We have been exposed, time after time, to the sensational and seemingly offensive snippets of the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, based on which we are asked to judge his parishoner, Sen. Obama.
But wait a minute. Aren't we supposed to consider the whole, or at least the context in which a man makes a statement?
I went back and listened to 10 minutes of the sermon, in which Rev. Wright refers famously to the 9/11 attacks as "chickens coming home to roost," explicitly echoing Malcolm X's statement to the same effect regarding the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy. (I so far haven't found Rev. Wright's collected works on line, although we will, Oscar, we will, no doubt alongside the songs of Ashley Alexandra Dupré--but only YouTube snippets under 10 minutes in length).
The sermon goes off on the 137th Psalm (136th to you Orthodox), "By The Waters of Babylon," a lamentation sung by exiles on their flight from the Bablylonian sack of Jerusalem, which ends in a fantasy of revenge:
O wretched daughter of Babylon,To be sure, Rev. Wright goes off by way of a kind of footnote and rattles of the sins in the origins of this country, from the ethnic cleansing of the Indians to Hiroshima.
Blessed is he who shall deal with you
As you dealth with us;
Blessed is he who shal get the upper hand
And dash your infants against the rocks.
If God judges nations, as the Bible says he does, asks Rev. Wright, does not the U.S. have much to answer for as did the Kingdom of Judah? Although I might list different sins, it is hard to gainsay that notion.
But Rev. Wright does not leave it there, instead personalizing his message, saying that he must look to the heart of Jeremiah Wright, and examine his own relationship with God. This is traditional Christian teaching--look to the log in one's own eye, not the splinter in one's neighbors. This notion is antithetical to Americans' embrace of self-congratulatory exceptionalism, but is neither heretical nor wrong.
One could well ask whether, later in the sermon, Rev. Wright discourses not just on the injustices perpetrated by white America, but on the self-inflicted wounds of the black community. This would seem essential in a self-proclaimed Africa-central church. As might be expected, Pat Buchanan offers us a riff on these.
The notion of judgment, however, is not confined to churches tinged with Black Nationalism. Abraham Lincoln, who may not even have been a Christian, in his Second Inaugural spoke of the horrors of the Civil War as divine judgment for the sin of slavery (we'll leave the debate about Abe's sins out of this post). Commenters at places such as Chronicles, many of them White Southerners, castigate the state, and sometimes the nation, in terms as harsh as Rev. Wrights. Frederica Mathewes-Green, focusing on abortion, wonders what we have coming to us, although remembering Abraham's bargaining with God over Sodom, sees hope in the millions who, although their faith is a naïve and heretical thing, maintain a simple faith.
Long story short, Rev. Wright's style and his references may be peculiar to a particular politics, but his reference to judgment is neither unorthodox nor silly.
It is easier to see madness in Rev. Wright's references to conspiracies, such as the supposed origins of AIDS in a plot to kill blacks, or a similar plot to spread drugs in that community. This type of theory is rife in the black community, I hear, and wrong-headed though these accusations are, they are not without some basis, whether it's the Tulsa riots or the Tuskegee Experiment, that at least explains in part the willingness to expect the worst.
Not dissimilar is the tendency of many Jews to see every negative reference to Jews or to thje state of Israel as motivated by murderous antisemitism, or conservatives who saw Bolshevism in every tepid proposal for reform.
I hold no brief for the Rev. Wright's theology, or for black nationalist nostrums generally. I do believe, however, that like anyone else's statements, his should be viewed in context, and Sen. Obama, who is is own man and not a creature of his pastor, evaluated for his own statements and program.
Tentative ruling: statements, skillful and interesting; program, profoundly mistaken.