Wednesday, April 30, 2008

So let the words of my mouth/and the meditations of our hearts/be acceptable in thy sight/over I

I had decided to post the rest of Rev. Wright's comments, the answers he gave to questions put to him at the National Press Club. The Wounded Bird is right, I do write long, and this has grown longer the more I meditate on it; but I promise to stop after I get this out of my head. I had decided, as I say, to post this, and then I read the NYT lead editorial this morning:

Mr. Wright has not let that happen. In the last few days, in a series of shocking appearances, he embraced the Rev. Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. He said the government manufactured the AIDS virus to kill blacks. He suggested that America was guilty of “terrorism” and so had brought the 9/11 attacks on itself.
Keep that in mind. It's from the "liberal" New York Times, and honestly, I don't know where to start with it. But read the following comments, and those posted earlier, and tell me where Rev. Wright "embraced the Rev. Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitism." Tell me where he said the US "manufactured" the AIDS virus. Tell me where how he is wrong about the US being guilty of terrorism. Oh, never mind; you might as well take on the world. Let's get back to what Rev. Wright said, and ignore the ignorance of his critics for a moment.

As I started to say, some of the questions Rev. Wright answered are in a prior post. I want to start with the rest of them, here, edited only slightly, and include some commentary on them as we go along:

MODERATOR: What is your relationship with Louis Farrakhan? Do you agree with and respect his views, including his most racially divisive views?

WRIGHT: As I said on the Bill Moyers’ show, one of our news channels keeps playing a news clip from 20 years ago when Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion.

And he was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter is being vilified for, and Bishop Tutu is being vilified for. And everybody wants to paint me as if I’m anti-Semitic because of what Louis Farrakhan said 20 years ago.

I believe that people of all faiths have to work together in this country if we’re going to build a future for our children, whether those people are — just as Michelle and Barack don’t agree on everything, Raymond (ph) and I don’t agree on everything, Louis and I don’t agree on everything, most of you all don’t agree — you get two people in the same room, you’ve got three opinions.

So what I think about him, as I’ve said on Bill Moyers and it got edited out, how many other African-Americans or European-Americans do you know that can get one million people together on the mall? He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That’s what I think about him.

I’ve said, as I said on Bill Moyers, when Louis Farrakhan speaks, it’s like E.F. Hutton speaks, all black America listens. Whether they agree with him or not, they listen.

Now, I am not going to put down Louis Farrakhan anymore than Mandela would put down Fidel Castro. Do you remember that Ted Koppel show, where Ted wanted Mandela to put down Castro because Castro was our enemy? And he said, “You don’t tell me who my enemies are. You don’t tell me who my friends are.”

Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains. He did not put me in slavery. And he didn’t make me this color.
I will confess to you, I don't know which part of that I'm supposed to be offended by. It is, as was stated in comments in the post below, a nuanced answer. It is not an embrace of Louis Farrakhan, and in fact it offers a challenge to the commonly accepted (quick: quote precisely what he said and the context in which he said it) "quote" that Louis Farrakhan called Judaism a "gutter religion." Frankly, that may not be any more accurate than Marx calling religion "the opiate of the masses" (he did, but "opiate" has a very different meaning today than it did for Marx in the 19th century; and he made the difference clear in the full quote, which is hardly ever used). As Rev. Wright says, Farrakhan is not Wright's enemy, and he won't let the media make them enemies. Apparently, however, that puts everyone's nose out of joint. "Never share my hearth, never think my thoughts, whoever does such things."

MODERATOR: What is your motivation for characterizing Senator Obama’s response to you as, quote, “what a politician had to say”? What do you mean by that?

WRIGHT: What I mean is what several of my white friends and several of my white, Jewish friends have written me and said to me. They’ve said, “You’re a Christian. You understand forgiveness. We both know that, if Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected.”

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.

As I said, whether he gets elected or not, I’m still going to have to be answerable to God November 5th and January 21st. That’s what I mean. I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do.

I am not running for office. I am hoping to be vice president.
And this is an offense against Sen. Obama precisely how? Because we are childish enough to believe politicians don't do anything that is political? Are we really that immature and ignorant? Is it any wonder we are offended, if Rev. Wright points that out to us? Which is back to the role of a pastor, v. the role of a politician; something Rev. Wright, as we will see below, understands better than the politicians. But we would do well to remember we are in the land of either/or: there is politics, and there is that which opposes politics; and the latter must never be permitted entry into the hallowed halls of the true polis: "Never share my hearth, never think my thoughts....."

MODERATOR: In light of your widely quoted comment damning America, do you think you owe the American people an apology? If not, do you think that America is still damned in the eyes of God?

WRIGHT: The governmental leaders, those — as I said to Barack Obama, my member — I am a pastor, he’s a member. I’m not a spiritual mentor, guru. I’m his pastor.

And I said to Barack Obama, last year, “If you get elected, November the 5th, I’m coming after you, because you’ll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.” All right? It’s about policy, not the American people.

And if you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about — although it got edited out — you know, that’s biblical. God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns something — and d-e-m-n, “demn,” is where we get the word “damn.” God damns some practices.

And there is no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn’t make me not like America or unpatriotic.

So in Jesus — when Jesus says, “Not only you brood of vipers” — now, he’s playing the dozens, because he’s talking about their mamas. To say “brood” means your mother is an asp, a-s-p. Should we put Jesus out of the congregation?

When Jesus says, “You’ll be brought down to Hell,” that’s not — that’s bombastic, divisive speech. Maybe we ought to take Jesus out of this Christian faith.
Let me interrupt right there. When Falwell and Robertson and Hagee condemn the US and claim natural disasters are the direct evidence of God's wrath; when they speak openly of damnation of this country because of it's culture; that's okay. When a black man does it from a Christian pulpit, however....

No. What I said about and what I think about and what — again, until I can’t — until racism and slavery are confessed and asked for forgiveness — have we asked the Japanese to forgive us? We have never as a country, the policymakers — in fact, Clinton almost got in trouble because he almost apologized at Gorialan (ph). We have never apologized as a country.

Britain has apologized to Africans, but this country’s leaders have refused to apologize. So until that apology comes, I’m not going to keep stepping on your foot and asking you, “Does this hurt? Do you forgive me for stepping on your foot?” if I’m still stepping on your foot.

Understand that? Capiche?
I'm guessing the problem here is that Jesus is black, because white people don't know how to play the dozens. Or because we're all supposed to realize slavery ended in the 19th century, and making Martin Luther King's birthday a holiday proves we're past the scars of the century after that, and civil rights is now the law, so what's the problem here? At least, that's all I can figure. Or maybe Rev. Wright is just not "post-racial" enough. We are "post-racial" now, aren't we? That little mess in New Orleans where we left poor blacks to drown, and called the black victims of that storm "looters," while the whites were "trying to feed their families," that's all behind us now, right? Because we're ready to support a black man for President. Well, most of us, but not white rural voters in Pennsylvania, apparently. But still, we're post-racial, right? And if we aren't, it's Rev. Wright's fault, isn't it?

MODERATOR: Senator Obama has been in your congregation for 20 years, yet you were not invited to his announcement of his presidential candidacy in Illinois. And in the most recent presidential debate in Pennsylvania, he said he had denounced you. Are you disappointed that Senator Obama has chosen to walk away from you?

WRIGHT: Whoever wrote that question doesn’t read or watch the news. He did not denounce me. He distanced himself from some of my remarks, like most of you, never having heard the sermon. All right?

Now, what was the rest of your question? Because I got confused in — the person who wrote it hadn’t –

MODERATOR: Were you disappointed that he distanced himself?

WRIGHT: 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.

I offered words of hope. I offered reconciliation. I offered restoration in that sermon, but nobody heard the sermon. They just heard this little sound bite of a sermon.

That was not the whole question. There was something else in the first part of the question that I wanted to address.

Oh, I was not invited because that was a political event. Let me say again: I’m his pastor. As a political event, who started it off? Senator Dick Durbin. I started it off downstairs with him, his wife, and children in prayer. That’s what pastors do.

So I started it off in prayer. When he went out into the public, that wasn’t about prayer. That wasn’t about pastor-member. Pastor- member took place downstairs. What took place upstairs was political.

So that’s how I feel about that. He did, as I’ve said, what politicians do. This is a political event. He wasn’t announcing, “I’m saved, sanctified, and feel the holy ghost.” He was announcing, “I’m running for president of the United States.”
But this is America, and everything is political; or at least, it should be. Don't make journalists and pundits think there are important parts of life that can't be explained in terms of politics and power; because they will just resent that. In fact, isn't there something Jesus said about feeding pearls to swine, and how they will just turn on you?

MODERATOR: You just mentioned that Senator Obama hadn’t heard many of your sermons. Does that mean he’s not much of a churchgoer? Or does he doze off in the pews?

WRIGHT: I just wanted to see — that’s your question. That’s your question. He goes to church about as much as you do. What did your pastor preach on last week? You don’t know? OK.
The dream response of every pastor who has ever stood in a pulpit, and been criticized later for what he or she said; usually by someone who wasn't in church that Sunday. No, it's not a model of Christian charity; but it is satisfying.

MODERATOR: In your sermon, you said the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. So I ask you: Do you honestly believe your statement and those words?

WRIGHT: Have you read Horowitz’s book, “Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola,” whoever wrote that question? Have you read “Medical Apartheid”? You’ve read it?

(UNKNOWN): Do you honestly believe that (OFF-MIKE)

WRIGHT: Oh, are you — is that one of the reporters?

