John F. Kavanaugh
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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.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

carol marmon | 4/14/2008 - 10:01pm
"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." Perhaps the good Reverend and Fr. Kavanaugh might consider the plight of the Innocent unborn, black and white, in regards to this quote. A "national history" of killing the unborn, since Roe/Doe in 1973, has resulted in 13 million abortions of black Americans. How dare Rev. Wright and Fr. Kavanaugh point their collective fingers at America, when they have this shameful, self-induced holocaust pointing back at them. The black community's embrace of the modern KKK, aka Planned Parenthood, has resulted in a self-suicide...and they cannot blame anyone but themselves.
DONALD CHAPIN MR/MRS | 4/9/2008 - 8:37am
Father Kavanaugh's thoughtful and informative essay and all of the ensuing diverse and civil comments are representative of the necessary dialogue of which Barack Obama spoke in his recent speech in Philadelphia. While I do not agree with Fr. Kavanaugh's observations on Obama's chances, I am grateful for his wisdom and his scholarship as demonstrated in this article.
Elaine Tannesen | 4/8/2008 - 3:24pm
In the pews of praying, Bible-reading church -going folks sits an enormous invisible elephant. Reverend Wright illuminated the elephant and we don’t want to see it. It’s the elephant of the history of and continuation of the violence in our culture, all of it legal and rarely addressed by the mass media. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been explained away by the fabrication that it was done to save lives. Historical documents and the comments of many such as Eisenhower and MacArthur have found the bombings to be barbaric and unnecessary. In the testimony of Akihiro Takahashi, a 14 year old survivor, “…my clothes had turned to rags…my skin was peeling and hanging…a mother and her baby were lying with a skin completely peeled off…” The bombing of Hiroshima killed 90,000 immediately and 145,000 within months, mostly civilians. Today’s bombs are 100 to 1,000 times more destructive. We have 10,000 nuclear weapons, 2,000 of which are on hair-trigger alert. I wonder what the Prince of Peace would have to say about this. Past atrocities can never be a rationale for committing present atrocities. This is the downward spiral of revenge and violence. Torture, unlawful imprisonment, rendition, pre-emptive war based on lies-are we followers of Jesus or barbarians? Its time for us to look beyond the talking heads of the mass media and see us as the rest of the world does. We are still a democracy and accountable for our votes and our tax dollars. The beautiful and radical call of Jesus to love our enemies has no place for skin peeling nuclear weapons and the resulting poverty of body and spirit.
CHARLES KINNAIRD | 4/7/2008 - 8:58pm
I am so glad to finally read this kind of reflection and evaluation of the Rev. Wright controversy. Here is a letter I wrote to our local paper which was not printed: "I have found one thing sadly missing in the visceral reactions to remarks made by Barack Obama’s pastor. Much of what he has said, and so much of his church’s ministry, stands within the scriptural demand for justice, dating back to the Old Testament prophets. To point out what is lacking in American life with the hopes of correcting those failings is not anti-American, It is in keeping with Dr. King’s call for America to live up to it’s ideals. It is also in keeping with many Christian social activists of the 19th century who pointed out such abhorrent practices as slavery and child labor and appealed for change on the grounds of Christian morals. "From my own experience as a white suburban Christian, I know that many of us were oblivious to endemic injustices in our day until we were informed by such prophetic voices as the following: • Ron Sider’s book, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” rocked the comfortable world of many evangelicals in the late 1970s and early 1980s and called for a new way of thinking and acting • Jim Wallis’ “Sojourners” magazine which has illuminated social injustices and called Christians to act for over 30 years. • The American Catholic Bishops 1986 pastoral letter titled “Economic Justice for All,” which calls for repentance and change on the part of believers. "So while one may disagree with some things Rev. Wright has said, let us at least hear them in context, and let us not insult our respective faiths by saying that a call for justice in un-American." Thanks again to Fr. Kavanaugh for such a balanced presentation.
Felix Anthony | 4/7/2008 - 8:42am

It is a given that the US is not perfect; that we have our share of injustice and sin. Does that mean that every US hater has to be given a exalted position of prophet? Rev. Wright is a hater. If he were a different race would the reactions be so mild , understanding and even apologetic. Are we still at a place we can't speak the truth.

