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OPINION: What’s Wrong with Jeremiah Wright?

Now that a little of the furor over the sound bites from Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons and his recent interviews has died down, I can’t help wondering what’s wrong with Wright.  Some of his more inflammatory assertions – that the U.S. government could have introduced the HIV/AIDS virus and drugs into the black community, that we are the most violent nation in the world, that our country was built on the genocide of its indigenous people, and that our foreign policy was linked to the 9/11 attacks – are hard to swallow for many of us.  Where is this man coming from?

Listening to his two-part interview with Bill Moyers (part one, part two) in its entirety and watching his interview with the National Press Club are helpful in understanding the context in which these statements were made.   Moyers gives some background on Wright’s most controversial statements and respectfully gives him the opportunity to respond.  Wright’s speech before the National Press Club was equally thoughtful and enlightening, although, in contrast to Moyers, the facilitator at the NPC was not only less respectful, but sometimes downright antagonistic.  This did not bring out the best in Wright, who came off as being combative and arrogant during the question and answer period.  The two of them together sometimes behaved like they were participating in a high school debate, smirking when they thought they made a point smartly.  This part was a little painful to watch.   

But the content of Wright’s remarks shouldn’t be ignored because some of us are put off by his oratorical style.  He uses the cadence and fist-shaking accusations of the prophetic, “woe unto you”-style of preaching reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets. It’s not unlike some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s truth-telling sermons and speeches and brings to mind the style and delivery of a number of African-American preachers on any given Sunday.  

It’s troubling that charges of divisiveness by the mainstream press – and by Obama supporters afraid of the political fallout – are muffling the crux of what he’s saying.  He’s an articulate, intelligent, well-educated person who has lived out many years shepherding a church in an extremely impoverished neighborhood in Chicago. He’s walked the walk – hearing and seeing how racial injustice has affected the people he loves, seeking to inspire them to rise above and claim their own share in the American Dream, expressing his and their disillusionment and – yes – anger over how very much more difficult it is for some than for others.  Yes, he’s offensive to some ears, as surely Jesus was to those whom he called a brood of vipers or whose tables he kicked over in the marketplace.   But if we can get past the discomfort and drop the knee-jerk offense at the impoliteness of it all, it becomes clearer that he’s calling it as he sees it, as a good pastor, activist, and reformer should – and that he may be seeing some things most of us miss.

For instance, as an educated man, aware of the Tuskegee Experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service on 399 black men without their knowledge (1932-1972), his mind has been opened to the possibility of purposeful, wrongful death perpetrated by the government on black folks. He’s also aware that the U.S., for all its “war on drugs” hoopla that has sent many an offender to jail (a disproportionate number of them black), has used the drug trade to further our foreign policy goals.  The billions of dollars we spend on war-making and the billions made on selling arms to countries around the world (often to both sides of a conflict) hasn’t profited inner-city Chicago – not to mention what it’s done to the poor globally. And the terrible events of 9/11 are, in fact, seen differently through the eyes of a person who has witnessed the ongoing assault of his country’s own policies on the poor in his neighborhood – and the desperation it breeds. He is too educated and experienced to let patriotism blind him to the truth of America’s contribution to a good deal of “evil-doing.” 

To say he should be criticized for his lack of patriotism, shunned for being “divisive,” or quieted down for being animated and angry about the underbelly of U.S. policy and its effect on folks with dark skin, is to attempt to shut up an articulate voice in the multiple narratives that tell the complicated story of who we are as a people and that might help us move forward in a new way. 

The story of our country looks different to a Native American and will include a history of genocide and immoral land acquisition and its long-ranging repercussions.  The story of an African-American embodies enslavement and long-term racism and its continued effects on the hopes and dreams of young black children.  The mother of an addict will read differently the historically documented information regarding U.S. foreign policy in Central America and its effects on the drug trade. And the families of the black men who died thinking they were being treated for syphillus while they were actually being treated like lab rats, will feel differently when they read news stories about illnesses affecting a disproportionate number of black folks.  Wright speaks of these narratives and embodies the anger at injustice of a people he loves and for whom he feels a responsibility as pastor and brother. 

The only ones who benefit from everyone playing nice – not mentioning the elephant in the room or the naked emperor on parade – are those in league with the oppressors, standing to gain from the status quo, or not wanting to be ruffled by the messiness of historical reality.  Those of us who hope for change need to sit still and listen to folks like Reverend Wright – even if it makes us uncomfortable. There’s not much wrong with what Reverend Wright has to say. 

– Kelli





ROUNDTABLE: Crossing the Border

This past Thursday, we discussed immigration, specifically Mexican immigration, with Leah Sarat, a doctoral student in Religion and the Americas at the University of Florida. Leah shared stories from her recent research trip to an indigenous Mexican community in which many of the members had crossed the Mexico-US border once or several times. After making the vigorous and excruciating crossing at the border and seeing the more luxurious and anonymous America in which they’d arrived, these native Mexicans made the conscious decision to return and stay in Mexico. Leah lived with and interviewed many of them, expressing her desire to give voice to the unheard.   

A striking oddity to many, and certainly to Leah herself, was the ritualistic simulation of a border-crossing, which had become a tourist affair in this part of Mexico. It was a simulation of the arduous journey, one in which participants did get tired, thirsty, muddy and blistered, even stopped by dressed-up border patrol!  Leah said she “crossed the border” four times, and found it a tough experience.   

The simulation was created by this community of former border-crossers in order to sustain themselves. This group had no resources to live off of, no trinkets to sell to tourists, but they did have some money and an idea, so they decided to pool the money together, buy the land, and create this experience. 

What can we make of this, not only striking oddity, but seemingly pointed mockery of the journey many Mexicans have to undertake? In fact, Leah learned, it is more than that. Through her interviews with those who run the simulation, she learned that they hope those who come find more than just a mindless adventure. They want it to show, as upper class Mexicans make their way to the simulated border, that if they can make it through this arduous journey, as many do in the “real world” day after day, they can also pull together as a people and come up with solutions to the apparently complicated problems of poverty in Mexico and immigration to the US.      

Leah was also surprised and intrigued by the notion that, in many cases, these men and women were not forced to come to the US, but had options and had chosen that path. The community she stayed with was largely made of those who, disillusioned by the US, chose to come back home. She read part of an interview in which the man was unsatisfied with the pay of his job in the US, the quality of housing and food, and the attitude which US Americans held toward the Mexican workers. In contrast, in Mexico the food was natural, his pay was better, and, surrounded by his family and community he had support and did not have to deal with the prejudices of the US.   

After Leah’s presentation, we engaged in an interesting conversation about these topics surrounding immigration, touching on the failures of US immigration policy, the privileged status of some immigrants over others, other’s experience with immigration battles in the US, why some immigrants are welcomed by the US and others are not and the role racism plays in that, the impact of the US on other nation’s economies, etc.