Tuesday, April 29, 2008

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.

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