Brite & Wright

In late March, an event honoring the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright was scheduled to take place at Brite Divinity School, a seminary aligned with the Disciples of Christ denomination and located on the campus of Texas Christian University. In light of the massive publicity occasioned by Wright's close association with presidential candidate Obama and constantly presented by the media with regard to his hate-speech in his sermons, the governing body of TCU informed Brite that the event could not take place on campus. It was canceled, as were other Wright-events in Florida and Houston that week.

Besides all the more familiar Wright-rants that have been in the news (God Damn America, for instance), here is a snippet from his sermon at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ on 27 January 2008: "I can't be a colored coon on the faculty at Vanderbilt with no sense of pride. And I can't be a Supreme Court judge called long dong silver who disrespects black women and himself. I got to be me. I can't be a lyin' five-star general who leads an entire nation into war on a lie. And I can't be a sec of state who goes shopping on Broadway while folks are drowning in New Orleans--I got to be me." It's easy to get the point, though as a factual matter there hasn't been a five-star general since the Dwight Eisenhower era, and even then no general of any number of stars led the nation into a war.

As an apologetic/explanation, Brite President D. Newell Williams felt compelled to make a representation of the school's stance via e-mail and addressed simply to "Friends" to call attention to an Op-ed piece of 23 March 2008 in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and a church-bulletin-insert on the subject, which was attached. He presented a number of points, beginning with this: "1.We find it important to remember that biblical prophets in Hebrew scripture such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, as well as Jesus himself demonstrate well that religious leadership includes the obligation to "speak truth to power" whenever and wherever we see such power exercised in opposition to God's vision for the human community."

Notwithstanding that clerics (or at least preachers) generally consider themselves to be today's biblical prophets, using as the primary prophet-definition "one who utters divinely inspired revelations," Williams seemed a bit presumptuous in lumping Wright with the Old Testament prophets and unseemly in comparing him to Christ. OT prophets did speak truth to power since they were the spiritual proclaimers in a theocracy and thus spoke to power (a life-or-death matter) when they spoke at all. The government and the religious were tied at the hip. As a slave to the Romans, Jesus also spoke to power every time he spoke anywhere, since his words could (and did) condemn him.

Wright did not speak truth to power, since he did not address the state in his sermons, but only spoke to his congregants. If he had made a presentation to the president or the Supreme Court, he might have spoken something to power, though not necessarily the truth. If President Williams considers Wright as speaking the truth to anything when he ascribed to the U.S. government the conscious act of infecting African Americans with HIV/AIDS, he appears to either agree with Wright or have the worst possible instincts concerning public relations.

Williams again: "2. Prophetic speech must not be confused with hate speech. Perhaps the outcomes of the two types of speech are the most helpful way to differentiate the two. Hate speech demeans, divides, and dehumanizes… prophetic speech seeks to move the hearers back to or closer to loving relationship with God and neighbor." Does Williams believe that Wright was prophetically advancing love when he referred to a Supreme Court Justice by his genitals? Clarence Thomas was thoroughly demeaned and dehumanized by that loathsome reference, so Wright was indulging hate speech; but would Williams obviously consider that reference to be spoken (more likely screamed) in a spirit of love that will help neighbor Thomas to love Jeremiah Wright and God? Egad!

More Williams: "4. Unfortunately the media sound bytes excerpted out of context from a few of Dr. Wright's sermons fail to represent faithfully the way in which his sermons are decidedly in the prophetic tradition and not hate speech." When sound bytes are as clear-cut and gratuitous as the damnation in one short segment of a university professor, Supreme Court Justice, a military general, and secretary of state, the speaker has caricatured himself into a mindless ass and the context is totally irrelevant. I heard many of Wright's sermons when they were televised on national cable a few years ago, and can testify to his proclivity to castigate white Americans, though he is a gifted preacher.

Williams's wrap-up: "5. Finally, as we have tried to say in many occasions, good people of faith and intelligence may and do differ about matters such as the issues Dr. Wright has raised, and we trust that such differences will not divide Christ's church." Williams's third point had to do with freedom of speech and the fact that folks should not consider Wright, a former Marine, as unpatriotic. Point taken. However, Wright, in a sermon, condemned the USA for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, consensually agreed by the military planners as saving one million American GIs in WWII while sacrificing some 220,000 Japanese (instead of the multiple millions in an invasion), and so can be fairly accused of being anti-American or just plain dumb.

Williams has done what Obama tried to do in his Philadelphia "speech on race," namely somehow vindicate Wright, even to the point of vilifying his own grandmother, who raised him and put him in a position to be successful. It doesn't wash, and most Americans know this.