Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"What we have here...is a failure...to communicate!"

Geor3ge points us to this post from his brother's blog:

A little over four years ago, while serving as a chaplain intern in a south suburban Chicago hospital, I had the opportunity to attend a Clinical Pastoral Education conference, and worship with a few hundred other chaplains on a Thursday evening. The preacher on that evening was Jeremiah Wright.
I leave it to you to go there and read what the Rev. Wright said; it's well worth your time.

It's an interesting question, what a pastor should say from the pulpit. Partly what is allowable is driven by the audience one is speaking to, and the relationship one has with them. Partly it's a matter of who the pastor is. But certainly what is said must be taken in context, not out of it.

We could have a lively debate over whether or not Pastor Wright was justified in saying "motherf*cker" from the pulpit, in worship. One homiletic school would emphasize that, once you drop a bomb like that, you lose your audience as they stop at the crater and examine the damage, rather than follow you on down the exegetical road. On the other hand, the best you can ever hope to do, as an earthly vessel, is to reach one other person and say something they are forced to remember, and to think about; and the Rev. Wright certainly did that in this case.

But is it reasonable to judge the quality of Jeremiah Wright's character, either moral, personal, or theological, from this one incident, this one quote? In context it may tell you something about the Rev. Wright, but in context it says even more about us, and what we are willing to listen to, and why.

Of course, there's always the issue of "who's pulpit is it, anyway?" I've run into that issue once or twice myself. But the real issue here is: what kind of preacher is Jeremiah Wright? And the answer: one not afraid to be provocative. Might not be your cup of tea; but is it up to you to decide if he's fit for Obama? Hillary Clinton thinks so:

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a wide-ranging interview today with Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporters and editors, said she would have left her church if her pastor made the sort of inflammatory remarks Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor made.

"He would not have been my pastor," Clinton said. "You don't choose your family, but you choose what church you want to attend."
And I don't think it's because she or the MSM imagine that religion is a monolith in which everyone thinks in lockstep. That stereotype might have applied to JFK (as I've said before), but I don't think anyone really imagines it applies now, to almost any member of any church. Besides, there's always Paul's issue:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
Or, to pick up on that earlier post, and take this whole discussion in Ricouer's direction:

Nothing is said about God or about humankind or about their relations that does not first of all reassemble legends and isolated sagas and rearrange them in meaningful sequences so as to constitute a unique story, centered upon a kernel-event, that has both a historical import and a kerygmatic dimension.
The language of that kerygmatic dimension is the issue. When Jeremiah Wright changed "God bless America" to "God damn America," he did no more than Jesus did in the beatitudes. But he did it to America's secular religion, which is, of course: America the Beautiful. At least, he did that when he was quoted out of his context, when the words of his sermon were cut away and that phrase was left standing, looking more like a raised middle finger than the flowering tree it had been. What does this have to do with Ricouer? America's secular religion is, in Ricouer's words, "centered upon a kernel-event," largely these days the aftermath of World War II, but including selected portions of American history since at least 1776. That kernel-event has "both a historical import and a kerygmatic dimension," the kerygma here being how "beautiful, for spacious skies" America is. The legends and isolated sagas of American history, isolated to make them more easily fit into the desired kerygma, are rearranged in a meaningful sequence so as to constitute a unique story: white America's story. White, middle-class America's story. Josh Marshall points out that Wright is on the way to becoming radioactive, so that "it makes no sense to point out when others are treating as granted claims that appear demonstrably false." He's speaking of the context of Wright's remarks, and it's a very good point. But what about the context of Wright's concerns?