MODERATOR: No questions -


WRIGHT: No questions from the floor. 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.

In fact, in fact, in fact, one of the — one of the responses to what Saddam Hussein had in terms of biological warfare was a non- question, because all we had to do was check the sales records. We sold him those biological weapons that he was using against his own people.

So any time a government can put together biological warfare to kill people, and then get angry when those people use what we sold them, yes, I believe we are capable.
We might also mention here that while we associate the Chinese with opium use in the 19th century, the poppy does not grow in China, but in Afghanistan. And the British controlled Afghanistan, and used the opium addiction against the Chinese. It's called "The Opium Wars." So countries doing such terrible things against people, is not exactly unknown. Consider the effects of depleted uranium in Iraq today; or 100 years from now, John McCain's favorite time-frame. Because 100 years from now, it may still be having an effect on Iraqis; we've used that much of it there. And it's having an effect on American soldiers right now. Does the government seem to care? And is any of that intentional genocide? Or just collateral damage? And the difference to the dead is?

Does anybody really doubt governments are capable of such inhumanity? Does anybody know how many natives lived in this country before Europeans started arriving? Does anybody realize the slave trade was legal, and the number of corpses that arrived on these shores was actually quite high? Is it really such a leap from that, to thinking AIDS was deliberately used against people? Is that possibility really beyond the pale, really simply impossible?

MODERATOR: You have likened Israeli policies to apartheid and its treatment of Palestinians with Native Americans. Can you explain your views on Israel?

WRIGHT: Where did I liken them to that? Whoever wrote the question, tell me where I likened them.

Jimmy Carter called it apartheid. Jeremiah Wright didn’t liken anything to anything. My position on Israel is that Israel has a right to exist, that Israelis have a right to exist, as I said, reconciled one to another.

Have you read the Link? Do you read the Link, Americans for Middle Eastern Understanding, where Palestinians and Israelis need to sit down and talk to each other and work out a solution where their children can grow in a world together, and not be talking about killing each other, that that is not God’s will?

My position is that the Israel and the people of Israel be the people of God who are worrying about reconciliation and who are trying to do what God wants for God’s people, which is reconciliation.
Much too sensible an answer. Easier by far to simply vilify him; better yet, ignore this answer altogether. Everyone else in the media has.

MODERATOR: In your understanding of Christianity, does God love the white racists in the same way he loves the oppressed black American?

WRIGHT: John 3:16, Jesus said it much better than I could ever say it, “for God so loved the world.” World is white, black, Iraqi, Darfurian, Sudanese, Zulu, Coschia (ph). God loves all of God’s children, because all of God’s children are made in God’s image.
Religion question, and one without any conflict. How can the media report on a religion question that doesn't involve conflict? Best to ignore that one, too; especially since it contradicts the "Wright is a hater" meme that some are still trying to stir up (like Gingrich on The Daily Show last night). It also reduces the conflict in the story; and we can't talk about religion without talking about conflict. No conflict, no story; let's find some other answer to report on.

MODERATOR: Can you elaborate on your comparison of the Roman soldiers who killed Jesus to the U.S. Marine Corps? Do you still believe that is an appropriate comparison and why?

WRIGHT: One of the things that will be covered at the symposium over the next two days is biblical history, which many of the working press are unfamiliar with.
The reference is to "some theological conference", as Richard Wolffe put it on Countdown the other night. And never, NEVER, tell reporters there is something they are unfamiliar with! Because obviously, if they are, unless it's a matter of "national security", it's too unimportant for anyone to know anything about. Much easier to call a man a clown (Olbermann, Tuesday night), or a "freak show" (Wolffe, same show) than to pay attention when he's trying to educate you. But I interrupted....

In biblical history, there’s not one word written in the Bible between Genesis and Revelations that was not written under one of six different kinds of oppression, Egyptian oppression, Assyrian oppression, Persian oppression, Greek oppression, Roman oppression, Babylonian oppression.

The Roman oppression is the period in which Jesus is born. And comparing imperialism that was going on in Luke, imperialism was going on when Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that the whole world should be taxed. They weren’t in charge of the world. It sounds like some other governments I know.

That, yes, I can compare that. We have troops stationed all over the world, just like Rome had troops stationed all over the world, because we run the world. That notion of imperialism is not the message of the gospel of the prince of peace, nor of God, who loves the world.
This, by the way, is not exactly a radical view of Biblical history. Indeed, it was the well accepted view until a generation or so ago, when any knowledge of Biblical history became hopelessly passé and unscientific (for what reason I cannot for the life of me imagine, since even educated non-believers should understand the importance of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures in Western culture, and so the history those texts reflect should be equally important. But then, today, how many people have heard of Socrates or Aristotle?). That didn't start with the rise of the "prosperity gospel," either; it has always been a part of Christian teachings, where the church is closely allied with the power structure of the society it is in. Which takes us back to "liberation theology, so let's just call Wright "crazy" and move quickly on.

MODERATOR: Former President Bill Clinton has been widely criticized in this campaign. Many African-Americans think he has said things aimed at defining Senator Obama as the black candidate. What do you think of President Clinton’s comments, particularly those before the South Carolina primary?

WRIGHT: I don’t think anything about them. I came here to talk about prophetic theology of the black church. I’m not talking about candidates or their positions or their feelings or what they have to say to get elected.
Oops! I was told Rev. Wright was injecting himself into this campaign, that like John McCain, the press HAD to talk about Rev. Wright because he declared himself fair game with these press conferences and speeches. Somebody obviously didn't get him the memo!

MODERATOR: Well, OK, we’ll give you a church question. Please explain how the black church and the white church can reconcile.

WRIGHT: Well, there are many white churches and white persons who are members of churches and clergy and denominations who have already taken great steps in terms of reconciliation.

In the underground railroad, it was the white church that played the largest role in getting Africans out of slavery. In setting up almost all 40 of the HBCUs, it was the white church that sent missionaries into the south.

As I mentioned in my presentation, our denomination all by itself set up over 500 of those schools. You know them today as Howard University, Fisk, LeMoyne-Owen, Tougaloo, Dillard University, Howard University.

So they’ve done — Morehouse, Morehouse. Don’t forget Moorhouse, Spelman — that white Christians have been trying for a long time to reconcile, that for other white Christians to understand that we must be reconciled is to understand the injustice that was done to a people, as we raped the continent, brought those people here, built our country, and then defined them as less than human.

And more Christians, more of us working together, not just white Christians, but whites and blacks of every faith, ecumenically working together.

Father Flagger (ph), by the way, he might be one of the one –


– models out what it means to be reconciled as brothers and sisters in Christ and brothers and sisters made in the image of God.
I should mention he left out Huston-Tillotson College, in Austin, Texas. And there are several hospitals, nursing homes, mental institutions, and orphanages in the St. Louis area and other parts of the midwest, as well as a ministry to the poor in Biloxi, Mississippi, begun by the German Evangelical church, the "other branch" of the United Church of Christ.

MODERATOR: You said there is a lack of understanding by people of other backgrounds of the African-American church. What are some of those misunderstandings? And how would you purport to fix them, particularly when some of your comments are found to be offensive by white churches?

WRIGHT: Carter Godwin Woodson, about 80 years ago, wrote a book entitled “The Miseducation.” I would try to fix it starting at the educational level in the grammar schools, as Dr. Asa Hilliard did in his infusion curriculum, starting at the grammar schools, to tell our children this story and to tell our children the true story.

That’s how I go about fixing it, because until you know the true story, then you’re reacting to my words and not to the truth.
Once again, calling reporters ignorant. If they don't know it, it ain't worth knowin', bub!

MODERATOR: Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the father but through me.” Do you believe this? And do you think Islam is a way to salvation?

WRIGHT: Jesus also said, “Other sheep have I who are not of this fold.”


MODERATOR: Do you think people of other races would feel welcome at your church?

WRIGHT: Yes. We have members of other races in our church. We have Hispanics. We have Caribbean. We have South Americans. We have whites.

The conference minister — please understand the United Church of Christ is a predominantly white demonstration. Again, some of you do not know United Church of Christ, just found out about liberation theology, just found out about United Church of Christ, the conference minister, Dr. Jane Fisler Hoffman, a white woman, and her husband, not only are members of the congregation, but on her last Sunday before taking the assignment as the interim conference minister of California, Southern California Conference of the United Church of Christ, a white woman stood in our pulpit and said, “I am unashamedly African.”

Obviously another "wackadoodle." Obviously all those "other races" in the Rev.'s church hate themselves and their "race," because we all agree the Rev. preaches race hatred. How sad for those deluded white folks....

MODERATOR: You first gained media attention, significant media attention for your sermons several weeks ago. Why did you wait so long before giving the public your side of the sound bite story?

WRIGHT: As I said to Bill Moyers — and he also edited this one out — because of my mother’s advice to me. My mother’s advice was being seen all over the corporate media channels, and it’s a paraphrase of the Book of Proverbs, where it is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

The media was making a fool out of itself, because it knew nothing about our tradition. And so I decided to let them make a fool as long as they wanted to and then take the advice of Paul Laurence Dunbar, “Lies, lies, bless the lord. Don’t you know the days are broad?”

Don’t make me come across this room. I had to come across the room, because they start — understand, when you’re talking about my mama, once again, and talking about my faith tradition, once again, how long do you let somebody talk about your faith tradition before you speak up and say something in defense of — this is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright.

Once again, let me say it again. This is an attack on the black church. And I cannot as a minister of the gospel allow the significant part of our history — most African-Americans and most European-Americans, most Hispanic-Americans, half the names I called in my presentation they’ve never heard of, because they don’t know anything at all about our tradition.

