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Remembering Another Jeremiah

I've been in communication with many other bloggers and progressive activists about various aspects of the primary race. It's always been helpful to m

I've been in communication with many other bloggers and progressive activists about various aspects of the primary race. It's always been helpful to me to bounce ideas off of others and just check my gut reactions before I start blogging about a subject. As you might imagine, the media storm over Barack Obama's relationship to Rev. Jeremiah Wright has resulted in a flurry of emails back and forth. One of the most thoughtful emails I got was from Jeff Sharlet, author of the upcoming book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, and I asked and received his permission to share it with you:

In contextualizing Jeremiah Wright's "God damn America," it might be worth remembering another Jeremiah who expressed similar sentiments: namely, Jeremiah. As in, the prophet of the Hebrew Bible, or the "Old Testament," if you prefer.

Why does that matter? Because it reminds us that a core function of one who attempts to speak in a prophetic voice is to remind us that we are in this together and that we'll both prosper and suffer together. Many evangelical Christians speak of a "gift of discernment," not unlike the "gift of tongues." Us democratically-minded folk might do well to remember that that core concept of a democracy is that we all have some gift of discernment. So let's use ours and consider the prophetic statements on offer:

1. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said America is damned -- cursed by God, though not permanently -- because we tolerate feminists and queer people.

2. John Hagee says America is damned -- cursed by God, though not permanently -- because we tolerate Muslims.

3. Jeremiah Wright says America is damned -- cursed by God, though not permanently, suffering from hate and division, from bitterness and envy -- because we succumb to hating one another.

For my money, my Bible, and my democracy, that last sentiment has the ring of truth, and I'm not even a religious man.

That doesn't mean it's a sentiment for a campaign trail. But it does mean that in framing this, we might want to turn our anger toward Fox and the NY Post and all those denouncing Jeremiah Wright rather than the man who says we suffer because of racism. Here is a pastor trying, perhaps not successfully, to preach accountability for hate, not for tolerance. And here is a media that is demanding that we NOT be held accountable for hate.

That is, mainstream media is telling us we must tolerate hate -- Hagee -- but not those who don't believe we should tolerate hate -- Wright.

Jeremiah Wright's words were harsh, as were Jeremiah's. As were Martin Luther King's -- "I have a dream" wasn't his only speech, and he died holding America accountable for the war in Vietnam and the war against the poor at home. That's not left, that's not right, that's not "racial," that's not "post-racial." It's prophetic. The Right's screeching, meanwhile, is simply pathetic.

You can learn more about Jeff's book on his blog, The Revealer. Diana Butler Bass at BeliefNet also wrote a very compelling piece that I hope puts to rest the accusation of hate in Rev. Wright's sermons:

The current media flap over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, strikes me as nothing short of strange. Anyone who attends church on a regular basis knows how frequently congregants disagree with their ministers. To sit in a pew is not necessarily assent to a message preached on a particular day. Being a church member is not some sort of mindless cult, where individuals believe every word preached. Rather, being a church member means being part of a community of faith—a gathered people, always diverse and sometimes at odds, who constitute Christ's body in the world.
But the attack on Rev. Wright reveals something beyond ignorance of basic dynamics of Christian community. It demonstrates the level of misunderstanding that still divides white and black Christians in the United States. Many white people find the traditions of African-American preaching offensive, especially when it comes to politics.

I know because I am one of those white people. My first sustained encounter with African-American preaching came in graduate school about twenty years ago. I had been assigned as a teaching assistant to a course in Black Church Studies. The placement surprised me, since I had no background in the subject. But the professor assured me that "anyone with experience teaching American religion" would be able to handle the load.

The subject matter was not, as the professor indicated, difficult. The emotional content, however, was. To prepare, I had to read literally thousands of pages of black preaching and theology covering the entire scope of American history. While the particulars of preaching changed through time, one thing did not. Throughout the entire corpus, black Christian leaders leveled a devastating critique against their white brothers and sisters—accusing white Christians of maintaining "ease in Zion" while allowing black people to suffer injustice and oppression.

Typical of the form used by black preachers is Frederick Douglass' address, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" first delivered on July 5, 1852. The address, a political sermon, forcefully attacks white culture. "Fellow-citizens," Douglass proclaims, "above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wails of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them." He goes on to calls American conduct "hideous and revolting" and accuses white Christians of trampling upon and disregarding both the constitution and the Bible. He concluded his sermon with the words, "For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival."

This was very hard to take. I confess: nearly everything I read that semester pained and angered me. But four months of listening to voices that I wanted to reject made me different. I began to hear the power of the critique. I came to appreciate the prophetic nature of black preaching. I recognized that these voices emerged from a very distinct historical experience. And I admired the narrative interplay between the Bible and social justice. Over time, they taught me to hear the Gospel from an angular perspective—the angle of slaves, freed blacks, of those who feared lynching, of those who longed for Africa, those who could not attend good schools. From them, I learned that liberation through Jesus was a powerful thing. And that white Americans really did need to repent when it came to race.

Learning to listen was not easy. It took patience, historical imagination, and lots of complaining to my friends—even my African-American ones. Eventually, I figured out that even if your ancestors had been the oppressors, you can enter into the world of those who had been oppressed with generosity and a heart open to transformation.

As MSNBC, CNN, and FOX endlessly play the tape of Rev. Wright's "radical" sermons today, I do not hear the words of a "dangerous" preacher (at least any more dangerous than any preacher who takes the Gospel seriously!) No, I hear the long tradition that Jeremiah Wright has inherited from his ancestors. I hear prophetic critique. I hear Frederick Douglass. And, mostly, I hear the Gospel slant—I hear it from an angle that is not natural to me. It is good to hear that slant.

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