The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.
That's from Obama's "race" speech. If it sounds familiar, it may be because it comes almost directly from here:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached the Christian tenet, "love thy neighbor as thyself." Before Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968, he preached, "The 11 o'clock hour is the most segregated hour in America." Forty years later, the African American Church community continues to face bomb threats, death threats, and their ministers' characters are assassinated because they teach and preach prophetic social concerns for social justice. Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America.
Those are the last lines of the press release issued by Trinity United Church of Christ-Chicago. Of course, we don't like being reminded of that history, since it points to so much complicity by white, middle class Americans. If we didn't participate in it, we benefited from it. And we don't like being reminded of that. We don't like being reminded that postcards of lychings are a part of early 20th century American memoribilia. Those postcards depict lynchings from California to Montana, across Texas (from Dallas to Waco to Robinson, at least) and into Oklahoma, through most of the Southern states, but also into Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio, and Indiana. Is it right, as the Rev. Wright did, to call the United States of America "The US KKK of A"? Is it right to call our attention to such things? Is that like saying "motherf*cker" in the pulpit, during worship? Is that a truth about society we just don't want to hear about? We also overlook the story of Emmet Till, which is only as old as 1955 (well within the Rev. Wright's lifetime). Or the deaths of Hattie Carroll, or Medgar Evers, only 8 years after Mr. Till's. Or the lynchings that continued across the South, to terrorize civil rights workers.

Is it right to ignore a history like this? Is it right to forget African-Americans were brought here by force, kept by force, and once "freed" by the Emancipation Proclamation, kept down by force? Force both legal (most of which was not erased until done so by legislative and court efforts in the late 1960's and 1970's) and private. Those photographs of lynchings are postcards, not secret photos. They weren't passed around clandestinely on the internet, the bearers subject to arrest as we do child pornographers today. Those were postcards, and the crowds at some of these lynching are huge. It was a public spectacle, no more illegal than a football game. When Geraldine Ferarros is displeased to find herself referenced in a speech about race, and Ann Althouse wonders how Obama's white grandmother feels now, do they take these stories into consideration?

1 in 9 African American males is imprisoned in this country, but it isn't racism, it's jurisprudence. Blacks simply commit more crimes. Which isn't racism, it's empirical fact. If you believe there is no bias in the system, and that white men are as likely as black men to be arrested, charged, tried, and convicted. And if you do, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. I lived for four years in the St. Louis area, going to seminary. There was one African-American male professor on the campuse, and he taught us about black liberation theology, showed us the videotapes of the documentaries where a black person went to rent an apartment, but was told it wasn't available, and the same apartment was shown to a white person 15 minutes later. He showed us the video of blacks and whites in department stores, and how the whites were left alone but the clerks eyed the blacks supiciously the whole time they were in the store. I thought it sad and unfortunate, until I noticed that in the city of Clayton, where traffic was heavy and much of the country passed through, I noticed that I never saw the police stop a car with a white driver. Every time I saw a car stopped by a police car, the driver was black. That's when I decided the evidence of discrimination was hardly anecdotal. Maybe Jeremigh Wright needs to stretch the boundaries of homiletics, just to get our attention. It doesn't seem anything else will.

So pace Geraldine Ferraro and Ann Althouse. Pace even Mike Huckabee, because it's not about growing up being called names; what I saw in St. Louis County was in the 1990's, not the 1950's. And pace Daniel Schorr, but the elevation of black athletes and celebrities, or even of Barack Obama, doesn't mean we became a "post-racial society" just this year. And isn't it funny that when a white man speaks of "black genocide" it's sad, but when a black man speaks of it, it's frightening and outrageous, even to "liberal" Nicolas Kristoff.

We have created a unique story, and we really don't want to have it messed with. And we powerfully resent it when other people have an equally unique story, one that challenges ours, one that looks at ours from a completely different perspective, with some villains where we have heroes, some heroes where we have placed villains. And the cure isn't going to be forcing ourselves to get our minds right. This is going to be much harder than that. We are going to have to meet people right where they are, and take them for where they are. And that will be a lot more painful, and difficult, to deal with, than considering whether or not the pastor or priest or anyone in the pulpit, can dare to use the term "motherfucker," just to get us to pay attention to the beam in our own eye.

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