And to lift up those — they would have died in vain had I just kept quiet longer and longer and longer and longer. As I said, this is an attack on the black church. It is not about Obama, McCain, Hillary, Bill, Chelsea. This is about the black church.

This is about Barbara Jordan. This is about Fanny Lou Hamer. This is about my grandmamma.
You'll notice none of those people were mentioned by Juan Williams or Eugene Robinson or Bob Herbert. It's as if Rev. Wright never said these words; all three of them stopped much earlier, and left his words there. Not coincidentally, precisely at the point they were cut off for the sound bite on the evening news. And now that is the critique endlessly repeated by everyone, including Barack Obama. "Fair and balanced:" it's not just for FauxNews anymore.

MODERATOR: Do you think it is God’s will that Senator Obama be president?

WRIGHT: I said I would offer myself for candidacy for vice president. I have not offered myself for candidacy of God. I can’t presume to know what God would want.

In my tradition, however, what everybody has been saying to me as it pertains to the candidacy is what God has for you is for you. If God intends for Mr. Obama to the president, then no white racists, no political pundit, no speech, nothing can get in the way, because God will do what God wants to do.
Which is just crazy talk! Everybody knows God is supposed to do what we say God is gonna do! who's in charge here? Us? Or God?

MODERATOR: OK, we are almost out of time.

.... And we’ve got one more question for you.


We’re going to end with a joke. Chris Rock joked, “Of course Reverend Wright’s an angry 75-year-old black man. All 75-year-old black men are angry.” Is that funny? Is that true? Is it unfortunate? What do you think?

WRIGHT: I think it’s just like the media. I’m not 75.


Yeah, nobody made a soundbite out of that, either. Why am I not surprised?

There is very little in some of this that Walter Brueggeman hasn't said, or wouldn't say. I don't know Dr. Brueggeman's position on AIDS or Louis Farrakhan, but he agrees with Rev. Wright on the oppressions represented in Biblical history, and the very biblical and thoroughly unremarkable principle that "those to whom evil is done do evil in return."

The current spasm of "righteous indignation" concerning Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama's pastor, smacks of embarrassing ignorance. Such a critique of Wright is ignorant of black preaching rhetoric and the practice of liberation interpretation. It is also disturbingly ignorant of the prophetic traditions of the Bible that regularly expose the failures of society in savage rhetoric. I am grateful for the ministry of Wright, a colleague of mine in the United Church of Christ, who for a very long time has been a faithful pastor and a daring prophetic figure. It is odd when right-wingers misconstrue this belated Jeremiah as they do the original Jeremiah, who knew about God's passion for truth-telling in risky places.
As we have seen, however, condemnation of the Rev. Wright is not limited to "right wingers." Dr. Brueggeman is Professor Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. He's also written more than a few well-regarded scholarly works on the Hebrew Prophets, including several on Jeremiah. But since he's never been publicly associated with a politician, his views have never disturbed the delicate sensibilities of the pundit class. They are, however, wholly unremarkable within modern theological circles. Oh, they might antagonize John Hagee or Pat Robertson, might be unrecognizable to Joel Osteen or Rick Warren; but they are hardly radical because of that. But the media had to report on Rev. Wright's views, and the media can't do that without a conflict, so the narrative was tacitly agreed upon: Jeremiah Wright is jealous of the attention being given to Barack Obama. Richard Wolffe mentioned it on Countdown two nights ago. Eugene Robinson picked it up yesterday, Keith Olbermann relied on it as gospel last night, and Newt Gingrich passed it on to Jon Stewart as if it were received wisdom later that same evening. Much easier to report on that conflict than to consider precisely, and carefully, what Rev. Wright actually said. But then, as Rev. Wright said: "until you know the true story, then you’re reacting to my words and not to the truth." And clearly no journalist or pundit reporting or opining on this story wants to know the true story, since it's so much easier to react to his words, and not to the truth.

We couldn't fit Rev. Wright into the mold of the kindly black preacher who speaks benignly and perhaps slips some arsenic into the vanilla pudding, at his most challenging; or the preacher who calls for fire and brimstone and repentance, clearly "religious" topics which have nothing whatsover to do with politics (and so are "safe" for public consumption); so the media has put him in the mold of "crazy scary bomb-throwing race-baiting black man," the better to dismiss him. And that's just based on the barest references to his "black liberation theology." I can imagine what they'd have done with Dr. Brueggeman's theology of scarcity. It might have started a new Red Scare.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

When we remembered Zion

Well, that was pretty sad:

“I’m outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday,” Mr. Obama said, speaking to reporters here today. He added, “I find these comments appalling. It contradicts everything that I’m about and who I am.”
I guess he means the dancing for the NAACP. Or maybe he means the comments before the National Press Club. Comments like these:

Maybe now, as an honest dialogue about race in this country begins, a dialogue called for by Senator Obama and a dialogue to begin in the United Church of Christ among 5,700 congregations in just a few weeks, maybe now, as that dialogue begins, the religious tradition that has kept hope alive for people struggling to survive in countless hopeless situation, maybe that religious tradition will be understood, celebrated, and even embraced by a nation that seems not to have noticed why 11 o’clock on Sunday morning has been called the most segregated hour in America.

We have known since 1787 that it is the most segregated hour. Maybe now we can begin to understand why it is the most segregated hour.

And maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country, but for all the people in this country.
Yeah, didn't get that context from Eugene Robinson or Bob Herbert this morning on the op-ed pages, did you? No mention of the work of the United Church of Christ, of which Rev. Wright is an unashamed member, and which he has referred to frequently over the past few public appearances. No, no, Rev. Wright is a loose cannon, the leader of an independent mega-church that rises and falls on his shouting and damning, a mad cult of personality off on its own personal crusade against white folk, and "good" black folk like Juan Williams and Eugene Robinson and Bob Herbert, and now Barack Obama, want to be sure we understand him just that way. That N***er is crazy!

Feh. Color me disgusted.

Here's what Obama said, too:

But after watching three days of Mr. Wright’s commentary in televised speeches and interviews, Mr. Obama said, “there are no excuses.”

“They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans and they should be denounced,” he said. “That’s what I am doing very clearly and unequivocally here today.”
Again, still not sure exactly what remarks Sen. Obama is referring to. Perhaps that Sunday morning has been the most segregated hour in America since 1787. Perhaps that the UCC is going to engage a dialogue on this issue, one the Senator tried to open a few weeks ago. Perhaps it was the dancing, or maybe it was this:

Now, in the 1960s, the term “liberation theology” began to gain currency with the writings and the teachings of preachers, pastors, priests, and professors from Latin America. Their theology was done from the underside.

Their viewpoint was not from the top down or from a set of teachings which undergirded imperialism. Their viewpoints, rather, were from the bottom up, the thoughts and understandings of God, the faith, religion and the Bible from those whose lives were ground, under, mangled and destroyed by the ruling classes or the oppressors.

Liberation theology started in and started from a different place. It started from the vantage point of the oppressed.

In the late 1960s, when Dr. James Cone’s powerful books burst onto the scene, the term “black liberation theology” began to be used. I do not in any way disagree with Dr. Cone, nor do I in any way diminish the inimitable and incomparable contributions that he has made and that he continues to make to the field of theology. Jim, incidentally, is a personal friend of mine.

I call our faith tradition, however, the prophetic tradition of the black church, because I take its origins back past Jim Cone, past the sermons and songs of Africans in bondage in the transatlantic slave trade. I take it back past the problem of Western ideology and notions of white supremacy.
Was it denouncing white supremacy that upset the Senator? Was it the claim that liberation theology sees the faith tradition from the side of the oppressed, from the kind of people Jesus of Nazareth lived with all his life? I'm asking a serious question here, because those are hard words by the Senator, and as an American who apparently should be offended, I want to know what I'm offended by. Maybe it was this:

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.
I'm serious; I'm trying to find it. Here, maybe?

Black learning styles are different from European and European- American learning styles. They are not deficient; they are just different.

This principle of “different does not mean deficient” is at the heart of the prophetic theology of the black church. It is a theology of liberation.
That one set off George Will this morning, though it seems unremarkable in this age where we recognize "standardized" tests can be culturally biased, and that culture can certainly influence "learning styles" (a vague term, but clear enough for this discussion, eh?). Well, maybe this was it:

These two foci of liberation and transformation have been at the very core of the United Church of Christ since its predecessor denomination, the Congregational Church of New England, came to the moral defense and paid for the legal defense of the Mende people aboard the slave ship Amistad, since the days when the United Church of Christ fought against slavery, played an active role in the underground railroad, and set up over 500 schools for the Africans who were freed from slavery in 1865.

And these two foci remain at the core of the teachings of the United Church of Christ, as it has fought against apartheid in South Africa and racism in the United States of America ever since the union which formed the United Church of Christ in 1957.

These two foci of liberation and transformation have also been at the very core and the congregation of Trinity United Church of Christ since it was founded in 1961. And these foci have been the bedrock of our preaching and practice for the past 36 years.
There is is again, the "United Church of Christ," which is, need I point out, a predominantly white church, a church with roots as deep in European Protestantism as it is possible for those roots to go? But please don't repeat that, because Eugene Robinson and Juan Williams want to assure us Rev. Wright is on the lunatic fringe, a distaff church lead by a distaff pastor, and representative of no one, certainly not part of a mainstream Christian denomination responsible for many important institutions and acts in American history. No, no, no, no; that man is craaaazy!

