Robb's comment on my post about the Capitol Steps show in Seattle got me thinking - and writing - [again] about some of the religious and racial issues in the U.S. presidential race. I started to write a comment in response to Robb's comment, but as it grew longer and longer, I decided to move it into a separate blog post.
Robb is a good friend from college who grew up in the U.S. but has spent many years living in New Zealand, where he has been increasingly appreciating the natural beauty of the land (especially the mountains), the indigenous people - Maori - and their culture ... and writing inspiring prose and poetry about his experiences and growing appreciation in his Musings from Aotearoa blog. In his comment on my post, Robb, raised a number of provocative issues:
I find this issue of 0bama "throwing" Wright "under the bus" to reveal
the real dark side of this issue, old fashioned racism. I still fail to
see what he, Wright, has actually said that can be construed as being
either inflammatory or has anything to do with 0bama directly. What are
people so afraid of here, or should I write, perhaps inflammatorily,
what is conservative, entrenched, white America so afraid of here? I am
trying to track where I read it down, but I recall reading somewhere
John McCain's religous mentor saying the New orleans devastation was
the "wrath of God on those people". Where is that in the news media? 0r
what things are spoken from the pulpit of many white churches on any
given Sunday in the land where Emmett Till was murdered? Where is the
Good questions! I want to spend a bit of time reviewing some of Wright's recent remarks before exploring McCain's religious connections.
Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the current Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, has made a few appearances lately. I enjoyed watching Bill Moyers interview Wright on PBS a week ago, a venue in which Wright came across as a relatively reasonable - and clearly passionate - man. I did not watch Wright's more recent National Press Club speech and Q&A last week, but it was carried on C-SPAN (and there are segments posted on YouTube), and Fox News has posted a transcript; I had seen and heard snippets of commentary during the week, but it was not until Robb's comment that I decided to sit down and listen the entire speech and read the transcript.
As with my earlier experience in reviewing the larger contexts of Wright's sermons from which short snippets have been repeatedly rebroadcast in the mass media, and which have been reportedly perceived as so inflammatory by so many, I found myself agreeing with nearly all of the views expressed by Wright in his National Press Club talk on "The African American Religious Experience; Theology & Practice". And, in an effort to help provide a larger - or at least different - context than has been offered in most accounts of this talk, I wanted to share some of the excerpts that I found most inspiring.
Wright starts off describing the relative invisibility of the black church and black religious tradition, beginning with its roots during slavery, and continuing through the present day, referencing The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison - implicitly and explicitly - throughout his remarks, and I think this invisibility characterizes - or cloaks - many of the issues that are arising throughout this controversy. As he progresses through the talk, his presentation become more inclusive, promoting liberation for all peoples, urging acceptance of differences without presuming deficiencies, and closing with an invitation to reconciliation, through which greater unity can be achieved ... and I can't help but note that the theme of unity is one of the key messages of Wright's [former?] church member, Barack Obama.
Robb's reference to "throwing Wright under a bus" highlights the unfortunate, but understandable (given the mass media focus on the most controversial aspects of Wright's views), tone of Obama's response to Wright's most recent remarks, in which he condemns the "outrageous" and "destructive" nature of some of those remarks. I find Obama's assertion that Wright is "giving comfort to those who prey on hate" to be particularly interesting. Wright's refusal to recede into the background - to become invisible - may be giving ammunition to those who prey on hate, but I don't see how it offers any comfort to anybody. The explosive charge of that ammunition is more the result of media coverage of Wright's comments than the comments themselves, which, in my interpretation, represent more of a challenge to those who promote and prey on hate rather than a comfort to them.
Anyhow, before offering further interpretations and judgments, here are some extended exerpts of the actual words spoken by Wright during his National Press Club speech:
The black religious experience is a tradition that, at one point in
American history, was actually called the “invisible institution,” as
it was forced underground by the Black Codes.
The Black Codes prohibited the gathering of more than two black
people without a white person being present to monitor the
conversation, the content, and the mood of any discourse between
persons of African descent in this country.
Africans did not stop worshipping because of the Black Codes.
Africans did not stop gathering for inspiration and information and for
encouragement and for hope in the midst of discouraging and seemingly
hopeless circumstances. They just gathered out of the eyesight and the
earshot of those who defined them as less than human.
