How Wrong Was Rev. Wright?
On a Sunday when Americans flooded houses of worship seeking words of comfort, hope, and healing, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago dared to forgo the singing of "God Bless America." Instead, Senator Barack Obama's pastor claimed the prophetic biblical message of the hour ought to call us to proclaim, "God Damn America."
The words remain jarring and infuriating. Wright's comments seem at best incomplete and untimely. At worst, they imply that God is vindictive, vengeful, and bloodthirsty, even during a time of tragedy--that the judgment of God is appropriately meted out through the tragic deaths of innocent people through terrorist acts of hatred and evil.
On Sept. 15, 2001, Rev. Wright was wrong. His words failed to connect with the pastoral needs of a nation in mourning.
Throughout his career, however, Rev. Wright has been "right" more often than not. He has followed in the traditions of Hebrew Testament prophets, challenging his nation to live up to its own creeds of justice and opportunity for all - including African Americans, other minorities, and the poor.
Wright is in good company. When his provocative language is read alongside the vitriolic words of many Hebrew Testament prophets, Wright's words ring true. The prophets connected their nation's injustice and neglect of the poor with the destruction of Israel, often using vitriolic language. The prophet Amos once described the wealthy women of Samaria as "fat cows." Isaiah referred to once faithful Israel as a prostitute.
Not only are most of Rev. Wright's words biblically correct; they are also historically accurate. The U.S. has participated in many acts of evil. From slavery to Jim Crow segregation, from sexism to the internment of Japanese during World War II, from environmental disasters to the neglect of the poor, America has a record on par with that of Hebrew Testament Israel.
When it comes to foreign policy, the U.S. did financially invest in South Africa during the days of apartheid, used the CIA to enact coups against democratically elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, and remains the only nation to use nuclear weapons. Perhaps these domestic and foreign policy actions prove that Rev. Wright was right.
But this is only a part of the picture. While the U.S. is far from perfect, the nation has made significant progress regarding rights for minorities and women. The U.S. has often been a force for good in the world, from helping to rebuild Japan and Western Europe after World War II to the vast amounts of private and government funds offered to deal with global crises like the HIV-AIDS and malaria crises in Africa. Rev. Wright was not entirely right.
On March 18, Barack Obama used his speech about race to appropriately distance himself from the most vitriolic of his pastor's rhetoric. He has also removed Rev. Wright from a position on his campaign's spiritual advisory committee.
In the Hebrew Testament, prophets were as a rule not insiders in the royal palace. Jeremiah's words of prophetic judgment became so disruptive to the King threw the prophet into jail. Just over 40 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave up his access to President Lyndon Baines Johnson to prophetically speak out against the war in Vietnam. Put simply, prophets and presidents don't mix.
Thankfully, Senator Obama was careful not to condemn the entire prophetic ministry of Rev. Wright. Our nation desperately needs the prophetic voice he has embodied over decades of public ministry. And no matter who our next president is, he or she would be well served to consider the words of Rev. Wright, for he has been more right than wrong.
Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. in United States history from the University of Kentucky. His book Becoming King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (The University Press of Kentucky, 2008) will be available in the fall. Troy is a participant in Sojourners' "Windchangers" grassroots organizing pilot project in Ohio to work on the Vote Out Poverty Campaign.