By now, Senator Barack Obama’s talk, “A More Perfect Union,” delivered at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center on March 18, has been analyzed to death. For my part, I thought it a politically astute and important speech that merits reading by everyone, even though it will not save Obama’s candidacy. We have become such a soundbite, libelous culture, using snippets of information to attack our political enemies, stoking latent fears and assaulting by innuendo, that the likelihood of the senator’s nomination and election seems slimmer every day.
I have been preoccupied with the preacher whose words necessitated Obama’s speech. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the senator’s pastor for 20 years, has been known as a religious leader in Chicago and nationwide for the last two decades, but a recent spate of video snippets has now made him infamous. I have not been able to track down the full text of the sermons that dealt with AIDS or “The United States of White America.” (If he says that AIDS was targeted against blacks by the U.S. government, he has quite foolishly and incorrectly formed his judgment from street talk and unsupported conspiracy theories. If he calls our country “White America,” I would like to know the context and his point.)
I do know the context of the “chickens come home to roost” video that the networks, especially Fox News, have played hundreds of times. It is a sermon that I have read in its entirety. You should too.
I started rereading the biblical Book of Jeremiah within days of Wright’s talk, maybe because they shared the name. I love the books of the prophets, splendid testimonies that Judaism in its holy Scripture is unafraid to list God’s indictments against itself. Christians, I suspect, have not been as courageous. We tend to look at the indictments uttered by Jesus as directed against the lords and rulers of his time. But if we were willing to look at Scripture as a living word, we would see that what he said applies to us here and now. And believe me, we would resist much of what he says.
Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet and a rejected one. He spoke truth to power, as they say, not only to his own nation but also to his own religious community. “Your own apostasies are rebuking you” (2:19). Isn’t this a bit like chickens coming home to roost? He called his own people a “degenerate plant and bastard vine,” an adulterer and a whore (2:21, 3:9). He did not exactly damn them, but he promised “disaster from the north, an immense calamity” (4:6), “an end of it once and for all” (4:37). In Chapters 5 and 6, the invasion by enemies was justified. Death will seem preferable to this wicked people (Ch. 8). A country and religion that lies, that is corrupt and incapable of repentance, is fated to become a heap of ruins and an uninhabited wasteland (9:4-11).
I could go on, even through the four “dooms” (what might that word mean?) and disaster of Chapter 15, and especially the “doom” for those who have great possessions but no integrity in Chapter 22.
All this, of course, does not apply to us, our nation, our church. But be wary, friends. The greatest indictment against Israel was their claim that they were successful and sinless.
If some blacks think the only terrible sinners in their midst are the white or powerful, they are just plain delusional. If some whites think America is sinless in its impact on the world and its treatment of its poor, they too are delusional.
The problem with much preaching in Christian churches is that we apply the prophetic indignation easily to our enemies, but rarely to ourselves, our church, our nation. But if we think Jeremiah and Jesus are not addressing us, we have nothing to learn from either—at our peril.
Was the Reverend Wright speaking in this tradition when he gave his infamous talk after the evils of 9/11? I think so. His sermon was a commentary on revenge and the violence that returns to those who do violence, especially against the innocent. Wright recounted our national history of killing children, from the Sioux to the Japanese. All just causes, one might sincerely think. But all horrific. And this is where the preacher talked about the “chickens coming home to roost.” As Wright continued, he pointed out that violence and hatred beget violence and hatred.
And then the preacher turned to something that possibly no one is aware of from the YouTube clips. Having been in New Jersey on that September day of “unthinkable acts,” Jeremiah Wright was drawn to examine his own relationship to God, his lack of prayer, his honesty. “Is it real or is it fake? Is it forever or is it for show?”
The full story has been willfully ignored by commentators. “I deny that he is a Christian,” Pat Buchanan said on MSNBC. His is a “crackpot church,” a pundit on Fox News pontificated. Well.
Jeremiah Wright is not another Jeremiah the prophet, nor is he another Jesus. But we should remember this: Jesus himself, if we bother to read the Gospel from the Saturday before Palm Sunday, was condemned as a threat to his nation and religion because of the words he spoke. For this he was executed.
If we cast out from our midst any criticism of our way of life, any indictment of our cherished ideologies, we may be casting out not only the prophets, but also the Savior.