The Wright Stuff

In a case of pretty hilarious media buying, a Republican group has been running a Jeremiah Wright-related anti-Obama ad over and over again on MSNBC.

I'm not sure they understand who watches MSNBC. Morning Joe aficionados, lovers of Keith Olbermann, straight women tempted to call Rachel Maddow their TV girlfriend, or just people who wonder when the top of Chris Matthews' head will come off, we are thinking people. We've heard the Wright story before. We have worked through it or set it aside. But since the question has been raised, I'll be happy to talk about it one more time.

Freedom of the pulpit–it's a beloved yet aggravating feature of the Congregational tradition, the polity agreed to in the United Church of Christ. Jeremiah Wright and I hold our standing in the same denomination, and we both preach from an understanding that we have the freedom of the pulpit. We agree when we covenant with a church that there may be times we are called to be prophetic, and we agree it may not always be comfortable, or at least that's how I understand it.

Reverend Wright, unlike most of us, preached in a church that welcomed his prophetic message.

My opportunities have been more limited, but I spoke out against the war as we began ramping up toward it in 2003, and I spoke against a referendum intended to overturn anti-discrimination laws in Maine. Both times I made some people unhappy. Lord knows, the times I referred to God as "she" early on in my ministry led to the departure of a power group in that small church.

I don't know if I would do again now what I did then. In the end the church blossomed after those people left. But we didn't know at the time what the upset would mean.

Reverend Wright preached the sermon excerpted in the ad in 2003, in response to the war. As a pastor of many years standing in a church accustomed to prophetic preaching, any edge he might push against by its very nature extended further than the boundaries I, as a preacher of less than a year, felt. Impassioned, Reverend Wright made his point with words chosen to shock.

And they did.

I don't know if I would ever curse in the pulpit. I know I've stressed the danger of worshiping country instead of God, his point in that sermon. I agree with some of his conclusions about what our government has done in the past, yet I earnestly hope he is wrong about others.

The thing I find sorriest about all this is that the Obama family left their church over it, felt they needed to for political reasons. I hope when they settle in Washington (when the Great Pumpkin comes, right?) they will find a place to worship with their family, and more than that, an extended church family and Sunday School for the girls.

Someone asked me, "How could he go for so many years to a church where the pastor preached hate?" I don't believe that's what happened at all. I believe we've seen a slice of prophetic preaching that white Americans rarely experience. We want our Christianity neat and sweet and tied in a bow. We want our Sunday morning to be vanilla as possible. We want our pastors tame and unobjectionable.

Was Jesus tame? Did he support the imperial regime? Did he parade around and salute a flag?

We confuse our faith and our national pride. It may be true that Wright said things we wouldn't hope to hear at our own churches or even say ourselves if we are preachers. Even Obama may feel his pastor and mentor went too far, may feel uncomfortable with the intensity of this sermon or others. Frankly, he may have been sitting in church thinking his own thoughts while Wright preached, because even that kind of preaching must grow familiar over the decades. I'm disturbed by the idea that anyone sitting in the pews while I preach would be held responsible for what I say, and I'm disturbed by the idea raised over and over again in this campaign that we ought to have a litmus test for anyone with whom we so much as have a conversation, much less a meal.

What a limited way to exist.

I'd much rather be shocked and provoked and have a chance to draw my own conclusions. Living a life of faith includes living with doubts and seeking answers to questions and even disagreeing with other faithful people we may meet along the way.

Finally, if you're reading this and wondering about whether Reverend Wright managed to influence Barack Obama toward hate, I hope you'll listen to his campaign-closing speech and hear the gentle strength in his voice. He may have learned a few things about public speaking by listening to preachers, but the message is his own, one of bringing together diverse groups and forces to make this country a better place. Yes, we can!

14 thoughts on “The Wright Stuff”

  1. So well said! I’m nodding my head as I read, and now I say (out loud) “AMEN!” It is outside of my tradition, also, to preach in a style so prophetic, so angry, so unvarnished. More than in yours! We are NICE NICE NICE. So much so that occasionally lately I’ve had sermons really poke me where I live, and realize how uncommon it is to me.
    Don’t you know Jesus would’ve said the same kind of shocking stuff? Wait! He DID! That’s just what Jesus did.
    (Goes wandering off to rest aching head in hands)…
    I keep coming by your previous post for the sheer joy of seeing the hours count down! Woot!

  2. yes, I wish I could be as eloquent as this. and most of us preachers are the other extreme — too tame.

  3. Because Jesus so tamely told the money changers “Please take it somewhere else. . . .”
    Amen, amen, amen.

  4. I think another dimension for us in the USA is that we have conflated patriotism with Christianity to the point that any criticism of our government is taken as a criticism of our religion and we have forgotten “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:20)
    The sad irony is that it’s the stereotypical Bible thumping/quoting ones that seem to have engaged in it the most.

  5. You know when he said “God damn America” I agreed with him in the full text of the sermon. And so does every one I know when they read the whole thing. I didn’t look at it as swearing. I thought the phrase was used most accurately I had I ever heard it.
    It’s a shame that this has been turned and twisted. It was thought provoking and insightful. I feel bad that all the wisdom that Rev. Wright has proclaimed over his long career has been lost to a sound bite.

  6. Preach it, sister!
    My English class this summer read both Rev. Wright’s speech and Obama’s “Speech on Race” —after the reading was read there were a lot of confused students –
    “so, but what’s the sermon he preached that everyone’s mad about?”
    Coming from students who had little or no theological background, it was interesting to see how they totally got his message and weren’t buying into the whole anti-American-hate-monger thing…of course, we began the semester by reading works by King, X and Baldwin to name a few, so horizons had already been broadened.

  7. very well said. like sisterfilms, i did not take rev. wright’s sermon to preach hatred, or to be anti-american; rather, it struck me as a call to action.

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