Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jeremiah Wright's legacy

We have to face it, for the next few days or so, Jeremiah Wright will be the topic of conversation. People will be asking about Obama's relationship to him and what influence Wright has had on him. Everything that Obama has said or done prior to this election cycle suggests that Wright helped lead him to faith in Jesus Christ and that Wright taught him that following Jesus meant serving others. He came to faith, by his own admission, because he discovered that it was the church that was making the difference on the South side of Chicago, churches like Trinity UCC. But Obama is of a different generation than Wright. He also has a different story. He went to Trinity to discover that side of him that is Black and it is from within that community that his political career was born. What Obama didn't take from Wright was the anger of the earlier civil right's struggle. It is interesting that in his own response to questions about Wright's embrace of James Cone and the Black Liberationist theology, that Obama spoke of the Social Gospel -- an older and broader attempt to bring theology and social justice together.
The question that we will have to wrestle with is what led us to this point. Amy Sullivan has written a piece for Time that helps us make sense of Monday. It is entitled "Jeremiah Wright Goes to War," a piece that roots Monday's outburst in Wright's own frustrations at being attacked. Instead of waiting for another, less politically charged time, he struck. Sullivan recounts that Wright is a theologian, teacher, and pastor, but like any preacher he's a performer. After schooling a mostly receptive audience of black religious leaders -- with the press sitting in the balcony -- when they got to the Q and A Wright struck.
But while Wright is a theologian, a teacher and a pastor, he is ultimately a performer. In front of a cheering crowd of supporters that included a whistling Cornel
West, he gave into temptation and lustily went after his critics. As soon as the questions began, Wright transformed into a defiant, derisive figure, snapping one-liners at the unfortunate moderator tasked with reading the questions and stepping back with a grin on his face after each one, clearly enjoying himself.
As Sullivan points out, while some damage may have been done to Obama's candidacy, Wright's message is what will get lost in the midst of this turmoil.

The combative pose that Wright chose to strike is perhaps most damaging not to Obama's candidacy — although the candidate will surely endure yet another round of scrutiny regarding his relationship to the minister and his positions on Wright's views — but to Wright's own message. Because he is right when he says that most Americans don't understand the black church and that their resulting confusion and fear contributes to a racial divide.

This is what Obama seems to be saying when he suggests that Wright's tirade will give aid and comfort to those who would manipulate hate for their own ends. It is because I believe that Wright is correct about the continuing presence of a racial divide that I have defended him. It is because his inability to control himself in this situation (and I'm not sure I could have done it either if in his shoes) that we must raise questions.

1 comment:

haitianministries said...

Bob,

Thanks for your continued reflections on the Wright controversy.

You might be interested in the following blog post, which helps put Wright's comments into the perspective for outsiders to the African-American community and Black church tradition.

http://mbway.blogspot.com/2008/04/i-have-had-generally-good-impression-of.html