Thursday, March 20, 2008

Jeremiah Wright - The Full Sermons

So yesterday my Mom (an alternate delegate for Clinton in the Nevada caucus) emailed me to ask how I, as an ardent Obama supporter, felt about the Reverend Wright speeches that are getting such play on cable news networks. I responded that Wright is speaking from the previous generation, one that suffered a level of discrimination and humiliation that we cannot imagine, and that while Obama states that he cannot discount the importance of the man to his own life, he shares neither those views nor that perspective.

Then I came across the following, the much-more complete versions of Wright's two controversial sermons. Having heard his words in context, I have changed my mind on Wright. This is not simply a man trapped in time and is certainly not the manic anti-American ogre depicted in the press; rather, he is a man of Christian values with a rational and reasoned message that speaks truth to power.

This is not an anti-American statement (and the most controversial part is actually the quotes of a white American Ambassador named Edward Peck, a Reagan appointee). Wright is simply warning the nation that "violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, terrorism begets terrorism", a sentiment that America needed to hear in the wake of 9/11 and one that, had it been heard, could have avoided our current predicaments. Wright justifies this with episodes from American history (slavery, the destruction of Native Americans, the Hiroshima bombings as well as Bill Clinton's own irresponsible bombing of a chemical factory in the Sudan), and his interpretation of those events are neither controversial nor untrue. Wright's point ultimately speaks not to the evil within the American nation but that which he believes resides in the hearts of all individuals. He does this to urge his congregation to examine their own relationship with God rather than simply and solely condemning the sin in others, a very common and completely uncontroversial sentiment in Christianity.

Wright's other speech infamously cries out "God damn America", and make no mistake that Wright is stating that God has damned America. Yet he is not stating that God has always and will always "damn" America, and the central point of the sermon is "but governments change" while God itself is immutable. Rather than a condemnation of America, what Wright is really asking us to do is recognize that our nation has committed acts in the past that, by scripture, are worthy of damnation, but it is likewise capable of blessing, by virtue of the fact that it can change, for better and for the worse. Unless we recognize when America has been "damned" - if we blasphemously exalt this flawed human construct that is America to the level of divine worship - how we will ever see our faults to change them, and bring our country to a state where we can say, not out of blind patriotism but in the bright light of truth, "God bless America."

And then there is this: Wright describes Bill Clinton as "an intelligent friend" that turned into "a dumb Dixiecrat, "a rich Republican who has never held a job in his life, against affirmative action, against education, against health care, against benefits for his own military, and gives tax breaks to the wealthiest contributors to his campaign." That is one part of the speech I've seen no play of, and that's a shame; because, Wright almost perfectly captures why I do not want to vote for another Clinton Administration.

So I was wrong about Wright. Reverend Wright is NOT a tragic figure locked in the past, a victim of the racism heaped upon his generation and unable to free his mind from that history. He is instead a Christian man who recognizes that his faith requires more than moral piety to "traditional family values" but also a commitment to social justice. As a lapsed Catholic, I may not share his faith but I do share his intent, that when faced with the deep and complicated problems that beset our great nation we cannot be as children lead by those hypocrites in both blue and red, those who would herd us by our irrational fears rather than lead us through our better reason. Instead we should stand as adults, fully-aware of our own faults - of when we have been damned, of when our wrong begets only more wrong - so that we might lead our nation ourselves, through reason and truth, into that which Obama describes as "a more perfect Union." That is at the heart of the speech that Obama gave on Monday, and that is at the heart of why I support him, not simply out of a hatred of Clinton's duplicity nor a fear of McCain's agenda; but rather out of the reasoned hope of where Obama might lead us, where ultimately we can lead ourselves.

UPDATE (06/11/09): Right... so, all that stuff about Jeremiah Wright not being a tragic figure locked by his own past unable to free himself of the racism that marks his history... turns out, that is exactly what he is. I stand by what I wrote, because the media at the time had a very limited focus on the subject and really should've broadcast the entire sermons; but, yeah Wright's a nutbag.

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