They became, in other words, invisible in and invisible to the eyes
of the dominant culture. They gathered to worship in brush arbors,
sometimes called hush arbors, where the slaveholders, slave patrols,
and Uncle Toms couldn’t hear nobody pray.
The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah,
the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to
the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating
the captives also liberates who are holding them captive.
It frees the captives and it frees the captors. It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors.
The prophetic theology of the black church, during the days of
chattel slavery, was a theology of liberation. It was preached to set
free those who were held in bondage spiritually, psychologically, and
sometimes physically. And it was practiced to set the slaveholders
free from the notion that they could define other human beings or
confine a soul set free by the power of the gospel.
The prophetic theology of the black church during the days of
segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and the separate-but-equal fantasy was
a theology of liberation.
It was preached to set African-Americans free from the notion of
second-class citizenship, which was the law of the land. And it was
practiced to set free misguided and miseducated Americans from the
notion that they were actually superior to other Americans based on the
color of their skin.
The prophetic theology of the black church in our day is preached to
set African-Americans and all other Americans free from the
misconceived notion that different means deficient.
This principle of “different does not mean deficient” is at the
heart of the prophetic theology of the black church. It is a theology
The prophetic theology of the black church is not only a theology of
liberation; it is also a theology of transformation, which is also
rooted in Isaiah 61, the text from which Jesus preached in his
inaugural message, as recorded by Luke.
When you read the entire passage from either Isaiah 61 or Luke 4 and
do not try to understand the passage or the content of the passage in
the context of a sound bite, what you see is God’s desire for a radical
change in a social order that has gone sour.
God’s desire is for positive, meaningful and permanent change. God
does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other
people. God does not want the powerless masses, the poor, the widows,
the marginalized, and those underserved by the powerful few to stay
locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being more
equal than others in that same society.
God does not desire for us, as children of God, to be at war with
each other, to see each other as superior or inferior, to hate each
other, abuse each other, misuse each other, define each other, or put
each other down.
God wants us reconciled, one to another. And that third principle
in the prophetic theology of the black church is also and has always
been at the heart of the black church experience in North America.
To say “I am a Christian” is not enough. Why? Because the
Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave.
The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the
slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride
beneath the decks on that slave ship.
How we are seeing God, our theology, is not the same. And what we
both mean when we say “I am a Christian” is not the same thing. The
prophetic theology of the black church has always seen and still sees
all of God’s children as sisters and brothers, equals who need
reconciliation, who need to be reconciled as equals in order for us to
walk together into the future which God has prepared for us.
Reconciliation does not mean that blacks become whites or whites
become blacks and Hispanics become Asian or that Asians become
Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all
of them. We retain who we are as persons of different cultures, while
acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior
to us. They are just different from us.
We root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred, or prejudice.
And we recognize for the first time in modern history in the West
that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a
different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles,
and different dance moves, that other is one of God’s children just as
we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness,
just as we are.
Only then will liberation, transformation, and reconciliation become realities and cease being ever elusive ideals.
During the Q&A following his speech, Wright was asked about about his recent remarks about the political nature of Obama's recent remarks renouncing some of Wright's earlier remarks.
Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on
electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington,
whoever’s doing the polls. Preachers say what they say because they’re
pastors. They have a different person to whom they’re accountable.
He didn’t distance himself. He had to distance himself, because he’s a
politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was
anti-American. He said I didn’t offer any words of hope. How would he
know? He never heard the rest of the sermon. You never heard it.
Wright was also asked about his earlier assertion that "the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color" - still, for me, the most disturbing of his statements during the increasingly infamous sermon snippets. He referenced the books Emerging Viruses: AIDS And Ebola : Nature, Accident or Intentional?, by Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz, and Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, by Harriet A. Washington, and went on to say:
I read different things. As I said to my members, if you haven’t read
things, then you can’t — based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on
what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government
is capable of doing anything.
I share Wright's distrust of our government, though I still do not believe his earlier assertion. However, given the larger scope of all he has said (at the National Press Club, during Bill Moyer's interview, and in his sermons I have watched on YouTube), I am not willing to dismiss all of Wright's views based solely on this one questionable dimension ... and I can think of many, far more destructive, examples of questionable assertions by political and religious leaders.
