Was Rev. Wright Wrong?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 13, 2008
All I can say is, that if any of you are thinking of running for President of the United States, you might be in a heap of trouble. Not for anything you’ve done, or said. But because of some remarks I’ve made, up here in this pulpit, sometime over the past 14 years or so.
So, before you decide to throw your hat into the ring, you’d better rush over to our church’s website, and click on “Sermons and Meditations”, and carefully scrutinize every one of the 254 sermons (and an equivalent number of meditations) posted there. And that’s just sermons since 1999—when the website was first begun. God knows what I wrote before then (and God had better remember, because I sure as heck can’t; I have enough trouble remembering what I talked about last Sunday!)
But at least, thankfully, at least, there are no videos of any my sermons out there on Youtube, or any such place. So, you will be spared the embarrassment to your campaign of some ill-considered and intemperate remarks by your minister being played over and over again, ad nauseum, in the national media.
But seriously, for me, this is what the recent controversy over Barack Obama’s “responsibility” for certain remarks by his former minister mounts up to: Are we to be held responsible for everything that our minister, or priest, or rabbi, or imam says, in worship, at every single service, stretching back for years and years? Even for those comments with which we might happen, personally, to disagree? Even for those comments that we may, or may not, have heard in person?
Such strikes me as a little absurd, as a minister, at least. Another minister who agrees with me, apparently, is none other than the Rev. Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas, well-known weight-loss guru, and not too long ago, candidate for the presidency himself, on the Republican side. Speaking on MSNBC, Huckabee said: “You can’t hold the candidate responsible for everything that people around him may say or do…Many times, these were statements lifted out of the context of a larger sermon. Sermons, after all, are rarely written word for word by pastors like Rev. Wright, who are delivering them extemporaneously, and caught up in the emotion of the moment. There are things that sometimes get said, that if you put them on paper and looked at them in print, you’d say, ‘Well, I didn’t mean to say it quite like that.’”
I think we can dispatch pretty quickly the issue of Obama’s “responsibility” for anything Rev. Jeremiah Wright may or may not have said, or meant to say, or insinuated. If Obama didn’t say it himself—or if his spokesman didn’t say it—or if a member of his campaign team didn’t say it (and Rev. Wright is not an official member of Obama’s campaign, nor is he is “ranking advisor” or anything of that sort—he’s just his minister, his pastor, no more, no less)-- then it would seem self-evident that Obama’s not responsible for it.
This now widespread idea in politics of “guilt by association” seems pretty illogical. (And I’ll admit that the political Left engages in it just about as much as the political Right does: every time a Republican candidate shakes hands with someone who has made anti-Semitic statements, or anti-gay statements, or anti-anybody statements, their opponents are right there, too, ready to paint them with the brush of “guilt by association”.)
Perhaps one thing this whole Rev. Wright controversy has provided for us is a sense of “Enough already!” Let’s focus on what the candidate himself or herself has said, and done, and stands for. That will give all of us enough ammunition to take plenty shots at candidates we don’t like. Let’s not focus on whether Barack Obama is responsible for things his minister has said in the past. Let’s focus on his record of accomplishments (or lack thereof). Let’s not worry about whether someone who’s just endorsed John McCain also made anti-Catholic statements in the past. Let’s worry instead about why the Children's Defense Fund last year rated McCain as the worst senator in Congress for children. Let’s worry about why he voted against the children's health care bill that would have extended health care to 10 million needy American children over the next five years. And as for Hillary… We shouldn’t be concerning ourselves with everything that people around her (even her spouse) may have said or done in the past. She has enough of a public record of her own for us to judge; and she should rise, or fall, based on that.
So, for me, Obama’s relation to the whole Rev. Wright controversy has seemed kind of peripheral; it’s kind of a non-issue for me. Maybe because I’m a minister, and I know that over the years, I’ve had parishioners whom I consider dearest friends disagree with me about a whole range of subjects—including my politics (which some of them thinks veers to far to the Left); including my theology (which some of them thinks veers too far to the Right); including things I’ve said in sermons, or sent in emails, which for one reason or another just didn’t strike people in the most felicitous manner. Just this past week, I had a good-natured exchange with someone about a political issue—about my support for the group Moveon.org (whom this person loathes) and this person’s liking of the commentator Bill O’Reilly (whom I loathe). You know what? I don’t think our difference of opinion has lessened the respect we have for one another one iota, or impacted upon my ability to care about this person as their minister, or their ability and willingness to support our church in its ministry.
I’m sure this comes as no surprise to any of you, but sometimes people disagree with things their clergymen or clergywomen say. People always have a responsibility to weigh the words they hear preached in the light of their own experience and their own knowledge. This is self-evident in a church like ours, coming out of a liberal tradition, where we honor and cherish individual freedom of belief as perhaps our preeminent value. It’s self-evident, too, in the United Church of Christ, to which both Rev. Wright and Obama belong. (No, Obama’s not a Muslim, in spite of what you might have read on the internet. But you know what? American Muslims are citizens, too. I pray we do have a Muslim President some day. That’s one of those “offhand comments” of mine that might get you in trouble if you run for President someday.) In a free society like ours, it’s no less important for people of all faiths—for Catholics and Baptists and Jews and Muslims and what-have-you—to think for themselves, and especially to think through the whole critical, complicated subject of how who we are as private believers impacts and influences who we are as public citizens. It’s a very involved subject, and one I would encourage all of you to struggle with it, and weigh that question your own soul.