Well, this must be the offensive language, then:

The prophetic theology of the black church is a theology of liberation; it is a theology of transformation; and it is ultimately a theology of reconciliation.

The Apostle Paul said, “Be ye reconciled one to another, even as God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.”

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.
Maybe not? Sounds like Obama's kind of language, doesn't it? Gotta keep looking:

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 Europeans.

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.
Maybe this was it; this is certainly what riled Mr. Herbert and Mr. Robinson and Mr. Williams:

MODERATOR: Some critics have said that your sermons are unpatriotic. How do you feel about America and about being an American?

WRIGHT: I feel that those citizens who say that have never heard my sermons, nor do they know me. They are unfair accusations taken from sound bites and that which is looped over and over again on certain channels.

I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?


MODERATOR: Please, I ask you to keep your comments and your applause to a minimum so that we can work in as many questions as possible.

Senator Obama has — shh, please. We’re trying to ask as many questions as possible today, so if you can keep your applause to a minimum.

Senator Obama has tried to explain away some of your most contentious comments and has distanced himself from you. It’s clear that many people in his campaign consider you a detriment. In that context, why are you speaking out now?

WRIGHT: On November the 5th and on January 21st, I’ll still be a pastor. As I said, this is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. It is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.

And why am I speaking out now? In our community, we have something called playing the dozens. If you think I’m going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition, and my grandma, you’ve got another think coming.
That must be it. Either it was the dis on Cheney, or it was the desire by Rev. Wright to defend himself against scurrilous, ignorant, and unfounded charges.

Or maybe it's that reference to "playing the dozens." Maybe that's too "street" for Americans like Barack Obama. You think?


Fair is fair: a transcript of Sen. Obama's remarks reveals that Rev. Wright's comments on Louis Farrakhan, AIDS, and 9/11 are the "objectionable" comments. Feh, still, says I. Daniel Schorr points out we are not yet a post-racial society, and that the past isn't over, it isn't even past. If Daniel Schorr can figure that out, why can't Barack Obama? And the letters to NPR? They blame the media, not Wright or Obama. No word on any planned repentance by the media, though.

Yeah, I just love politics....

Finally: and the cap on the day was hearing Richard Wolffe on Countdown say that Wright is in D.C. at "some theological conference," that last two words pronounced with as much polite disdain as Mr. Wolffe could muster, as if the very idea was either so ludicrous or distasteful his RP British accent couldn't bear to utter it.

I'll retire to Bedlam.....

Either/Or: Why is this man dancing?

I was going to start this on a better note, but then I listened to Juan Williams giving us his expertise on the "black church", and if there was any better evidence that the two parties to this national conversation are talking past each other, that "analysis" is surely it. Just listen to him re-write King's history and theology. The person Williams describes doesn't sound at all like the person who wrote these words from jail attacking the "white church." Nor does Williams include room for the vilification of King that followed his speech on Vietnam, a speech that attacked both war as a tool of statecraft, and economic injustice. Williams fails to note that King's stance was considered so radical that even the Washington Post turned against him, as did many of his supporters who thought the fight for civil rights had nothing to do with war or economic policy. And when King died he was in Memphis to support a garbage worker's strike; very likely that is the straw that broke the camel's back, since civil rights and voting rights had been passed into law years earlier. Williams pointedly draws the distinction between King and Wright by saying that King always "preached the gospel," and neglects the fact that the preaching of that gospel led King to promote economic justice, not just civil rights. To hear Williams tell it, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for being too inspirational and bringing too many people together. Just the kind of plaster saint Jeremiah Wright refuses to be.

But it isn't even plaster saints the pundits are looking for. Indeed, I was going to start out saying I think they're actually jealous of Wright, because he refuses to acknowledge the the status quo is "okay," and that politics alone will cure whatever else might ail us. That is certainly not consistent with the stance of a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson, a James Dobson or a John Hagee. As radically right wing as those public preachers might be, they understand one thing that the pundits understand too: the real power is in politics, not the pulpit. Richard Wolffe pointed out on Countdown last night that there is "real tension" between Obama and Wright, tension Wolffe attributed to jealousy on Wright's part. It's a daring leap of psychoanalysis, but a leap of faith TeeVee pundits are quite comfortable with and accustomed to making. After all, everything in politics is about the pursuit of power, and everything that matters in America is political. Right?

Of course, the problem with Wolffe's frame is that it can only consider one motivation for all human actions. Indeed, all the pundits seem perplexed that Wright is not, as Wolffe ends saying, trying to position himself to grab a piece of the power Obama may be doling out in January. He blamed Wright for damaging Wright's causes by not sucking up to Obama now, because patronage is the name of the D.C. game. Dobson and Hagee would never make that mistake, so it's perplexing to see Jeremiah Wright speaking, forcefully, to the NAACP and the National Press Club, to be unapologetic about positions he's held for decades, to continue to insist on speaking truth to power, rather than cultivating a relationship with the powerful. The pundits truly don't understand Wright's attitude. It is a kind of madness to them.

Wright apparently (and it seems in keeping with the Rev.'s character) told Obama that when Obama took political office, Wright would go after him as he does anyone with power and the responsibility to wield it for the poor and the powerless. Contrary to the theological musings of Juan Williams, that is precisely in keeping with both the Gospels and the preaching of the Hebrew prophets. It doesn't, according to the polls and even some politicians, mean much to the people. But it means a great deal to the pundits, because Rev. Wright refuses to apologize or go away. Having been thrust into the spotlight by the media, he refuses to go quietly away. As Rep. Emanuel Cleaver told Melissa Block, the problem isn't Rev. Wright. We may engage in a discussion with people like Rep. David Price (who, ironically, is an Obama supporter) about what it means to engage in a "loving critique" of America, but we can put it all in context and understand the difference, as I said before, between what a pastor says and what a politician says. What the pundits want is to have only one voice heard in the national discourse, and that is the voice that cherishes the power politics represents, and that politicians worship. We have become accustomed to the blurring of those worlds, a blurring that didn't begin with modern TV evangelists, that is indeed as American as violence and cherry pie. So this is not a new situation in America, nor even a new argument.

Indeed, Rep. Cleaver makes an excellent point: Rev. Wright was talking to his church family, not the country. As a pastor, I am always aware of the audience I am speaking to, and tailor my remarks accordingly. So simply taking the sermon out of the worship service is to take it out of context. But that's yet another topic, isn't it?

I do wonder how many people, especially "young" people (which term seems to mean "anyone younger than me," so it's a very flexible one), have a completely different take on Rev. Wright. It seems to me the worst thing he is doing is being a human being, being his own man: unrepentant and unapologetic, because he has nothing to repent for, nothing to apologize for. He is enjoying his time in the spotlight, not because it acrues more power to him (how many pastors are ever the subject of death threats?) but because he is a man of God, a man convinced of the rightness of what he is doing. It certainly left a good impression on Jon Stewart:

Muy picante, indeed. How much of that did you hear about from Juan Williams? How much of that critique of government policy did you hear on Countdown? As Stewart says: "If I had a rabbi who brought that much game...." The contrast with Obama in that segment presents a man who is substantive and thoughtful, but who is also, well....dull. Perhaps that's a lesson for Barack Obama, and for the rest of us. Perhaps a little confidence and a little personality is not such a bad thing, either. Perhaps a little more reverence for what matters, and a little less for the political system which thinks it matters, wouldn't be a bad thing. Perhaps we should consider what it is that makes this man so confident he would dance for the NAACP:

Doesn't that man know he's an object of derision? Doesn't he know he's hurting the politics of this country?

P.S. Dare I say the critique of Rev. Wright here and here, (and even here, where the WaPo continues it's "liberal" editorial stance towards black pastors), seems to be that he's gonna get the white folk all stirred up and angry and blow the black man's chance of being President? Politics really is all that matters; to some people.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Either/or in the Peaceable Kingdom

Via a link in the comments, I stumbled into this discussion, which makes an excellent point about what we "Boomers" (I guess I should now say "old-timers") used to call the "generation gap":

there’s a downside to being post-Cold War too. Specifically, "newer" liberals have a lot of blind spots for the dog-whistle politics associated with these old scars.

Two of the recent Obama controversies illustrate the point well. Personally, I think younger people were a bit baffled about why the Jeremiah Wright controversy had such strong legs. I mean, they knew what the newspapers said, but they couldn’t feel the controversy in their bones the way Baby Boomers probably could.

That’s because Jeremiah Wright brings out old scars from battles we never fought. While it’s hard today to truly understand the intoxicating idealism of the civil rights era, it’s also hard to truly understand just how bitterly venomous the white backlash to these developments was.
Let me just stop here and point out: my father is still alive. He was barely old enough to fight in World War II, and as it happens he didn't; he wasn't finished with his training before the war ended. But he's still alive, a living member of the "Builder" generation, some sociologists call it. Rev. Wright and I are, very roughly, members of the "Baby Boom" generation. The author of this post, at 31, is "Generation X", I guess, or is it "Y"? And there are people younger than him, but of voting age, who probably consider themselves not a member of
his generation at all.

This is the first time in human history we have had such a spread of generations alive at one time, such a wildly differing set of "formative experiences" to contend with. My father grew up with World War II and radio; for me, it was 3 broadcast networks and Vietnam; for my daughter, it's cable TV (we hardly ever watch the networks), the Internet, and "Iraq." We don't even call it a war, an invasion, a pre-emptive strike. It's just: "Iraq."

And in between there was Gulf War I, and yuppies, and the Internet Bubble, and....

"Who are you," the Who sang to my generation. "Who, who, are you?"

