Friday, August 24, 2012

Rethinking Rev. Wright

kw: sociology, religion, race

A few years ago, I heard the sound clips on the radio, of Rev. Jeremiah Wright saying "God damn America!". Naturally, I had a very negative reaction. Since that time, I have reflected a time or two about it, and I finally decided to get off my duff and learn more. After reading transcripts of some of his sermons, including "that one", I think I have a better handle where he is coming from.

On March 19, 2003, the invasion of Iraq began. Nearly four weeks later, on April 13, 2003, Rev. Wright spoke on the text Luke 19:37-44, where Jesus on Palm Sunday wept over Jerusalem, "…because you did not recognize the time of your visitation." The sermon is titled, "Confusing God and Government". His initial goal was to decry the Iraq invasion and the trumped-up reasons for it.

The sermon has three sections: "Governments Lie", "Governments Change", and "Where Governments Fail, God Never Fails". It was at the end of the second section that he said,
God Damn America!—That's in the Bible—for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!
He had led up to this, and I think it was spontaneous, by recounting the failures of the U.S. Government, particularly regarding race, and beginning with the Constitution and its provision that a slave was counted as 3/5 of a person (The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of 1865 and 1868 annulled this provision). He believes that HIV was created by government "as a means of genocide against people of color" (Which is strange; in the U.S. the majority of victims are not black).

I now look at his "Damn" statement as an example of preacher's hyperbole, and not entirely out of line. In the past, the U.S. government has killed citizens (look up "WWI bonus army"), and has treated some as less than human. The question is, to what extent are these things still true? Because Rev. Wright is a bit older than I and even more because he is black, he lived through the Civil Rights era with much keener sensibilities than I did, and it had a powerful effect on me. To him, the Jim Crow provisions we all once lived under are a living memory, and a painful one.

Someone once said, "The universal bank of Trust accepts deposits, but if you make a single withdrawal, the account is closed." Trust once lost may never be regained. Considering the extent to which most government leaders lie, quite by habit it seems!, how far can we trust them? That is what the Rev. is asking. I would answer with him, not so very far!!

I began to rethink the "Damn" statement after a conversation with my aunt. She is a dear Christian lady aged 92. She does not agree with anything President Obama has done, and she thinks he is bad for this country. But, she said, "I think he will be re-elected, mainly because God wants to punish America." I don't know if God is still in the nation-punishing business. If he is, the U.S. is an easy target, but not the easiest.

Religious people often point out that at least half of Americans commit adultery, but this is true everywhere; the whole world fits that target profile! And among the rich and powerful, worldwide, it is nearly 100%. Could it be gambling and casinos? If so, Monte Carlo and Monaco would be the first targets of divine lightning. No, God's primary issue is oppression. The Bible has many expressions of God's displeasure with the rich who withhold a worker's pay, or who foreclose a widow's dwelling. And even though God permitted the Assyrians and the Babylonians to chastise Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom), when they enthusiastically oppressed the captives, going beyond the chastisement God had in mind, God punished them even more severely; Assyria and Babylonia are gone, but Israel remains.

So I can see where Rev. Wright is coming from. His teaching has been called "Black Liberation Theology." Well, there is a spectrum of this "theology", and he is actually rather moderate. I dug out one salient societal indicator: the unemployment rate for those 20 and older:
  • White: 6.6%
  • Asian: 6.3%
  • Latino: 10.3%
  • Black: 14.1%
For teens, 16-19, the rate is about 22% for non-Blacks, and 38% for Blacks. To compare with a decade ago, just divide all these numbers by two, across the board. You can look up more accurate numbers, but half of today's rates are pretty close. Contemporary American life is hard on blacks.

It is clear, America has a ways to go to become race-blind. This is just one item that underlies black liberation theology. Nonetheless, it is not a Christian theology. Jesus had a lot bigger purpose than liberating people from government excesses. He worked to free us all from indwelling Sin! Rev. Wright does teach this, so I cannot say that his theology is non-Christian, nor anti-Christian as I once thought; yet it does have a theological element that is not Christian, but political.

We Whites also need liberation, though, from stereotypes, from our cultural and ethnic ignorance, from our assumed entitlement. But that is not an onus I place on Jeremiah Wright and his ilk. As a Christian leader among a congregation of my own (one of mixed races, though mainly Asian), that is my job.

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