The relationship between any given minister and his or her congregation is also a multi-faceted and evolving one, as well.
I’ve heard it said that every sermon preached by a given clergyperson on a Sunday morning is but a single sentence in an ongoing conversation. Our conversation here in Stoughton has been going on for over 14 years now. Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s conversation at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago went on for more than 36 years, from 1972 until his retirement earlier this year. That’s a long conversation, during which, I would guess, Rev. Wright preached perhaps 1300 sermons—more than 13,000 pages of text, double-spaced, one-inch margins.
I’ve read a few of his sermons, and I found them eloquent, learned, and very engaging, with a depth of biblical scholarship matched by an ability to apply biblical ideas to people’s real lives, in the real, modern world. I’m actually quite jealous of him, if the truth be told.
I’ve also seen the excerpts from his sermons on the internet, where he praises Black Muslim leader Louis Farakahn; or where he blames the U.S. government for the spread of AIDS in the black community; or where he changes the lyrics of Irving Berlin’s song from “God Bless America” to “God damn America.” Comments that were, no doubt, ill-advised; that should be sternly and rapidly corrected and repudiated; that were the result of a momentary lapse of good judgment and anger and pique, more than the wisdom and discernment we should expect from someone in his position.
But guess what? Ministers aren’t perfect. Even the good ones. Even ones who have had outstanding careers, as Rev. Wright has. It truly amazes me, as I read some of the comments about this brouhaha, just how little some people, in their haste to dismiss him as some kind of black racist kook, have bothered to take a look at who this man really is. The life story of Rev. Jeremiah Wright is a very impressive one:
He was born and raised in Philadelphia, the son of a black Baptist minister. From 1959 to 1961, he attended Virginia Union University in Richmond, but inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you…” he quit college, gave up his student deferment from the draft, and joined the Marines. In 1963, he transferred to the Navy, and entered Corpsman School at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, from which he graduated as first in his class. Wright then trained as a cardiopulmonary technician at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, where he was part of the team charged with the care of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Before leaving that position in 1967, the White House awarded Wright three letters of commendation.
In 1967, Jeremiah Wright entered Howard University in Washington, where he completed work on both Bachelors and Masters degrees in English literature within two years. He then entered the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, from which he received his ministerial degree in 1971. From there, he became pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, a small, struggling inner-city congregation, which had only 87 members when Wright became minister. When he retired in 2007, Trinity had 10,000 members and was the largest church in his denomination. He was, obviously, an extremely effective minister.
“Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” the mission statement of Trinity Church reads. The theology Rev. Wright preached was mainline Christian in many ways, with lots of references to Jesus, salvation, and the power of prayer. His congregation was also over 90% black—and Rev. Wright, himself was a product of the “Black Empowerment”—“Black is Beautiful”-- movement of the 1960s. He stressed to his people the gift of their blackness; the blessing of their race; and their need to maintain and strengthen their ties to their “mother continent”, Africa.
“Don’t be ashamed to be black!” was the message Rev. Wright (and through him, Trinity Church) intoned to his people. It is an important part of the blessing of who you are. Remember your heritage. Look well to the rock from which you are hewn.
Such a philosophy is “reverse racism” we are supposed to believe. It is “black nationalism”, “black racism”, we are told. Is it? I think not.
No more than the celebration of all things Gaelic by Irish Catholics is “Irish racism” or a form of “Irish nationalism” that threatens to tear asunder the fabric of the American nation.
No more than the celebration of “Mother Ukraine” in the pages of a Ukrainian Orthodox publication which I get in the mail is “Ukrainian racism”.
No more than the deep love and concern for Israel that touches the hearts of American Jews across the political and theological spectrum threatens our democracy or our national security.
“By their fruits you shall know them,” we are told. And by most accounts, the fruits of Rev. Wright’s ministry at Trinity U.C.C. have been good ones, indeed. As Martin Marty, professor at the University of Chicago and editor of the Christian Century has written:
But even Rev. Wright—ministerial superman that he seems to have been—as preacher, as pastor, as church administrator, and builder of the Kingdom—isn’t perfect. Rev. Wright, too, at times, was wrong.
As Barack Obama himself said in his “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia last month, the comments of his friend and pastor, Jeremiah Wright “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”
“As such,” Obama continued, “Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems-- two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”
Should Rev. Wright have led his congregation in singing “God Damn America” as the video cameras whirled?
No. Because such a stunt is not helpful to our land at a time like this. Such jeremiads do not serve to bind up the broken and set the captive free.
No. Because there are more responsible ways of expressing our disdain for the sometimes, frankly, damnable actions of our government in its relations with other countries and the relations it engenders among all of us here at home. There are better, more effective ways of expressing our opposition to this damnable, illegal, ill-conceived, indefensible war which will cost our people perhaps 3 trillion dollars in all, as it drags on through another generation.
As Gov. Mike Huckabee has said:
Rev. Wright was no less a product of his upbringing, his prejudices, his own narrowness and sin and self-centeredness and ego, as any of us are. As any ministers are. As any news commentators are. As any candidates for President are. We can’t excuse his errors and his mistakes; but we should perhaps forgive them, as we would have ours forgiven.
As imperfect as any of us may be, we are like family to one another. And it is only in the totality of our relationships that our salvation lies. We are part of one another, joined in an inescapable web of destiny with each other. May we strive to uplift one another toward that better tomorrow. May we be agents of one another’s grace, and not of our fear. May we strive, in all we do and say, to summon forth from within one another the better angels of our nature.