Yes, those of us who remember 1968 and 1972 still see American politics through those lenses. We also remember 1973, when Nixon resigned. We remember the Watergate generation of politicians, the reforms and "liberal politics" that reached even into Texas, for one bright, shining moment. All history to a 31 year old, and about as relevant and memorable as WWII is to me. In fact, I'm sick to death of World War II, and wish everyone would quit defining our foreign policy in terms of "appeasement" and "battling evil." There has been no Hitler since Hitler, unless you count Joe "Steel" or Pol Pot or any of the other characters we couldn't be bothered to fight after the defeat of Nazi Germany. But World War II lead directly to the Cold War (thank you, Harry Truman, for giving us the National Security state we know and love today!) led directly to Ronald Reagan led directly to our involvement in Afghanistan led directly to 9/11 led directly to the "Global War on Terror."

And here we are today; as mired in history as that mosquito in amber in "Jurassic Park," and feeling about as fictional about our times. But these aren't just "old scars from battles we never fought." It wasn't but ten years ago I first learned that blacks are still followed through stores by suspicious clerks and wary security guards. It wasn't ten years ago I noticed that whenever the police in the county seat of St. Louis County had a car pulled over, the drive was always African American. Trinity United Church of Christ is still offering help to blacks on the south side of Chicago because discrimination and racism and the legacy of America's "hidden wound" still persist. No doubt it's true that younger generations don't feel this "in their bones," but as all the talk about the white rural voters of Pennsylvania (and now North Carolina) shows (and are there no rural voters in Iowa? New Hampshire? Texas?), that doesn't mean the situation is just the product of the memories of those over 65. The conclusion publius draws is:

The big lesson here is don’t ignore the perspective of older Americans. There’s a reason why Obama is getting killed among Democrats over 65.
Well, maybe; but "older Americans" doesn't begin at 65, and Barack Obama' candidacy doesn't mean there is no racism or prejudice or lingering wounds among even my daughter's generation. Culture simply does not work in discrete beads, even if we preach American culture that way (am I a child of the '60's, or the '70's, or the '80's? I've never been sure myself.).

But that's the problem: that we proclaim the "either/or" of experience, and yours is not mine, so while I "respect" yours, I protect mine. It's rather like the difference between tolerance and respect: tolerance is a minimal stance, an agreement that I'll leave you to your benighted foolishness and errant ideologies. Respect is something of a different order altogether; it requires I consider your perspective, your point of view, your experience, and not just accept the fact that it will be around for sometime to come, pestering me and providing an obstacle to my advance of the peaceable kingdom (that most American of American ideals).

This is not just a political problem, either; it is a cultural, a sociological, even a spiritual, one. I quickly found in church that congregations were divided not just along racial lines (it is still the most segregated hour in America) but along generational lines as well. A congregation dominated by people of my father's generation don't want to hear the preaching I was taught in seminary (which is much like the preaching of Rev. Jeremiah Wright). The generations closest to my age were more receptive, but they could not (and should not) quiet the voices of their parents' generation (silencing each other through sheer numbers is not what the church is for; or at least, it shouldn't be). Younger generations were more receptive still, but they were given no consideration at all. It is the exact opposite of the "real world," where Miley Cyrus now dominates a cultural conversation once dominated by Britney Spears (until she became too old); a conversation that, at the same time, excludes me entirely (even as my daughter prefers my generations music to most of her own; it would be like me listening to Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller when I was in high school, ignoring Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad and the Beatles). My parents' generation are left to their slice of the cultural pie, but they are relegated to the "over 65" contingent, one we must tolerate but also have to learn to ignore, or work around (such being the general tenor of advice to Obama: if you can't win 'em, find a way around 'em). Again, the necessary lesson of politics, but not the necessary, or even best, lesson of life.

We are on the way, however, to doing this: to establishing an either/or based on politics and political commentary. Cokie Roberts this morning on NPR declared again that Obama had "problems" with Jeremiah Wright because the subject "dominated" his interview on Fox News. I didn't see the interview, but clearly the subject dominated because, like the last debate, the questions were being asked by reporters with an agenda, not by citizens with questions. This point was lost on Ms. Roberts, who wants to keep the pot boiling, the better to prove she's still riding the cresting wave of the latest national conversation. Either you are concerned about Jeremiah Wright, or you aren't; and if you aren't, then you are blindly supporting Obama and closing your eyes to reality. So, once again, the either/or is neither; it is no choice at all. We excel at creating the false dichotomy, the better to prove ourselves right when everybody's wrong.

Kierkegaard called it the concept of irony, and pointed out it began with Socrates, who questioned everything, who established an either/or but destroyed all options of alternatives, so there really was no either/or at all, nor a both/and: there was simply the ironic stance which dissolves everything. Of course, in the peaceable kingdom, we will each of us stand alone, having willed the world around us to change, while never having to face change ourselves.

Having watched Rev. Wright on the Moyers' interview, and now having heard him speak again in clips from his NAACP speech on NPR this morning, my sympathies are even more with Rev. Wright.

Like me, he has a "preaching voice" and he has a "conversational voice" (like many other pastors I could name, too). And the one is strong and even, clipped from context, strident; while the other is mild, calm, even reassuring. I've been known, myself, to work up to a point with vigor and urgency, even stridency (though I don't preach in they style of Rev. Wright); clip that from the rest of the sermon, I might sound a bit harsh.

But the conversation on race will, of necessity, be a harsh one.

"I am not divisive," Wright said. "Tell him the word is 'descriptive' — I described the conditions in this country. Conditions divide, not my descriptions."
But much easier, always, to blame the messenger for the unpleasantness of the message.

This is not new. I was teaching Swift's "A Modest Proposal," this morning, and noting that the rebuttal of the last paragraphs, where Swift actually presents his own opinions about how to solve the problems of 18th century Ireland, proposals his narrator rejects as unworkable, those paragraphs present proposals that would require the effort of all concerned, Irish and British alike, to implement. They would, in short, require real change on behalf of everyone: change not just of economic habits but of personal, even spiritual, practices, too. Obviously it is far easier to ask someone else to change, so that I don't have to. The basic thrust of the "modest proposal" is that others sacrifice (literally) so that I can reap only the benefits (the entire proposal is an argument any free-market enthusiast would find hard not to embrace as a solution to poverty). Wright's message, of course, is quite the opposite: if the system is going to change, we have to identify it as what it is (as Swift did), and change individuals in it, not the system itself. The machine is not the problem; the designers of the machine, the reliance on the machine, is.

"I come from a religious tradition that did not hold slaves but preached against slavery and worked to end slavery," Wright said. "I come from a religious tradition that fought against lynching, like the NAACP; fought against discrimination, like the NAACP."
And those racial scars are still a legacy of America, one passed on to our children along with the benefits of American democracy, along with the wealth and power of this country that makes the lives of even the poorest among us almost beyond the comprehension of the truly destitute in the world. The level of poverty in India staggered even Martin Luther King, Jr. when he visited there. But the fight against lynching wasn't won because lynching is not widespread and public anymore; the fight against discrimination didn't end because discrimination has gone so far underground now we don't even recognize it when we attribute it to "rural voters" and those "over 65."

That "peaceable kingdom" is going to take a lot more effort to work through our differences, rather than just work in spite of them.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

For the wicked carried us away

Start here:

More than 3,000 news stories have been penned since early April about Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama.
And just think about that a moment; then go to the video or the transcript. Notice how long the conversation lasts and, if you're like me, how quickly it passes. Then notice all the discussion of Barack Obama comes down to this much:

BILL MOYERS: You know, you mentioned Senator Obama. In the 20 years that you've been your pastor, have you ever heard him repeat any of your controversial statements as his opinion?

REVEREND WRIGHT: No. No. No. Absolutely not. I don't talk to him about politics. And so here at a political event, he goes out as a politician and says what he has to say as a politician. I continue to be a pastor who speaks to the people of god about the things of God.

BILL MOYERS: Here is a man who came to see you 20 years ago wanting to know about the neighborhood. Barack Obama was a skeptic when it came to religion. He sought you out because he knew you knew about the community. You led him to the faith. You performed his wedding ceremony. You baptized his two children. You were, for 20 years, his spiritual counselor. He has said that. And, yet, he, in that speech at Philadelphia, had to say some hard things about you. How, how did it go down with you when you heard Barack Obama say those things?

REVEREND WRIGHT: It went down very simply. He's a politician, I'm a pastor. We speak to two different audiences. And he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. Those are two different worlds. I do what I do. He does what politicians do. So that what happened in Philadelphia where he had to respond to the sound bytes, he responded as a politician. But he did not disown me because I'm a pastor.


BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that millions Americans, according to polls, still think Barack Obama is a Muslim?

REVEREND WRIGHT: It says to me that corporate media and miseducation or misinformation or disinformation, I think we started calling it during the Nixon years, still reigns supreme. Thirty some percent of Americans still think there are weapons of mass destruction. That you tell a lie long enough that people start believing it. What does the media do? "Barack Hussein Obama! Barack Hussein Obama! Barack Hussein. It sounds like Osama, Obama. That Arabic is a language. So that's why many people still think he's a Muslim. He went to a madrasah. What's a madrasah? I don't know, but I know it was one of those Muslim schools that teaches terrorism. The kind of I don't want to think, just tell me what to think mentality is why so many Americans still think that.
And the media "conversation" (it is so one-way it is hardly that) has focused on the few sentences that were available on that website before the airing of the program yesterday. And will probably stay focussed there through the weekend, and pick up again after Rev. Wright speaks to the National Press Club.

