When Geraldine Ferraro and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright spoke out respectively on their behalf, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama may have wondered what they ever did to deserve such support.
The Ferraro dust-up didn’t raise much dust. But Wright’s volatile comments about race and 9/11, delivered from the pulpit of Obama’s church and perpetuated on YouTube, have had much more staying power. And they’ve raised questions about why Obama would maintain for 20 years his membership at a church that would employ a pastor like Wright.
And Wright is outrageous. Shortly after 9/11, he tried to explain the actions of the suicidal jihadists by blaming America for its long-standing foreign policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. We bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and “never batted an eye.” The chickens, he says, have come home to roost.
With regard to race, Wright transitions quickly into full harangue, asserting from the pulpit that Obama knows what it means to be a black man living in a country controlled by rich white people, whereas Clinton has never had to watch a cab pass her by because of the color of her skin. Clinton has never, he shouts, been called the N-word.
God bless America? No, God damn America, says Wright.
America-bashing like this is hard to take for secular white people like me, especially when Wright, dressed in fancy African garb, adopts the full-of-himself, sanctimonious pulpit-persona of a preacher who’s certain he’s been handpicked by God to set the rest of us straight. Like many preachers, he seems to enjoy it a little too much. Where’s the humility that’s supposed to be central to the message of Jesus? I thought it was the meek who would inherit the earth.
And yet — and this is the problem — if you separate what Wright says from his fiery, provocative rhetoric, you find more than just a dash of the truth.
Wright’s comments about 9/11 were ill-timed, but they have more depth than some of the canned, simpleminded reasons that we were given for the attack, such as, “They hate us for our freedom.”
As offensive as some of Wright’s language may be, it’s refreshing to hear someone publicly and emphatically connect 9/11 to our foreign policy in the Middle East, which for years has been directed toward the preservation of our interests in their natural resources, often at the expense of the locals.
If Wright isn’t quite ready to accept the idea that the post-racial millennium has dawned, I’m not sure that, as a white man, I’m in a position to contradict him. Clearly, his provocative message still resonates with thousands of African-Americans. When it comes to race, Wright may be overbearing and abrasive, but he’s not being unreasonable when he argues that the race issue in America has not suddenly been resolved.
In any case, the overreaction to the Wright episode probably reflects our failure to remember the traditional role of the biblical prophets and preachers. I’m an English teacher, not a theologian, but you don’t have to know much about the Bible to understand that it was never the job of preachers to prop up the government or to perpetuate a society’s complacent status quo.
Preachers and prophets were called out when there was iniquity in the land, and they railed against society in loud, emphatic and sometimes obnoxious terms. Elijah and Jeremiah minced no words over the sins of Israel, and Amos excoriated the decadence of the people, asserting that “the high places of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste.” This wasn’t exactly what the people wanted to hear.
So maybe Wright is over the top. Or maybe he just seems to be because we’ve become used to complacent, well-fed preachers who are willing to cozy up to power in the White House, focusing on easy targets like gays and abortion doctors while leaving unexamined our corporate malfeasance, our racial issues and our sometimes dubious international undertakings.
Jeremiah Wright isn’t exactly Elijah, but his honest outrage may be something that we need to hear occasionally. It’s what good preachers do.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)