Monday, June 13, 2011

The Meditations of My Heart

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.
--Jeremiah Wright

Where is the good news?

I must have heard that phrase a hundred times in my pulpit ministry. At least my wife remembers it as one of the criticisms often leveled at me, probably not always unjustly. But what is the “good news” that we want to hear?

Jesus, according to Luke, said he’d come to proclaim release to the captive, sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. What he meant, of course, in Luke’s gospel, was that he’d come to disassemble the status quo. What is the good news, if you like the status quo? That God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world? Or that God has come to open the prisons and set the captives free, to give sight to the blind whether they deserve it or not, to heal the sick whether they are worthy or not? If you like things they way they are, and think people are blind and sick and imprisoned because God wants it to be so, and someone claims God wants to turn everything upside down and start over on an equal footing, is that good news? Luke understood that for every action, there is an opposite reaction.

Congratulations, you poor!
God's domain belongs to you!

Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.

Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.

Damn you rich!
You already have your consolation!

Damn you who are well-fed now!
You will know hunger.

Damn you who laugh now!
You will learn to weep and grieve.

Luke’s “beatitudes” don’t bless the poor and offer the world to the humble and the sight of God to the pure in heart. Luke’s version congratulates the poor in their poverty, and the mourners in their crying, because their state will improve. And in Luke’s version, it’s very much a zero sum game: someone goes up, and someone goes down. “Damn you, rich! You have had your reward!” There’s a tit for tat in Luke’s version, but it’s balanced and easy to follow: those who are down now, will go up. Those who are up now, will go down. It’s an idea that starts with Mary, when she sings to her cousin about what her child-to-be will do:

My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly stature of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-56, SV)
The mighty are pulled from their thrones so the lowly can rise; the hungry are fed, the rich sent away hungry. It’s a balancing of the scales, one that doesn’t just raise the lowly, but that slaps down the mighty so their places can be changed. Where is the good news in this, especially if we think we are lowly, but find out we are rich and about to be sent away hungry?

When was the last time you were hungry? Not between meals, not after missing breakfast, but really, truly hungry? Hungry because you hadn’t eaten, and didn’t know when you would eat again? Are you sure you aren’t rich? Are you sure you want to hear the good news Jesus proclaims?

If the good news is that the captives go free, is that good news to the prison guard? Is it good news to the family who thinks that captive is a criminal? If the good news is that the blind will see, is that good news to the world, that everyone will see everything? Is it good news that the sick will be healthy? What will all the doctors and nurses and hospitals do? How will the nursing homes stay open? If the good news is that everyone will be released, is that good news to those in authority, those who control by fear or intimidation or moral suasion or personal charisma? If their rule, however petty, however personal, is at an end, is that good news?

It probably isn’t to them.

Who are the rich, anyway? Anyone who has something I don’t have? If they have it and I don’t, don’t they have more than me? Doesn’t that make them “rich”? But is there really any value in congratulations to the poor? Wouldn’t I rather be rich, or be thought rich by someone, rather than be poor? But if I am rich, am I damned? If I have already had my reward, is there nothing else to look forward to? How do I know I’m not rich, that I haven’t already had my reward, that this isn’t all there is? Lord have mercy, Jesus! Where is the good news?!

If I am laughing now, the only possible future for me is to learn to mourn. If I am not hungry now, in the future I truly will be. If I am rich now, I have no comfort to look forward to. Where is the good news?

Maybe I should turn away from Luke. Mark, maybe? Who are we in Mark, if not the disciples? And who understands Jesus least of all in Mark, if not the disciples? Matthew, then? With the wedding feast that ends with the king throwing out someone dragged in to fill the house, because he wasn't properly dressed? He throws him into the outer darkness, the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth. He sends the poor guy to Hell. Or Luke's version, where people are forced to come to the party? Literally dragged in? You'll say I'm proof-texting to find the worst examples, and I'll say: "You're right!"

But what is the "good news"?

It's an unfair question, when I leave it that way. But I intend to be unfair for a moment. "God damn America!," Rev. Wright famously said, and still no one paid attention to him, until a congregation member became famous and his opponents tried guilt by association. So my unfair question is equally unlikely to attract any more attention than I already get. If we inquire of the Gospels whether God blesses America, we don't get much of an answer. If we inquire of the Gospels what the "good news" is (which is what "gospel" means), we don't get much of an answer either. "You have heads, use them!," Dom Crossan has Jesus say. Maybe we were meant to be in the position of the disciples in Mark: scratching our heads, constantly bewildered by what Jesus is saying and doing (the doing is as important as the saying, otherwise we'd all just read sayings gospels like the Gospel of Thomas). Maybe there are some questions we are meant to think about, not know about.


  1. Where is the good news?

    Your critics must have heard, "Well I have good news, all right, but not for you!" Sorry, my irony kicked in.

    The good news is that if you choose to follow Jesus, you get to the Resurrection through the Way of the Cross, and there are no detours around the cross.

    I remember you and I both wrote about how wrong it seemed to us for Obama to disassociate himself from his pastor of 20 years because of his "incendiary" remarks in one (or was it two?) sermons, as though all of Wright's many years of ministry were encapsulated in a few sentences.

    Perhaps Obama's decision was wise politics but not wise in the ways of the Kingdom.

  2. Perhaps Obama's decision was wise politics but not wise in the ways of the Kingdom.

    I still hold that against him, to be honest.

    More and more, as time goes by. It was a clue.

  3. It was a clue.

    Yes. As I saw it, the way he cut off Wright told me something about Obama's character which, as time passed, proved to be all too true.