But does any pundit today feel foolish for taking those words out of context? Will any pundit comment on the show, and point out they didn't see a fire-breathing demagogue seated in the studio with Bill Moyers? Didn't see a bomb-throwing radical racist preacher demanding retribution and condemnation for all things White and American? Didn't even hear a speech as radical as anything Malcolm X ever said, in the sermons excerpted in the program? And how many will comment on what Rev. Wright said about the "corporate media and miseducation or misinformation or disinformation"? Hmmmm...right after the broadcast and cable networks start commenting on their use of "experts" as revealed by the NYT last week, I'm sure.

Of course, we know you dare not mock the press, just as we all know Stephen Colbert was not funny at the White House Correspondent's Dinner two years ago. And we know that, as Greg Mitchell reminds us, because the press made great efforts to tell us Mr. Colbert was not funny.

But the nice thing about the show, and now the transcript, is that we have the language of the sermons that made Jeremiah Wright so controversial. Not the entire sermon, still, but enough. Here, for example, is the infamous "blaming America for 9/11" sermon:

I heard Ambassador Peck on an interview yesterday. Did anybody else see him or hear him? He was on Fox news. This is a white man and he was upsetting the Fox news commentators to no end. He pointed out. You see him John? A white man he pointed out -an Ambassador! He pointed out that what Malcolm X said when he got silenced by Elijah Mohammad was in fact true. America's chickens are coming home to roost! We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism! We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Gadafi's home and killed his child. "Blessed are they who bash your children's head against a rock!" We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to payback for the attack on our embassy. Killed hundreds of hard-working people; mothers and fathers who left home to go that day, not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima! We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye! Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school, civilians - not soldiers - people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant? Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yards! America's chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism. A White Ambassador said that y'all not a Black Militant. Not a Reverend who preaches about racism. An Ambassador whose eyes are wide open, and who's trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised--
It's not Rev. Wright saying "the United States had brought on al Qaeda's attacks because of its own terrorism." It was Ambassador Peck. Nothing Rev. Wright added in his litany of American history is untrue. As I've mentioned before, when the United Church News, the national newspaper of the church both Rev. Wright and I are pastors in, ran a photo after the "shock and awe" campaign, a photo showing a father holding his teenaged daughter with her foot blown off by American "smart bombs," a leg that ended in jagged and splintered bone with shards of flesh and muscle hanging off, the outrage expressed was not at the massacre of the innocent, but at the horror of the photo, the editorial decision to publish it. Chickens, coming home to roost.

And in the sermon, this was placed in the context, not of the nature of evil and how bad we are to seek revenge, but of this Psalm, the one everyone knows, except almost no one recites all the verses:

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?

5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
That, said Wright, is what revenge brings: it is the innocents, the babies, who suffer. To which I would add: Christians who forget the Massacre of the Innocents in December (and so many of us do), Christians who lop off the last 5 verses of that Psalm, conveniently give themselves license to do Herod's job and murder the innocents so we will be secure. And who can deny such actions will have consequences? And who can deny we have told not to do this, even though in our heart of hearts, just like the Psalm sings, we want to? And what does that mean?

REVEREND WRIGHT: That Human beings, many times, do things for nefarious purposes. And God can take that and turn something- make something good out of it. That, for instance, using that Joseph passage, when his brother sold him into slavery, and they thought, after daddy's gone, he's gonna get us. And Joseph reassured them by saying, "No, no, what you meant for evil, God has turned into something good. I'm not trying to do revenge or payback. In fact, restoration is what God is. And I restore you. As brothers, we're all brothers." That those sound bytes, those snippets were taken for nefarious purposes. That God can take that and do something very positive for it- with it. That, in Philadelphia, in response to the sound bytes, in response to the snippets, in Philadelphia Senator Obama made a very powerful speech in terms of our need as a nation to address the whole issue of race. That's something good that's already starting. That because of you guys playing these sound bytes now what's getting ready to happen as something very positive, and something very powerful that God can take what you meant to try to hurt somebody to help the nation come to grips with truth. To help a nation come to grips with miseducation. To help a nation come to grips with things we don't like to talk about.
Which is the distinction between a pastor, and a politician. Any pundit who tells me any politician is running as a pastor, who says:

"Even though he was defending himself, quite nicely, he said Barack Obama spoke as a politician. That is the last thing Obama wants people to think of him as. He has approached the American people as a pastor-type himself," said [Cokie] Roberts.
That person fails completely to understand the distinction. But just as most Americans, especially non-Christians, wouldn't want a pastor for their President, most Americans also understand that what a pastor has to say, is very different from what they expect their politicians to say. Perhaps it is the flintiness that is the difference. Perhaps it is that pastors are expected to speak truth to power, and the politicians are the power that truth is sometimes spoken to. In any case, we have to set aside the sound bytes if we are going "To help a nation come to grips with things we don't like to talk about." We should all be doing as much "to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised--" (And "us", he said; he said "us"!)

Let the people say: "Amen!"

Friday, April 25, 2008

Cry! What shall I cry? All flesh is grass!

I should have seen this coming. Deliberate misrepresentation of one's words is the lot of both pastors and politicians.

So Bill Moyers interviews Jeremiah Wright tonight. And before we can possibly see it and decide for ourselves what the Rev. Wright says, the pundits and pooh-bahs have to pre-digest it for us:

"If he was a Barack Obama supporter, I think he would pull himself off of the stage at this point," said National Public Radio senior political analyst Juan Williams.

"Nothing good comes of this for Barack Obama," concurred ABC News political contributor Cokie Roberts.
See? It doesn't matter what he says, or how he says it. What matters it that he speaks! Disaster! Doom! Despair! And this from "objective journalists". What hope is there for us regular folk to understand the impact of the Rev. Wright's words without these wise people to interpret them first, and interpret them by: ignoring them!

When I saw the excerpt at the PBS website on TeeVee last night, I thought: "Wow! I would have that man as my pastor!" But I missed the fruity import of what he really said:

"At a political event, he goes out as a politician and says what he has to say as a politician," Wright told Moyers. "I continue to be a pastor … He's a politician. I'm a pastor."

Roberts and others saw the defense as short of unassailable.

"Even though he was defending himself, quite nicely, he said Barack Obama spoke as a politician. That is the last thing Obama wants people to think of him as. He has approached the American people as a pastor-type himself," said Roberts.

Williams agreed that calling Obama a politician would have Americans asking "was he simply being politically expedient, or was he being sincere?" during his "race speech" in Philadelphia last month.
The MSM is unassailable. "Unfair," Rev. Wright? Devious? You forget who controls the conversation in this country. You will take your "wackadoodle" label and wear it proudly until the MSM tells you that you can take it off. Because it is NEVER about them, and always about someone else. So Jeremiah Wright may seem calm and sensible and rational, and bring a smile to Bill Moyers' face; but we all know, in reality, he's trashing Barack Obama. Again.

And before you get a chance to hear him, the MSM wants to be sure you understand that. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Content is for wonks. The people who speak without resort to bladders and flappers are not thinking deep and worthy thoughts, and must be disregarded. Most of all, what they say is not important; what is important is only what the pooh-bahs and pundits choose out of what they say. After all, people like Rev. Wright speak without Climenoles, which surely indicates a lack of seriousness on his part.

The rest of us, meanwhile, can enjoy the excellence of Mr. Moyer's website, which gives information on the black church in America, James Cone and Black Liberation Theology, and even background on the Rev. Wright. No Flappers required.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Forget either/or. How about "neither/nor"?

And in case you missed it: we don't have any laws anymore. Not for the Administration.

We just have an Attorney General who dispenses "Get out of Jail Free" cards. Better than that, they're: "Do whatever the hell you want, we've got your back," cards.

Never thought I'd miss John Mitchell and Ed Meese.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Lord, when did we see you?

Grosse Gott:

Haiti’s hunger, that burn in the belly that so many here feel, has become fiercer than ever in recent days as global food prices spiral out of reach, spiking as much as 45 percent since the end of 2006 and turning Haitian staples like beans, corn and rice into closely guarded treasures.

Saint Louis Meriska’s children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal recently and then went without any food the following day. His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said forlornly, “They look at me and say, ‘Papa, I’m hungry,’ and I have to look away. It’s humiliating and it makes you angry.”


In Haiti, where three-quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day and one in five children is chronically malnourished, the one business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically consumed only by the most destitute.

“It’s salty and it has butter and you don’t know you’re eating dirt,” said Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, who has taken to eating them more often in recent months. “It makes your stomach quiet down.”


Meanwhile, most of the poorest of the poor suffer silently, too weak for activism or too busy raising the next generation of hungry. In the sprawling slum of Haiti’s Cité Soleil, Placide Simone, 29, offered one of her five offspring to a stranger. “Take one,” she said, cradling a listless baby and motioning toward four rail-thin toddlers, none of whom had eaten that day. “You pick. Just feed them.”
"The crowds would ask him: 'So, what should we do?'
And he would answer them, 'Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none, whoever has food should do the same.'"--Luke 3:10-11

The World Bank says food prices have risen world wide 80% in three years. Ironic, since they had a hand in it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Either/Or and the Pope

How often, after all, do I get to embed a video by a professor and journalist talking reasonably about religion?

I'm intrigued by the coverage of the Pope. NPR tells me he met privately with some victims of priestly pedophilia, which struck me as very pastoral of him. NPR also reported on the mass in the baseball stadium in Washington, D.C. As they said, this Pope speaks in paragraphs, not soundbites. Sadly, the NYT squeezes the Pope into soundbites. Sometimes function must give way to form, no matter what.

