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More Wright Than Wrong, But ...

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Thanks to a few incendiary soundbites, recordings of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons are circulating among church people, making their way from hand to hand and e-mail to iPod. A politically active young man in my church gave my husband a copy of the full message from which the infamous phrase “America’s chickens are coming home to roost” had been ripped, and from there the CD found its way to me.

I listened to the September 16, 2001, sermon a few times and chewed on the preacher’s words in context. The furor over Wright’s statements has spread far and wide; you usually won’t find Pentecostals spending much time delving into the messages of a theologically liberal United Church of Christ pastor, but we were curious to see if this man deserves all of the harsh criticism that’s been directed his way. My conclusion: He doesn’t. Many black Christians -- and surely some white ones too -- see the controversy over Wright as a desperate attempt to derail and discredit Barack Obama’s candidacy. I heard this from Democrats and Republicans alike.

The real title of the Reverend Wright’s “Chickens” message is “The Day Jerusalem Fell,” and Wright, Obama’s spiritual mentor and former pastor, draws an evocative parallel between September 11, 2001, and the events of 551 B.C., when the Chaldean army ripped down the walls of the City of David, burned the temple and treated the last Judean king to the spectacle of his sons being slaughtered before his own eyes were gouged out. In the aftermath the best and brightest sons and daughters of Judah were hauled into captivity, and their lament is told in Psalm 137.

“By the rivers of Babylon,” the Psalm famously opens, “there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

Wright turns a corner here, proceeding to the seldom-quoted conclusion of the Psalm. He notes how the people of Judah began their lament with reverence, recalling their beloved city, then moved swiftly to revenge, longing for the day when the daughters of Babylon would suffer precisely as they did: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones,” the Psalmist writes. Wright notes three movements among the people of God, from “reverence to revenge,” from “paying tithes” in Jerusalem to “paying back” and from “worship to war.”

These same “movements,” he says, characterize the American “people of faith” after 9/11. “They have moved from hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents,” Wright says. “That, my beloved, is a dangerous place to be… We want revenge, we want paybacks, and we don’t care who gets hurt in the process.”

In this message I found Wright to be a brilliant orator, dramatically weaving the events of 2,500 years ago with the terrifying images of “black people” jumping hand in hand from the Twin Towers in 2001. From alliteration to repetition to the expressive way he says “Burn!”, he’s got it all going on. I would have been interested to hear this man speak in Dallas, as he’d been scheduled to do last week until his appearance was canceled for unspecified security concerns.

I didn’t hear anything outrageous or categorically racist in this sermon. Wright purports to quote a former U.S. ambassador, Edward Peck, about America’s chickens coming home to roost, but whether Peck actually spoke those words is a matter of discussion (see here). Either way, Wright adopts the phrase as his own and identifies 9/11 as a consequence of America doing dirty around the world. From slavery to Hiroshima and the more recent retaliatory bombings in Libya and the Sudan, Wright sees little difference between the deeds of our “arrogant, racist military superpower” and the terrorists who struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

I found myself carried along by Wright’s eloquent preaching. It plays beautifully as rhetoric. Violence begets violence, he says; hatred begets hatred; terrorism begets terrorism. Surely there is truth in that.

Yet it’s absurd to equate the United States’ last-ditch military measures in World War II with terrorism. Wright’s views differ little from the stereotypical leftist whine that America sucks and everything we do is bad. The preacher isn’t exactly nuanced when he wipes away the Israeli side of the equation altogether in decrying America’s support of “state terrorism against the Palestinians.”

Nor did I see much substance in the applications portion of “Chickens,” the part of the sermon where the preacher devises a practical response to his biblical exposition. Wright says he asked of the Lord, what should our response be to 9/11?

He gives a couple answers. First, self-examination: evaluating our own personal relationships with our Lord and with our families. When, he asks, is the last time we told our family members that we loved them? He sees a vital lesson in Stevie Wonder’s sentimental song, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

OK, now. Step back a minute. In the face of America’s greatest tragedy this century, this is what I am to do? Just call to say I love you?

His second application is “social transformation.” And here he cites a litany of ills, from policy matters such as the availability of health care to moral issues like racism and greed among the mighty.

I guess it’s the Pentecostal in me that finds little of enduring value here. I am biased, that I know. My tradition places greater importance on matters of eternal significance: salvation, holiness, truth and love. Change the hearts of men through the power of Jesus Christ, we preach, and society will follow.

In recent weeks I have seen Wright’s ideas -- and Obama’s more measured call for racial, social and economic justice -- creeping into the conversation of church people I know, and I will be interested to see how this all plays out, what fruit it will bear. Angry words like Wright’s, in my experience, provoke little more than further angry words. “Man’s anger,” James’ epistle says, “does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”

Maybe it’ll be different this time. I know it will in my little sphere when I see more people spending their Saturdays in street ministry, sacrificing their money and time to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged of whom Obama and Wright so powerfully speak. I’ll let you know when the rhetoric translates into action. --Julie Lyons

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