Remember Jeremiah Wright

One danger of being a pastor or other religious leader is that if someone in one's spiritual community runs for office, one may now be targeted by the member's political opposition. Of course, some candidates' religious claims are more easily dismissed--as Dr. Leanne Simmons, a Presbyterian pastor, recently pointed out with regard to Donald Trump, "No person, political candidate or otherwise, who claims to have NEVER asked God for forgiveness is either a Christian or a heart-won Presbyterian."

Yet as elections are again approaching, people of faith may do well to remember Jeremiah Wright--President Obama's pastor during his first presidential election campaign. Rev. Wright was savaged by critics on the right as being racist and anti-American, and they cited media clips to support their case.

The problems with the most prominent supporting clips, however, should be obvious. I do not know and will not try to defend the context of all his quoted statements, but I have used the best-known clip for my seminary biblical interpretation students to illustrate the dangers of taking statements out of context and ignoring genre. Anyone who has watched Bill Moyers's more balanced interview with Jeremiah Wright should recognize that Obama's enemies cherry-picked Wright's most dramatic sound bites.

Wright was not being anti-American to protest America's historic race problem or its international injustices. Those of us who have spent years in the Black Church tradition readily understood the nature of his rhetoric. "God d- America" was a lament over injustice, not a prayer for God to destroy the country. As has often been pointed out and as most people in this religious tradition understand, forceful rhetoric in the setting where he was speaking sometimes uses hyperbole without qualification to make a point. If that homiletic convention renders Jeremiah Wright unpatriotic, it must similarly condemn many other modern preachers as well as many biblical prophets.

Regardless of one's views regarding divine anger toward injustice, hostile public reaction was driven by political interest more than by theological critique. Critics on the right denounced his cry of judgment, yet have usually remained silent when pundits on the right pronounce judgments for different perceived sins. While it is morally wrong to blame individuals for suffering tragedy, it is also true that many Americans simply never want to hear that our nation is not always the paragon of justice.

Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign asked Dr. Wright to lay low during the election. Likewise not surprisingly, it did not go well when Wright nevertheless publicly tried to clear his name. A pastor who was present shared with me that he thought the media interview had gone well until he heard the juicy clips isolated from their larger context; he felt bewildered by the response. Jeremiah Wright then became an insurmountable liability to the future president's campaign.

This outcome must have deeply wounded Wright. When he and a deacon from his church had dinner in our home some months earlier, he spoke glowingly of Obama's Christian commitment as a member of his church. My friends ranged across the political spectrum, some rooting for Hilary Clinton and others for John McCain, but there was no question for whom Rev. Wright was rooting.

I have heard Wright preach many times, giving thoughtful and practical expositions of biblical texts and challenging racism and injustice. That's not to imply that we always agree--we have had friendly discussions about some significant areas of disagreement--but I find it ironic how readily some critics dismissed him as racist. While I have heard him denounce racial injustice, I have also personally witnessed his reticence to embrace charges of racism where he had reasons to suspect that other factors were involved.

Moreover, Jeremiah Wright has always treated me as a friend and a brother--even when, long before the public controversies, he was a famous preacher and I an awkward young white professor. After first hearing how he preached salvation through Christ, I understood that Jeremiah's criticism involved racial and political issues, not the personal aspect of the gospel message on which evangelicals, including myself, agree with him. That is a story that many white evangelicals never heard.

Knowing what kind of person Dr. Wright is may provide some context. One member of the church he pastored had a son serving a life-term in prison. Jeremiah took this young man under his wings and became to this prisoner the father that the prisoner had never had. The young man, with whom I corresponded for some time, now uses his life in prison to serve others. Wright's mentoring of the young man sought no public accolades or career advancement. Wright speaks an in-house rhetoric when appealing to his core audience and no one will mistake him for a Republican, Independent or even moderate Democrat, yet he is no politician playing to the public stage. He says what he thinks, even when that is unpopular, though like all of us, he sometimes misspeaks, and, as I mentioned, we do not agree on every point.

In recent elections, candidates' preachers have come to be considered fair game. Those with years of recorded messages will offer the juiciest targets, because sooner or later we all say something the wrong way, or for a specific setting, or something on which we later change our mind. It is easy in today's setting to isolate sound bites and trash people's entire careers. (God forbid people start denouncing politicians' professors. Changing one's views is considered open-minded and thus commendable for scholars, so we might be the juiciest targets of all, supplying sound bites for any given position!)

What was done to Jeremiah Wright served no one well, simply further debasing political discourse. Whether such attacks come from the right or the left, they attempt to win an argument ad hominem by simply poisoning the waters. With campaigning season underway, I hope that we can penetrate sound bites critically and respect those unwilling to stoop to defaming convenient targets for political reasons.