I would prefer to focus on the paragraphs, myself. If anyone finds a reliable source of the Pope's words, I'd welcome the link. I may not agree with this Pope, but I don't know that until I can study his words; and what I have heard so far makes those words worth examining on their own terms, in their full paragraphs.

Steinfels is clearly right: journalism treats religion only as a story when it involves conflict. Otherwise, religion is wholly uninteresting, and messages of "hope" and "love" are "Hallmark greeting cards," and not to be taken seriously. Not to go political, but the same critique was leveled against Barack Obama for awhile; the idea that a politician could campaign on "hope" without campaigning on American chauvinism (the only distinction I can find from Reagan's campaigns; I'm trying to be charitable to the pundits) was soundly reviled as mere foolishness, or mawkishness, or, well...

It certainly wasn't a plan.

These things insist on coming back to faith, don't they? Faith, and the nature of faith. Not things easily spoken of in the marketplace of ideas; not things easily hammered into a shape we can trade in. Still worth talking about, though.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Either/or: A discursus

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
This was recently quoted in my general direction as a statement against religious belief; specifically Christianity, in the case of Voltaire. But the fact is, you can't make people believe absurdities. They will, by and large, only believe that they want to believe. It's part of the epistemological divide: what do I learn v. what is revealed to me. Nothing I learn is ever absurd; not to me. So the doctrines of the eucharist, baptism (infant or otherwise), the Trinity, the Incarnation: all quite reasonable, if I learn them and take the teachings as sound.

But "Love your neighbor as yourself"? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"? If you have two coats, give one to the person with no coat? Feed the hungry? Shelter the homeless? Give water to the thirsty? See the kingdom of God here, now, immediately, among you? Absurd! Who can believe such things?

Now, and especially given the lessons of history, which of these is more likely to lead to atrocities, I leave up to you. But while I may make you acquiesce (somehow!) to that which can be learned; how do I ever make you believe what is patently so absurd? The kingdom of God, where the first are last and the last first, can be among us right now, and we can proclaim it, even as Jesus directed his followers to do?

Don't be ridiculous!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Here endeth the lesson

The New York Times
Alberto R. Gonzales, like many others recently unemployed, has discovered how difficult it can be to find a new job. Mr. Gonzales, the former attorney general, who was forced to resign last year, has been unable to interest law firms in adding his name to their roster, Washington lawyers and his associates said in recent interviews.

He has, through friends, put out inquiries, they said, and has not found any takers. What makes Mr. Gonzales’s case extraordinary is that former attorneys general, the government’s chief lawyer, are typically highly sought.

A longtime loyalist to George W. Bush dating to their years together in Texas, Mr. Gonzales was once widely viewed as a strong candidate to be the first Hispanic-American nominated one day to the Supreme Court. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he carried an impressive personal story as the child of poor Mexican immigrants.

Despite those credentials, he left office last August with a frayed reputation over his role in the dismissal of several federal prosecutors and the truthfulness of his testimony about a secret eavesdropping program. He has had no full-time job since his resignation, and his principal income has come from giving a handful of talks at colleges and before private business groups.


The greatest impediment to Mr. Gonzales’s being offered the kind of high-salary job being snagged these days by lesser Justice Department officials, many lawyers agree, is his performance during his last few months in office. In that period, he was openly criticized by lawmakers for being untruthful in his sworn testimony. His conduct is being investigated by the Office of the Inspector General of the Justice Department, which could recommend actions from exonerating him to recommending criminal charges. Friends set up a fund to help pay his legal bills.

While he has not taken any full-time job, friends said he was probably receiving as much income from speaking engagements as he did as attorney general with its annual salary of more than $191,000. Places like Washington University in St. Louis, Ohio State University and the University of Florida have paid him about $30,000 plus expenses for appearances, and the business groups pay a bit more, said sources at the schools and elsewhere who are familiar with the arrangements. Pomona College debated inviting him and decided he was not worth the money, the college newspaper reported.
Jesus of Nazareth:

There was this rich man whose manager had been accused of squandering his master’s property. He called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Let’s have an audit of your management, because your job is being terminated.”
Then the manager said to himself, “What am I going to do? My master is firing me. I’m not strong enough to dig ditches and I’m ashamed to beg. I’ve got it! I know what I’ll do so doors will open for men when I’m removed from management.”
So he called in each of his master’s debtors. He said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?”

He said, “Five hundred gallons of olive oil.”

And he said to him, “Here is your invoice; sit down right now and make it two hundred and fifty.”

Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?”

He said, “A thousand bushels of wheat.”

He says to him, “Here is your invoice; make it eight hundred.”

The master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this world exhibit better sense in dealing with their own kind than do the children of light.

I tell you, make use of your ill-gotten gain to make friends for yourselves, so that when the bottom falls out they are there to welcome you into eternal dwelling places.—Luke 16:1-9 (SV)
Go, thou, and do likewise.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Either/Or: In Which God Dies (#2 in a series)

The central question of religion of philosophy in the 20th century and now the 21st seems to be the proof of the existence of God. This is the either/or on which so much rises or falls. Yet it's a curious pursuit, since we cannot prove the existence of a platypus or a ceolocanth: we can only produce an animal or a fish we can identify as a platypus or a coelocanth. We do not thereby prove it's "existence," but then the popular discourse seldom questions the definition of "existence" that it is demanding proof of. That way, of course, lies phenomenology: Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre and Levinas, and even, to some degree, deconstruction and Derrida. Too much idealism, and too Continental; so we content ourselves with equating existence with presence, and when adequate reports of the presence of platypi and coelocanths are obtained, we ask no more of them. No such reports of "God" can be obtained, of course, because all such reports are subjective, and none can produce an object for examination, so the "proofs" fail and the subject is considered closed against those who assert any faith at all.

The problem is one Johannes Climacus considered over 150 years ago, in a little noticed discussion of the issue. Climacus first puts the issue in the context of the paradox. He praises the paradox, asserting: "the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion, a mediocre fellow." But he quickly looks beyond that:

But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
There is a buried epistemological assumption there, one we should not glide over lightly: thought "discovers," in proper Hellenistic fashion (we will leave the Platonists and Aristotelians to thrash out whether it is truly "discovery," or merely "recovery", and move on). Hebraic epistemology, at least as it pertains to matters of the God of Abraham, does not depend on discovery, but rather on reception. It is the revelation that enlightens; knowledge of God is given, not found, is revealed, not unearthed. The shift is a small but important one; indeed, it is central to the question of the importance of the will.

Thought, Climacus points out, wants most to think something it cannot think. It wants, then, to be able to think the existence of that which it cannot know except through experience. It wants to be able to discover, for itself, irrefutable proof of that which is by definition not subject to such proof. We cannot establish the existence of a platypus, but we can identify a specific monotreme as a platypus. We can dissect it, study it, classify it, discard it, and never prove the existence of it. But since we cannot do these things with Deity, we discard it. We demand proof of Deity's existence, even as we cannot imagine what that proof would be. We want to think the thought we cannot think, even if thinking that thought would be the downfall of the thought itself. So here is the first problem: we set ourselves a task we know is impossible and then, when it cannot be done, we declare the subject of the impossible quest responsible, and declare the impossible, at the very least, the question that must be answered and, since it cannot be, content ourselves with our paradox. Our passion can never be satisfied, never reach the collision, never face its downfall: and of how many passions in our lives can the same be said? Is it any wonder we are so passionate about the proofs of God's existence, and the inability of any of them to satisfy?

But that is only the beginning, and it still establishes nothing; it still leaves the passion waiting expectantly for a fulfillment it knows can never be, that it doesn't even want. Let's pursue the question, and find not what it's establishment would mean, but what the inability to establish it means. We have put so much on that issue, we have staked everything on its outcome. Even if we really don't want to know the answer, what answer do we presume there could be?

But what is this unknown against which the understanding in its paradoxical passion collides and which even disturbs man [sic] and his self-knowledge? It is the unknown. But it is not a human being, insofar as he knows man, or anything else that he knows. Therefore, let us call this unknown the god. It is only a name we give to it. It hardly occurs to the understanding to want to demonstrate that this unknown (the god) exists. If, namely the god does not exist, then of course it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if he does exist, then of course it is foolishness to want to demonstrate it, since I, in the very moment the demonstration commences, would presuppose it not as doubtful--which a presupposition cannot be, inasmuch as it is a presupposition--but as decided, because otherwise I would not begin, easily perceiving that the whole thing would be impossible if he did not exist. If, however, I interpret the expression "to demonstrate the existence of the god" to mean that I want to demonstrate that the unknown, which exists, is the god, than I do not express myself very felicitously, for then I demonstrate nothing, least of all an existence, but I develop the definiteness of a concept.
What is lurking here is the analytic/synthetic distinction from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Is "existence," in other words, an analytic truth (one where the truth is established solely through analysis of its meaning), or is it synthetic (one which "add[s] to the concept of the subject a predicate which has not been in any wise thought in it, and which no analysis could possibly extract from it,” i.e., one which can be based on empirical facts about the world.). The common assumption is that existence is synthetic; but the proofs of the existence of "the god" all presume the statement is actually analytical. Small wonder the result of all of these efforts is an epistemological black hole.