George | 4/6/2008 - 9:33pm
As a black man I applaud this article. At the heart of the message I sense forgiveness. Within the Black community many of the expressions of Rev. Wright hold some truth. We as American need to take a close look at our participation in injustices not only within this country, but around the world.
John Van Damme | 4/6/2008 - 7:16pm
The problem, it appears to me, is the hyper nationalism: my country, right or wrong, my country. It blinds the ability to be self critical and ask the fundamental question: why. I think it goes back to the "exceptionalism" myth propogated by the Pilgrims, and repeated by such people as Ronald Reagan. It has been hard burned into the national psyche. It is fundamentally racist and the people of Fox News could not possible phantom that; that goes against their view of being superior to the rest of the world which tragically leads to hatred. The Rev. Wright came too close to the open wound.
John Feehily | 4/6/2008 - 6:37pm
Having been educated by Jesuits at Boston College more tha forty years ago, I can appreciate Father Kavanaugh's attempt to discern a deeper meaning in Jeremiah Wright's much talked about remarks. I believe, however, he has missed the mark. I have no doubt that someone who has been preaching for many decades has on a number of occasions made disturbing but prophetic remarks. I'm not at all interested in judging Wright as a person or as a Christian. But his diatribes featured in video clips, however, are beyond the pale. The very notion of a pastor calling upon God to damn America in a congregation in which children are present renders his comments crude, tasteless, and unprohpetic. His remarks attributing the origin of the AIDS virus to a conspiracy by the government is as kooky as one can imagine. My suspicion is that the St. Louis Jesuit is concerned about the Obama candidacy and wishes to dismiss those who believe the Wright remarks risk undermining him. As many of us 60's liberals know, those on the left side of the political spectrum will spare no energy into turning Obama into a secular redeemer. If Barack was unable to notice that his association with Rev. Wright's church might one day bring the chickens home to roost, then I question his discernment. Maybe he could do some online studies with the Jesuits.
Timothy McGonagle | 4/6/2008 - 1:14pm
I could not get past Rev. Kavanaugh's comments regarding Senator Obama's speech on March 18, which I watched him deliver on CNN and have since read many times. I agree totally with the importance and timeliness of the speech. I disagree with the conclusion that it will "not save Senator Obama's candidacy. I am also curious as to what information leads Rev. Kavanaugh to state that "the likelihood of the senator's nomination and election seem slimmer every day." The political news that I watch on TV and read on the internet indicate that Senator Obama is leading in the race for the nomination on every measurable factor. Indeed, several of his fellow senators called for Senator Clinton to concede and remove her self from futher splitting the party. I feel Senator Obama has dealt with the race issue just as he has with every objection his opponents have tried to use to derail his amazing successful campaign, that is to confront it head on with facts and intelligence.
David Pasinski | 4/5/2008 - 2:35pm
I believe you write off far too easily Obama's chances and assume that these clips that will dog him through the election will be determinative. I would also like to see more attention given to the history of prophetic preaching in black churches wherein the minister could be the voice of speaking the truth denied to congregational members who had other jobs and perhaps more prejudicial atmosphere to navigate. Finally MLK's great "Beyond Vietnam" sermon and the one he was working on when assasinated- with a title of something like "Does God Condemn America?"- show that this is far from a novel thought. Perhaps even Jeremiah and Walter Bruggeman would approve!
john | 4/5/2008 - 9:21am
Where can we get a copy of Mr Wrights speech
David Pasinski | 4/4/2008 - 3:36pm
I think you write off Barack's possible candidacy (and, for my part, hoped for victory)far too quickly. I expect he'll have those clips dog him til Novmeber, but I hope that he will say that they have been addressed as the leadership of the Church and UCC rightly pointed out on April 3. We might remember to cite King's famous "Beyond Vietnam" speech of April 4, 1967 (exactly one year before his assasination)that was as strong in that era. I think any commentary about Wright should be placed in the context of the history of black churches and segregation and the role of the preacher to speak the truth to power. I am grateful for your touching on the prickly prophetic role and how Jesus himself was killed for such sedition, but I hope you are wrong on your conclusion about how this will affect our political process this time. But perhaps I'm still too '60's...
