Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Jeremiah Wright and Jonathan Edwards

I began last Sunday as I have most Sundays for the past several months. I watched “Meet the Press” and “The Chris Matthews Show” to get political insiders’ viewpoints on the latest developments in the presidential campaign. This past Sunday the controversial speeches made by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, predictably became a conversational focal point. I listened to various political reporters call Wright’s comments “strange” and characterize them as far from mainstream.

I haven’t heard Wright’s speeches in their entirety. But from watching the clip featured on NBC’s Sunday morning political shows, I gathered that the pastor was ultimately taking Americans to task for assuming the role of victim after 9/11 when this nation has so victimized those both inside and outside of its borders. Is this any more critical of a point than “A People’s History of the United States” author Howard Zinn makes in that book, a leftist tome for sure but mainstream enough to be referenced in cinematic darling “Good Will Hunting.”

Then, I thought maybe the title of the pastor’s sermon was to blame for the controversy. He did dub it “God Damn America,” after all. I admit that when I first heard the title I bristled. After reflecting, however, I thought there was something familiar about it. The title sounded like something 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards (pictured) might have said in arguably the most famous sermon ever, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Like Wright does in “God Damn America,” in “Sinners,” Edwards continually speaks of divine justice and emphasizes how all of us are in danger of going to hell because of our countless misdeeds.

So, if American preachers have long spouted sermons that focus on damnation, why is Wright’s title so controversial? Is America so inflamed with hubris that it can’t bear to fathom the idea that 9/11, Katrina or any other tragedy to occur on this soil was a karmic wakeup call? Personally, I’ve never thought of any of these incidences as such, but I’m not offended by the suggestion. I know that, before 9/11, many Americans were guilty of behaving as if this country was isolated, as if what happened here existed in a vacuum and had no global ramifications. I know that, before Katrina, the racial and socioeconomic stratification of New Orleans and other cities was simply accepted as the way things are. In light of this, I don’t believe that Wright went out on a limb by questioning America’s positioning of itself as victim.

Arguably the most far out comment I’ve read that Wright made is that AIDS was engineered by the government to afflict the oppressed masses. Considering that the U.S. government performed experiments on black men that ended with them dying from syphilis, that medical officials here sterilized Puerto Rican, Native American black and mentally ill women in this country without their consent and that Native Americans were intentionally given smallpox-infested blankets to bring about their demise, is it that bizarre that a black man who came of age during Jim Crow might believe that AIDS was a government manufactured disease?

Why then have those in the media behaved as if Wright is a nut of the highest order? Is it because of his animated style of preaching, rooted firmly in the black oral tradition? If so, I would suggest anyone who’s never been to a black church to make a visit. You’ll find any number of preachers employing this same style, be they preaching about America’s predicament or saving souls.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve visited Trinity United Church of Christ. The church is a source of tension between my mother and my aunt because the former believes it is a church for the bourgeois and questions my aunt’s motivations for going there. Trinity is a church where the who’s who of black Chicago goes to see and be seen. Wright, as is slowly being reported, has even made appearances at the White House. His preaching and reputation, alike, have attracted the black middle class, upper middle class and elite. In many ways Trinity is so mainstream that I can’t help but to believe that when Wright was indicting America, he was also indicting the privileged members of his church or, rather, in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards, inviting them to conduct a spiritual cleansing once and for all, lest they never receive another chance to crawl out from the rubble.

Update: Not everyone in the media finds the Rev. Wright's sermons to be bizarre. I just read an article on Salon.com called "Rev. Jeremiah Wright Isn't the Problem" that makes points similar to the ones I made here, albeit much more elaborately and eloquently.

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