Obama’s Pastor and the Politics of Patriotic Treason

This past week, the controversy surrounding Senator Barack Obama’s pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, came to a head. Investigative reporters at ABC released excerpts from Dr. Wright’s sermons where he appears to be making inflammatory and unpatriotic pronouncements against the United States—including Dr. Wright attributing the 9/11 attacks to a matter of “the chickens coming home to roost,” and suggesting African Americans sing “God Damn America” in place of “God Bless America.”

As expected, Senator Obama offered his ceremonial denouncement in response to the perceived outrage of the “American mainstream.” And conservative pundits are sure to have a field day with this story. But before Obamamaniacs jump on the demonizing bandwagon (one that Senator Obama himself seems a little too quick to fuel), let’s view Dr. Wright in proper perspective. Placing the recently-retired pastor in appropriate historical context should keep us from castigating him as a race-obsessed fanatic, as anti-American, or as analogous to the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or John Hagee.

First, the progressive strand of the black church, in which Dr. Wright is situated, has been in conflict with the American mainstream at each given epoch of this nation’s history. Its raison d’etre is found in both a figurative and literal interpretation of Luke 4:18—preach the gospel to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, set the captives free, offer sight to the blind, and liberate the oppressed. Fighting on for liberation (whether against slavery, legalized segregation, racial discrimination, structural poverty, or many other forms of systemic evil) has always been at the top of the ministerial agenda. Thus, to hear Dr. Wright lambaste America for its record on racial apartheid, imperialistic tendencies abroad, and draconian policing practices at home in relation to persons of color and the poor is unsurprising. Dr. Wright, in many ways, represents the progressive black church at its best.

Second, condemning a nation for its unjust practices should not be viewed as being against the nation. To the contrary, it may reveal a deep commitment to the society of one’s birth by demonstrating a willingness to hold the nation accountable to her citizens, particularly the “least of these.” For instance, the Hebrew prophets, whose voices were particularly unwelcome in 7th and 8th century BC Israel, spoke to the plight of the poor and spiritual well-being of the nation as a sign of their abiding faith in what Israel was called to be.

By all accounts, many of the greatest Americans on record were politically treasonous in relation to government officials, yet spiritually patriotic in terms of the nation’s ideals. This is true of John Brown, Elijah Lovejoy, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Harper, Lovett-Fort-Whiteman, Pauli Murray, Odell Walker, and Martin Luther King Jr., who were all labeled as unpatriotic at one point or throughout their careers. And this, I believe, represents the religious sensibility that informs Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ. It is a community of faith that does not mind being in conflict with those in power, even as it works tirelessly in the community to ensure democratic principles and protections for all.

This leads me to my third and final point. There is a difference between speaking truth to power in defense of the least of these, and scapegoating the defenseless on behalf of the status quo. This is why it is inappropriate to compare Dr. Wright with Christian conservative voices like the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or John Hagee. The latter group turns attention away from the interests of a privileged elite-class and lays the ills of society at the door of America’s “usual suspects.” Hence, it is easy to blame racial/ethnic minorities, Islam, feminists, illegal immigrants, and the homosexual agenda for events such as 9/11. It is much harder, however, to point the finger at corporate controlled government, a neo-conservative military agenda, and the capricious whims of an exit-poll obsessed administration. And this is what Dr. Wright has attempted to do on a consistent basis over the course of his thirty-six years as pastor. Unlike his conservative opposition, his critique of American society points up as his hand of compassion and justice reaches down.

Now one could still argue that Wright’s more contentious sermons come across as simplistically reductive, racially polarizing, and thus politically unproductive. This may be true. I would definitely concede that such tropes as suggesting African Americans sing “God Damn America” are consistent with what philosopher Jeffery Stout refers to as the “rhetoric of excess” associated with unrealizable and impractical racial politics. But herein also lay Dr. Wright’s appeal among interracial, progressive faith communities of all class levels. His excessive rhetoric that transmits unbridled passion, easily identified villains, and visions of divine retribution create a space for emotional release among those outraged by the seemingly ubiquitous nature of injustice. This is particularly true among middle-class African Americans in the south side of Chicago. For those who have played by the social rules yet still feel alienated, angered, and victimized by racial disparities within the health, educational, economic, and criminal justice systems, Dr. Wright lets them know that they are not crazy. And while many (like Senator Barack Obama) may reject the political impracticality of his pronouncements, they are yet drawn to his overarching message of courage against oppression and boldness in the face of social injustice.

This is why we should neither dismiss nor denounce Dr. Wright outright. His bedside manner may be a little rough, and some may be fair to question the precision of his diagnosis. But his rage against the diseases of social injustice and apathy toward those living in the shadows of life should serve as an example to us all. This is why a 30-second sound-bite should not tarnish a thirty-plus year career of living out Luke 4:18. Dr. Wright may be scorned by those who have made peace with the unjust status quo and have a vested interest in inequality. But, unfortunately, this is the price one pays for committing patriotic treason. May others be so courageous.

Photo by JP Ryan at Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.