The Hyperbolic Prophet


| 3/19/2008 1:43:38 PM


Tags: barack obama, jeremiah wright, francis schaeffer, black church, prophetic, god damn america,

Yesterday, Barack Obama gave a major speech in Philadelphia on the subject of race. This followed last week’s media tempest over sermon excerpts by the senator’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama rejected the controversial statements, carefully stood up for the man himself, and moved on to grander themes. 

Few commentators have been willing to get much closer than Obama did to actually defending what Wright said—most notoriously, “God damn America.” Most have started by condemning it and proceeded to focus on why all this is or isn’t relevant to the presidential campaign. 

But a couple of people have provided some helpful context. Writing on the Huffington Post, Frank Schaeffer, son of the late religious right icon Francis Schaeffer, points out that, naughty words aside, the spirit of “God damn America” is commonplace in far-right pulpits. He observes that when his father “denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government” over issues such as secular humanism and legal abortion, “he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr.”

What’s more, Jonathan L. Walton argues in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, many right-wing preachers are far more offensive than Wright: Unlike him, though, they don’t have the moral authority of a leader of a systematically oppressed community. “There is a difference between speaking truth to power in defense of the least of these," insists Walton, “and scapegoating the defenseless on behalf of the status-quo.” Both Wright and the elder Schaeffer’s successors are clearly prone to hyperbole—they don't actually want to see God or anyone else destroy America. But the religious right doesn’t share Wright’s inheritance of a long tradition of using extreme rhetoric to illuminate extreme injustice: the tradition of the black church pulpit. 

Black church preaching can be difficult for white people to hear—even for religion scholars, as Diana Butler Bass attests on God’s Politics, a blog of Sojourners magazine. Bass takes a look at black preaching throughout U.S. history, finding that “throughout the entire corpus, black Christian leaders leveled a devastating critique against their white brothers and sisters—accusing white Christians of maintaining ‘ease in Zion’ while allowing black people to suffer injustice and oppression.” Hearing Wright over and over on television, Bass says she doesn’t “hear the words of a ‘dangerous’ preacher... I hear Frederick Douglass.” 

Also on God’s Politics, Adam Taylor places Wright firmly within the “black prophetic tradition,” noting that even the revered Martin Luther King Jr. made some pretty incendiary statements, though they’re not the ones we’ve chosen to immortalize. “America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty.” That’s not Wright, leading up to “God damn America.” That’s Dr. King.

chris_1
4/17/2008 3:28:02 PM

For information of the AIDS virus being scientifically developed by OUR own government, see The Strecker Memorandum for the TRUTH!


steve thorngate_15
3/31/2008 4:53:49 PM

Suzy: I think you're exactly right. I didn't mention homophobia simply because my point was only to defend Wright's claim of a "genocide against people of color."


suzy
3/29/2008 4:21:13 AM

In all of this hype, the only thing I have found truly challenging is that Wright used the word "invented" regarding AIDS instead of simply condemning the way it has been handled. I do believe, that AIDS was most likely brought to the human population accidentally through the development (by use of monkeys) of vaccines for other illnesses. I once read somewhere that the reason the first populations with huge AIDS outbreaks were in Africa and Haiti had to do with where the first Hepatitis vaccines were tried. And Steve, above, missed mentioning homophobia when he said, "The country's handling of AIDS is very much wrapped up in problems of racial and class prejudice." It is quite likely that our government and organizations like WHO covered up how AIDS began and didn't address it fast enough as a result of both the cover up and the biases regarding the effected populations.


steve thorngate_14
3/27/2008 3:33:32 PM

"If you're going to 'speak truth to power,' you first have to speak the truth." Fair enough. But truth is not always reducible to facts. Yes, some of Wright's statements (a couple of many!) are overblown and include some false particulars. But they're not nonsense. The country's handling of AIDS is very much wrapped up in problems of racial and class prejudice. And, while the government didn't plan 9/11, the context of Wright's statement--that the attacks represent America's chickens coming home to roost--is quite defensible. When someone calls us to task for our collective moral failings, we ought to engage the issues rather than fact-check the rhetoric.


steve thorngate_13
3/27/2008 2:00:54 PM

"If you're going to 'speak truth to power,' you first have to speak the truth." Fair enough. But truth is not always reducible to facts. Yes, some of Wright's statements (a couple of many!) are overblown and include some false particulars. But they're not nonsense. The country's handling of AIDS is very much wrapped up in problems of racial and class prejudice. And, while the government didn't plan 9/11, the context of Wright's statement--that the attacks represent America's chickens coming home to roost--is quite defensible. When someone calls us to task for our collective moral failings, we ought to engage the issues rather than fact-check the rhetoric.


marion_2
3/25/2008 8:00:17 PM

Excellent! Thank you, Steve. There are a number of conservatives jumping on Obama's wagon and supporting him. These wise individuals look beyond party, race, prejudice and cronyism. They see a country on crutches with no healing in sight. Out of the 3 candidates, Obama has a realistic agenda to address our critical issues, and reverse the far-reaching damage done by Bush. The longer this campaign goes, the more obvious it is who are the truly intelligent among us. http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=3069 http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=3067 http://www.agoracosmopolitan.com/home/Frontpage/2008/03/21/02286.html http://www.democracynow.org/2008/3/25/body_of_war_new_doc_tells


tod colby
3/25/2008 4:25:06 PM

This is not a "Slave" issue and Morgan's falling into that trap just goes to show how easily swayed many guilty white Americans are. There were more white slaves on the Barbary Coast in the 19th century than there were slaves in America. There were more black slaves in Brazil than there were in America. This whole notion that black Americans are owed something for slavery is total nonsense. You'd have a better argument that they're owed for the descrimination that took place between 1870-1970. But, if you're feeling guilty, go hand out and make a donation to Al Sharpton or Jessie Jackson to clear your conscience. I believe Rev. Wright's speech is overblown (because there are many Right-wing nuts that preach similar hate from the pulpit) and I believe Mr. Obama did an excellent job in his speech drawing focus to what IS important. But, as Eric noted, Rev. Wright blames white Americans for infecting them with HIV. Crazy notion you say? Over 25% of today's African-Americans believe this. So, it may be crazy rhetoric that can be discounted by many of us, but when it plants seeds in such a large part of the African-American psyche, it is no longer harmless craziness. It's dangerously irresponsible.


eric_2
3/25/2008 1:44:17 PM

Because right-wing fundamentalists have decried America for their own ends does not excuse Jeremiah Wright. Saying "God damn America" is the least of his offenses. Rev. Wright claims the U.S. government invented the AIDS virus to wipe out black Americans, and that the government carried out the 9/11 attacks. Those are crazily irresponsible positions to hold and put forth to his congregation as they have no basis in fact and may well serve to cause future harm. If you're going to "speak truth to power," you first have to speak the truth.


morgan_6
3/19/2008 3:44:23 PM

Thank you, Steve, for a fantastic post! Through all the talking heads hypothesizing about how this will affect Obama's campaign, and all the questions of 'why did Obama wait so long to break from Wright?' one thing has been overlooked: that Wright is...right! And you did well giving his message some historical context. My only beef with Obama is that he distanced himself (in a politically self-serving manner) from Wright at all, not how long it took him to do so. But sometimes great people have to forgo honorable political Hara-Kiri to get elected. And I'll offer up Jeremiah (right as he is) Wright as a sacrifice to the gods of white-American defensiveness and hysteria if it gets us a great president like Barack Obama. But it's too bad that is what it takes. Until the U.S. government and every other government involved in the trade of slaves offers an official apology to the ancestors of those slaves, men like Wright need never apologize for speaking the truth. http://www.utne.com