to make you whole and bruises to heal you.”
It works that way, does it? “Cuts to make you whole”? What’s that all about? “Bruises to heal you”? What is this guy talking about? I’d say anger corrodes, if I were going the metaphorical route. It sears, it destroys. It’s very dangerous for the angry one and others.
Brachear explicates Wright in his “chickens coming home to roost” on the Sunday after 9/11. He used it
to sum up what U.S. diplomat Edward Peck had said in a TV interview. Malcolm X expressed the same sentiment after the John F. Kennedy assassination. But critique of foreign policy was not Wright’s central topic.
Please. Are we to believe that his audience took this as a summary of what a diplomat said on television? That it was not one of those verbal hand grenades that delights his listeners, validating their resentment?
The preaching experience is not a discussion group, but a one-man show. The preacher rules when he is in the pulpit. He creates the emotion or mines what’s already there. To analyze the argument coolly and inventively months later is to pass over the global effect of a sermon — in Wright’s case including the electricity he generates that sends listeners to their feet, gesticulating.
The Monica Lewinsky crudity was a “racy dig,” says Brachear, to be passed over to get to the point Wright wanted to make — “to admonish members who may vote for Hillary Clinton because they think a black candidate can’t win.”
Wright likened their doubt to the doubt of Jesus’ disciples who did not believe he could feed a crowd with five loaves and two fishes.
Which is going a bit far, most churchgoers would say.
And on Brachear goes, modifying and ameliorating, explaining, justifying. Wright threw out “the N-word” and “touched nerves” in the process. It’s a word that cannot be used in a daily newspaper, but your daily newspaper will explain its use for you.
“People need to understand how profoundly painful that word is,” [said a preacher “protege” of Wright]. “It speaks to an experience. He came from a different time. Because of the time he came from, he’s not going to just flippantly go along to get along in terms of how that word has hurt him in the past.”
What does that mean? Does Brachear intend to embarrass the man by quoting him verbatim? Or does she not consider it canned and illogical? Not flippantly? Those who refrain from using the forbidden word are flippant?
Another critic is quoted, almost at the end of the story. Wright’s jeremiads “were born of his own personal anger” rather than “heartbroken pain over [God’s] being dishonored by what is going on in society and culture,” says a Moody Bible Institute professor. The personal anger part deserves consideration, I say.
And Marty again, cited and again rebutted, who
said he thinks Wright crosses a line when he equates American power with white power. He also believes that both Wright’s praise of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Wright’s stated belief that HIV and AIDS were created to destroy the black community damage his credibility.
The last seven paragraphs are given to a Princeton professor who excused Wright on grounds of age and his recalling “experiments in which black men with syphilis went untreated in the name of science.”
From that it’s “not as far-reaching an idea as we’ve been led to believe” “that a government would inflict a virus on black people,” says the Princeton man. For most of us, it’s beside the point that something is not far-fetched, the point being, did something happen or didn’t it?
Wright’s problem is that his church’s little secret got out. ABC-TV bought those DVDs for sale from the church, and the whole world learned what had been known almost exclusively by the folks at Trinity Church, including those who may be seen in the video, leaping to their feet when he scored a blow to the awful, terrible world outside, the world of white people.