Speaking of which, getting back to Robb's comments, and his reference to a hateful "wrath of God" condemnation of the victims of Hurricane Katrina by a religious figure associated with U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, I tracked down an article on "McCain’s faith: Pastor describes senator as devout, but low-key" in the Associated Baptist Press. McCain's pastor, Dan Yeary, notes some controversial religious connections for McCain:
The candidate endured some criticism in February after San Antonio pastor and Christian Zionist leader John Hagee endorsed him. Catholic and Jewish leaders denounced Hagee for statements he has made in the past that could be interpreted as anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.
Hagee claimed the critics had misunderstood and de-contextualized his comments. Nonetheless, McCain’s campaign issued a statement in which he distanced himself from the preacher’s more controversial remarks without rejecting or repudiating the endorsement.
The senator has received less media scrutiny for a separate endorsement of his candidacy by Ohio pastor Rod Parsley. Parsley, who leads a charismatic multi-media empire, has been criticized for statements insisting Islam must be “destroyed” and for denigrating gays, the separation of church and state and secularists.
This led me to another article, "McCain, Hagee and the Politics of God's Wrath", in The Nation blog, which provides references to John Hagee - not McCain's pastor, but an endorser (and we know Obama has been criticized for people who have endorsed him) - and his "wrath of God" condemnation(s):
Hagee, whose views about a host of social issues give new meaning to the term "hateful," is not McCain's pastor. They have no personal or spiritual relationship. Rather, Hagee is a close political ally of McCain and an ardent supporter of the Arizona senator's presidential bid.
McCain sought Hagee's endorsement and continued to defend and embrace the pastor – saying he was "glad to have the minister's endorsement – even after Hagee said that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because of the city's "sinful" acceptance of homosexuality.
"What happened in New Orleans looked like the curse of God…" Hagee explained after the city experienced a national disaster that cost at least 1,836 lives – making it the deadliest hurricane in American history – and permanently dislocated tens of thousands of Americans from not just their homes but the communities of their birth and upbringing.
I hadn't heard about this rather hateful comment that Robb mentioned - it was, one might say, invisible ... leading me to wonder about the relative visibility and invisibility of religious and political connections as they apply to white presidential candidates and black presidential candidates - but it reminded me of the many hateful pronouncements by Christian Coalition of America founder, former minister and erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson
(who has endorsed many other Republican candidates over the years). [BTW, I was surprised to discover there is a Christian Coalition in New Zealand.] One
example of hateful speech by this self-described "Christian" was uttered in response to Gay Days at Disney World:
"I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be
waving those flags in God's face if I were you, This is not a message of hate; this is a message of
redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about
terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor."
I'm further reminded of some of the hateful speech associated with other conservative commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity, but do not want to digress further. I'll simply note that while Hagee is not McCain's current or former pastor, his unsolicited endorsement of McCain seems to be far less visible in the mass media than some of the unsolicited endorsements by controversial figures that Obama has received.
Speaking of media, further on in his comment, Robb notes:
I am not at all acquainted with American television these days, hardly
with New Zealand television for that matter, but I must say when I do
watch television here I find the best, and most informative, and most
balanced programs on Maori Televison. And even as "enlightened" as
white New Zealand claims to be, I readily recall the battle in the late
90's it was to get that up and running. Privileged people are always
afraid of change it would seem.
The reference to Maori Television was prompted, in part, by my reference to 1995 testimony in which Senator McCain claimed that cable networks are less biased than PBS and "superior in some cases". Robb's observation that "privileged people are always afraid of change" really strikes a chord, and reminds me of an unfinished post I started months ago - after finishing Yochai Benkler's book, The Wealth of Networks, and after hearing an interview on NPR with Tony Blair, in which he shared his father's
perspective that "if you became successful then you became Conservative" - and may just prompt me to finish (and post) my rumination on the issue of incumbency, and the encumbrances that incumbents sometimes erect to maintain their unfair advantage(s) ... which, in my mind, relates to issues of religion, politics, racism and invisibility.