Mark | 4/4/2008 - 2:15pm
I have been to black churches. They do not speak of White America in the vein that this preacher did. For you to gloss over the vitriolic hatred of Whites that he spews makes me indignant. My heritage is from Scotland, by my Grandfather. He came here and scraped as much as he could. Poor, destitute and hungry. Yet he did not endlessly recount the injustices of the British. No, he worked hard, and so did the rest of us. I have NEVER associated with the KKK. For him to include all whites as being a part of the Ku Klux Klan is ludicrous. I have two brothers who foolishly got addicted to drugs when they were younger. They're both dead now from AIDS. AIDS is NOT a way fo killing off black folk. His words are nothing but poison. His words inflame racial hatreds. THAT'S what you should be espousing. Not some supposed virtue of his.
BRUCE SNOWDEN | 4/4/2008 - 1:57pm
Aquinas said "Patriotism" namely, love of the Mother/Fatherland, is the highest of the natural virtues. So, ingrained within is the need to always experience the natural high of the virtue of patriotism, somehow honoring righteousness. This is why my first impulse on hearing the "un-American" rhetoric of Rev.Jeremiah Wright was to smack him around in my mind with the mental club of resentment! But "Free at last! Thank God I'm free at last!" Thank you Fr.John Kavanaugh,"Sharp Words From Another Jeremiah" (America 4/14.) Now I see the light and although Rev. Wright is no Jeremiah the Prophet and certainly not Jesus Christ, as Fr. Kavanaugh points out, he certainly knows how to speak the painful truth (mostly) rhetorically rubbing salt in the wounds he tries to identify and in the wounds he causes! Salt cleanses and preserves and I hope Rev. Wright's salty words will do just that - cleanse and preserve our great United States, a Country worth dying for, but not lying for!
BRUCE SNOWDEN | 4/4/2008 - 1:57pm
Aquinas said "Patriotism" namely, love of the Mother/Fatherland, is the highest of the natural virtues. So, ingrained within is the need to always experience the natural high of the virtue of patriotism, somehow honoring righteousness. This is why my first impulse on hearing the "un-American" rhetoric of Rev.Jeremiah Wright was to smack him around in my mind with the mental club of resentment! But "Free at last! Thank God I'm free at last!" Thank you Fr.John Kavanaugh,"Sharp Words From Another Jeremiah" (America 4/14.) Now I see the light and although Rev. Wright is no Jeremiah the Prophet and certainly not Jesus Christ, as Fr. Kavanaugh points out, he certainly knows how to speak the painful truth (mostly) rhetorically rubbing salt in the wounds he tries to identify and in the wounds he causes! Salt cleanses and preserves and I hope Rev. Wright's salty words will do just that - cleanse and preserve our great United States, a Country worth dying for, but not lying for!
Sal | 4/4/2008 - 1:47pm
http://essence.typepad.com/news/2008/03/the-full-story.html Try this link for sermon content.
Leon J. Radomile | 4/4/2008 - 1:32pm
As far as Jerimiah Wright, his church sells video highlights of his infamous speeches in the church gift shop. If a Catholic priest made those types of comments in my church, I'd move to a new parish at the very least. With regard to the last posted comment. Hiroshima an atrocity? Make no mistake about it, this action saved hundreds of thousands of American as well as Japanese lives. If you want to discuss atrocities, why not begin with the Bataan Death March and the biological warfare tactics of Japan in China for starters. My father and uncle were preparing for the invasion of Japan with their units in the Philippines when Hiroshima took place. Back home my Italian grandparents could not own a radio or flashlight. It's easy to sit back in 2008 and pass judgement on events of WWII. Be happy we won WWII instead of the Axis powers. Leon J. Radomile
Georgee | 4/4/2008 - 10:41am
As a Catholic and Japanese, your words meant so much. My husband and I just visited Hiroshima and was apalled by the atrocity. I am not sure it was a necessary attack to end the war or not, but one point is absolutely clear. Almost all the victims were civilians. Nobody talks about civilian death toll in Japan any more. Especially after 9/11, it's not a patriotic subject to discuss in America. I truly think Rev. Wright was courageous and I am glad you wrote this piece. I agree if Jesus was here today, he would be pursecuted. If He was put on a cross with two criminals, people will still want to pardon the thieves but not our savior. I just hope and pray more christians will take time to read Wright's whole sermon and look at the whole event from different perspectives.