"It is generally a difficult matter to want to demonstrate that something exists--worse still, for the brave souls who venture to do it, the difficulty is of such a kind that fame by no means awaits those who are preoccupied with it. The whole process of demonstration continually becomes something entirely different, becomes an expanded concluding development of what I conclude from having presupposed that the object of investigation exists. Therefore in the world of thought, I never reason in conclusion to existence, but I reason in conclusion from existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who indeed does exist, is a criminal. Whether one wants to call existence an accessorium or the eternal prius, it can never be demonstrated.
The demands for proof of God's existence, of course, presume existence can be proven, and once it can, then proof of God's existence cannot be far behind. But the proof of existence itself is still wanting. As Climacus points out:

If one wanted to demonstrate Napoleon's existence from Napoleon's works, would it not be most curious, since his existence certainly explains the works but the works do not demonstrate his existence unless I have already in advance interpreted the word "his" in such a way as to have assumed he exists.
Napoleon, of course, is not necessary to his works, but the god is presumed to have an absolute relation to the god's works. So perhaps that is the difference that allows a proof of the god to be formulated:

But then, what are the god's works? The works from which I want to demonstrate his existence do not immediately and directly exist, not at all. Or are the wisdom in nature and the goodness or wisdom in Governance right in front of our noses? Do we not encounter the most terrible spiritual trials here, and is it ever possible to be finished with all these trials? But I still do not demonstrate God's existence from such an order of things, and even if I began, I would never finish and also would be obliged continually to live in suspenso lest something so terrible happen that my fragments of demonstration would be ruined. Therefore, from what works do I demonstrate it? From the works regarded ideally--that is, as they do not appear directly and immediately. But then I do not demonstrate it from the works, after all, but only develop the ideality I have presupposed; trusting in that, I even dare to defy all objections, even those that have not yet arisen. By beginning, then, I have presupposed the ideality, have presupposed that I will succeed in accomplishing it, but what else is that but presupposing that the god exists and actually beginning with trust in him.
Is it any wonder Rudolf Bultmann wrote his magnum opus on John's gospel with John open before him, and Johannes Climacus open beside him?

When he was in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many believed in him once they saw with their own eyes the miracles he performed. But Jesus didn't trust himself to them, because he understood them all too well. He didn't need to know more about humanity; he knew what people were really like. John 2:23-25, SV.

So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen everything he had done at the celebration in Jerusalem. (They had gone to the celebration too). Then he came back to Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine.

There was an official whose son was sick in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had returned to Galilee from Judea, he approached him and pleaded with him to come down and cure his son, who was about to die.

Jesus said to him, "You people refuse to believe unless you see portents [semeia] and miracles [terata]."John 4:45-48

"Now my life is in turmoil, but should I say, 'Father, rescue me from this moment'? No, it was to face this moment that I came. Father, glorify your name!" Then a voice spoke out of the sky: "I have glorified it and I'll glorify it further."

The crowd there heard this, and some people remarked that it had thundered, others than an angel had spoken to him.

"That voice did not come for me but for you," Jesus rejoined.--John 12:27-30

In fact, after reading Bultmann, one wonders if Kierkegaard didn't have John's gospel in mind when writing the Philosophical Fragments. The Johannine distinction between semeion and dunamis seems almost tailor made for the philosophical concerns of his namesake Climacus. Either we see signs, proof, irrefutable evidence, or we do not believe! "The works from which I want to demonstrate his existence do not immediately and directly exist, not at all." They are signs, but only if we already see what they point to. If we don't see that, we don't see the signs, either, except as objects. And objects, no more than signs, can speak to us, and overcome our ignorance, our doubt, our lack of knowledge. Either we already know, and the sign merely confirms it for us, or we do not know, and at most what we hear is...thunder. Was it an angel who spoke to Jesus? Why didn't anyone in the audience get even that sign right? If that sign cannot demonstrate, finally and absolutely, the existence of the god, what can?

Climacus would leave the matter here:

The paradoxical passion of the understanding is, then, continually colliding with this unknown, which certainly does exist but is also unknown and to that extent does not exist. The understanding does not go beyond this; yet in its paradoxicality the understand cannot stop reaching it and being engaged with it, because wanting to express its relation to it by saying that this unknown does not exist will not do, since just saying that involves a relation. But what, then, is this unknown, for does not its being the god merely signify to us that it is the unknown? To declare that it is the unknown because we cannot know it, and that even if we could know it we could not express it, does not satisfy the passion, although it has correctly perceived the unknown as frontier. But a frontier is precisely the passion's torment, even though it is also its incentive. And yet it can go no further, whether it risks a sortie through via negationis or via eminentiae.*
But that simply leaves us where we began; although it explains rather nicely the energy some bring to this discussion, so determined are they to resolve once and for all the existence of the unknown; a resolution, of course, which can never be reached, at least not by the understanding.

And how do we understand this?

When we attend to the debates of philosophers and theologians about faith we are struck by the fact that every participant, no matter how he assails the faith of others, expresses some confidence of his own. And then we further note that confidence is usually professed not in one object only but in several and that often the effort to state this faith moves in a kind of circle from a first object to a second and perhaps a third and back to the first. The common, usually unanalyzed, association of faith with such terms as democracy, the people and education, or nature, experience, and reason, in popular statements about the things we can rely on has its counterpart in the more careful analsyses of academicians.

An example in philosophy of this expression of a pluralistic and circular faith is offered by A.J. Ayeer's radical book, Language, Truth and Logic...."We rely," he writes, "on our senses to substantiate or confute teh judgments which are based on our sensations." This is indeed a faith, an expression of sheer trust in what is not sensibly perceived, since the continuity and unity of sense-experience is not something that is sensed....A kind of structure of faith emerges in his confession. He relies on science because he is loyal to human life, not his own merely; and because science is based on sense-experience which he trusts. There are three objects of faith here: sense-experience, science and human values. And faith moves in a kind of circle justifying reliance on each of these objects by reference to the others.
And where does this lead? Back to the either/or:

In the midst of all these questionings and arguments about faith; in the controversies of the religious sects and philosophical schools; among the contentions as defenders of this and that faith attack others with different beliefs, we become aware of a strange fact. Belief and disbelief, trust and distrust, fideilty and infidelity toward one another is present in all those who contend or agree with each other as they argue about faith. Defensiveness of one's own beliefs and suspicion of those with other beliefs, distrust of their intellectual ability or honesty accompany men [sic] in all their encounters with each other. Confessions of loyalty to values of one sort or another and of reliance upon powers, no less than the implicit and explicit confessions of doubt or confidence in one another can be heard in the midst of all these arguments and analyses. Belief and trust and fidelity and their opposites are forever present as active attitudes in the very subjects who make them the objects of their inquiry or disputation.

"Questions about faith, about its relation to action, to sight and understanding, about its objects and circular movements are important to us only because we have previously been required to answer the questions of faith."

When we are reduced to the either/or, the question of faith is put before us, and we have to answer. Faced with the unknown, we cannot explain it, but we cannot avoid it. And so we tried to see what would happen if we did without it; and so in the 1960's, a small group of theologians tried to proclaim God "dead." That theology alleged traced its roots back to Kierkegaard, to Bonhoeffer, even to Barth and to Tillich. There is a rather tedious revisionist history argument to be had about the length, breadth, purpose, and efficacy of the "God is dead" movement. But it actually asked a series of questions arranged around a central point: what is the metaphysical nature of God in a non-metaphysical world? One answer was to face the abandonment of metaphysics. The other answer was to reconsider the proposition that metaphysics had no meaning. And from that came reconsideration came phenomenology (out of German Idealism) and process theology (out of the ruins of the Principia Mathematica, following the acceptance of Gödel’s theorem of incompleteness.) But the clear question of the movement was: could we live without God? Could we reject the orthodox explanations of the nature of God (the heart of theology) and still practice theology? In what, in fact, did we have faith? What we could understand, if not see? Or what we could believe?

Was belief still an either/or? And could we ask that question without being accused of simply seeking publicity? (Ironically, Emory University shifted from an obscure college to a major research institution largely because of the notoreity of Thomas J.J. Altizer, a professor in the seminary at Emory, and one of the proponents of the controversial theology.) If we cannot prove God’s existence, must we necessarily lose faith in God? If we cannot establish the first object and then the second and perhaps a third and fourth, is it impossible for our faith to be generated by the movement among them? Or are: “Belief and trust and fidelity and their opposites …forever present as active attitudes in the very subjects who make them the objects of their inquiry or disputation”?, so that even the declaration that the ground of faith, God in this case, is dead, is gone, is simply another statement of belief and trust and fidelity or perhaps, its opposites? The argument of Climacus lingers, though: if God is “dead,” does that mean the unknown is no more? And if it cannot mean that, then how can the unknown, the god, be “dead,” destroyed, obsolete, removed from all further consideration? “But a frontier is precisely the passion's torment, even though it is also its incentive. And yet it can go no further, whether it risks a sortie through via negationis or via eminentiae.”

So for all that effort, where have we gone, except to the place where we began? And is it possible yet to know it for the first time?

*The via negationis is the way of negative theology; i.e., we can only speak of what God is not, not of what God is. It is a theology that has its own satisfactions and limitations, and while it much appealed to Luther, it is not the final word on the nature of God, or even the best word. The via emenentiae is the way of idealization, essentially the ground of Anselm's ontological "proof," i.e., that God is all that can be best possibly conceived, which ultimately is no more definitive nor satisfactory.

All the quotes from Philosophical Fragments, by the way, are from: Kierkegaard, Søren, Philosophical Fragments/Johannes Climacus, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1985). Quotes from Niebuhr are: Niebuhr, H. Richard, Faith on Earth, ed. Richard R. Niebuhr (New Haven: Yale University Press 1989).