I admire and support Barack Obama. I am looking forward to seeing him in the Oval Office after he is sworn in next January 20.
I also admire and support Obama’s long-time pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright. I have heard Dr. Wright speak a couple of times — not at his church on the South side of Chicago, but as a guest speaker at my seminary, Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston — and I have always been impressed and inspired by his words. So it surprises me that Dr. Wright has come under fire lately for statements he has made in some of his sermons.
One of Wright’s statements that has brought criticism came from a sermon he gave shortly after 9-11:
We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas has now brought right back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.
Wright was saying that what goes around comes around. Wright was saying that the United States has made mistakes and as a result has made enemies. Is that really so offensive? Of course not. But, unfortunately, there are folks in this country who believe one should never criticize the U.S.A. — even if the current administration is, in fact, wrong.
Another of Wright’s statements that has put people in turmoil is the following:
The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no! Not God bless America. God damn America. That’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.
Yes, this is harsh language. But what really offends people here? Would people be so upset if Wright had said, “God damn terrorists?” or “God damn ax murderers?” No. People are upset because they cannot conceive that someone would speak negatively of the U.S.A. But why? Do people really believe the U.S.A. is perfect? That this country has made no mistakes? That it has never done anything self-serving? That the United States of America has never sinned?
Does patriotism mean never criticizing your country, even when your country has wronged others? Or does patriotism mean loving your country enough to speak out when it is wrong?
Our country has done a lot of stupid, bad, and terrible things (e.g. exterminating Native Americans, enslaving Africans, interring Japanese Americans, dropping Atomic bombs on innocent Japanese civilians, the Vietnam War and, most recently, the War in Iraq, just to name a few). Those of us who acknowledge these mistakes should not be persecuted or accused of being unpatriotic.
Actually, Wright’s words sound kind of familiar when he said, “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians…and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas has now brought right back into our own front yards.” Jesus said something very similar in Matthew 26: “All who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
And so what if Wright said “God damn America”? Has anybody ever picked up a Bible and read what the prophets said about Israel? The prophets were always at odds with the Kings of Israel because the Kings were always screwing up the nation by oppressing the poor and making the people worship false gods. And the people were always going along with it. So the prophets had a lot of harsh words for their nation. For example, here are some of the words from the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah:
Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord…. How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her — but now murderers!
The job of the prophets was to speak truth to power and their language was harsh. Sometimes there just isn’t a pretty way to say, “You’ve really screwed things up.” So is it really so terrible for Rev. Jeremiah Wright to use this kind of harsh, prophetic language? I think not.
I have heard a lot of statements that are offensive in my time, but Wright’s are not among them. Dr. Wright’s thoughts after 9-11 are certainly much more palatable than those of Jerry Falwell who said:
The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the Pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’
Or how about James Dobson, who said:
Yes I believe that the attacks are God’s punishment because we are in a moral decay in this country, with abortion, forcing children to be taught about homosexuality, removing God from the schools, sexual immorality on television, and in our government. And this is God’s way of punishing the wicked.
Statements like this are just wrong. Statements like this condemn the innocent by trying to shift the blame onto a scapegoat (such as Hitler did with the Jews). But Jeremiah Wright has the right idea. Instead of blaming scapegoats (as Dobson and Falwell did), Wright is saying that the U.S. itself is partially to blame for its problems because of its unjust policies in the Middle East and its general arrogance, indifference to, and bullying of other countries and people around the world. In addition, The U.S. is surely to blame for its own poverty and its homelessness and the racial inequity in its prisons.
We are to blame. Not gays and lesbians. Not pro-choice folks. Not illegal immigrants. Not Muslims. Not feminists. We, as a country, are responsible for our own actions.
So God damn us when we do not stand up for what is right. God damn us for not ending an unjust war. God damn us if we do not elect leaders who will make right decisions.
And God bless Jeremiah Wright for being a prophetic voice and reminding us of these things.