Posted by: Shaun | April 26, 2008

Rev. Wright speaks; plus a rant about America

Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity Church sat for his first interview since the eruption of the controversy over his politically charged sermons and his relationship with presidential candidate, and church member, Barack Obama.  For those who are interested, the entire interview with Bill Moyers on the latter’s PBS program can be viewed online here.  Personally, I found the discussion to be very enlightening, both in probing the context behind the ostensibly damning sound bites that have circulated so broadly and in revealing who Reverend Wright actually is and what his church is about.

The media reaction to the interview has been typically disappointing.  Rather than try to examine Wright’s thoughts, which have so shocked mainstream (white?) America,  we are presented with more excerpts painting an artificial picture of a man on the defensive and stories about the Wright story being a story again, and how this will hurt Senator Obama.

Frankly, I don’t see Reverend Wright’s sermons as having much of anything to do with Obama’s campaign.  I prefer to let the senator explain his beliefs on his own, rather than speculating about what vague, subconscious influence his pastor may or may not have had on his thinking.  I would be far more concerned if Obama had actively courted and received an explicit political endorsement of his campaign by a truly radical and hateful minister like McCain backer Pastor John Hagee.

Rather, I prefer to explore what lies behind Reverend Wright’s sermons and, having seen the coverage and listened to the man, I think it boils down to a few simple facts: 1) the United States of America is imperfect, 2) U.S. policies have consequences, and 3) as citizens of a democracy, all Americans bear some responsibility for the country’s imperfect policies.

America is not untainted.  While it is a truly great country, worthy of love and admiration, its history and present state must be appraised realistically.  It is a country of great liberty as well as great inequity, one of immense charity as well as immense power.  It is a country whose people willingly shed their blood across the globe in the name of their democratic ideals yet whose government fostered the most vile forms tyranny abroad to “defend” those same values.  However much good there may be here (and I think it far outweighs the bad), we must be willing to admit that there is a dark side that necessitates a continual struggle for greater justice within the framework of our democratic society.

We must also recognize that to the extent the bad persists, it will have real consequences for the citizens of this country.  One of Wright’s most contentious statements was that America’s “chickens had come home to roost” on September 11th.  He was not trying to say that innocents deserved to die on that day or that such atrocities were just retribution against the United States.  They were horrific acts of base criminality.  But the idea that they are entirely unconnected to American policies abroad, to “collateral damage” from Tomahawk missile strikes, and to the embrace of authoritarian regimes distant lands; to suggest these things are unrelated is to be willfully blind.  Understanding the motivation for an act is not to condone or justify it, and Reverend Wright did no such thing.

Finally, the reason I believe that Wright has caused so much vituperative chatter in the country large is because of what his ideas mean for America’s citizens.  If we as citizens of a democracy were to accept the premise that our government is engaged in some actions that may be unjust and ultimately detrimental to ourselves, then we also accept an obligation to put a stop to it.  If we take seriously the ideals embodied in our founding documents as well as the moral imperatives represented in our country’s many faiths, how could we not cry out and strive to correct our state where is has gone astray?

This is the root of the anger as I see it.  For while Reverend Wright may have been directing his indignation at a government he sees as unjust, the reality is that couched within his charges is an implicit criticism of all Americans; not for racism, or militarism, or nationalism, but for the malign neglect of our awesome responsibility to hold our elected government accountable.

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