Barack Obama’s pastor appeared on Bill Moyers Journal last night. Interested readers can find the complete transcript on the PBS web site. Below are the two portions that deal with political subjects: Wright’s “God damn America” sermon and his support for Louis Farrakhan.
First, however, Moyers and Wright talked about the history of the African-American experience regarding Christianity. Wright argues that the missionaries brought a version of Christianity that was white and European and outside the black experience. This discussion begins:
BILL MOYERS: So, when Trinity Church says it is unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian, is it embracing a race-based theology?
REVEREND WRIGHT: No, it is not. It is embracing Christianity without giving up Africanity. A lotta the missionaries were going to other countries assuming that our culture is superior, that you have no culture. And to be a Christian, you must be like us. Right now, you can go to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and see Christians in 140-degree weather. They have to have on a tie. Because that’s what it means to be a Christian. Well, it’s that kind of assuming that our culture, “We have the only sacred music. You must sing our music. You must use a pipe organ. You cannot use your instrument.” It’s that kind of assumption that in the field of missions, people say, “You know what? We’re doing this wrong. We need to take Christ and leave culture at home. We need to learn the culture of people into which we’re moving, and preach the methods of Jesus Christ using the culture that we are a part of.” Well, the same thing happened with Christians in this country when they said, “You know what? Because those same missionaries who went south, they didn’t let us sing gospel music.” That was not sacred–
BILL MOYERS: They were singin’ the great Anglican hymns.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Correct, correct. And make sure you use correct diction. Well, the– Africans in the late– African-Americans in the late ’60s started saying, “You know, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Even– I was in Virginia Union, I was soloist at Virginia Union in the college, in the concert choir. We were not allowed to sing anything but anthems and spirituals. The same thing with the Howard University concert choir. The same thing with all the historical black choirs until ‘68. When King got killed, black kids started saying wait a minute. We’re not givin’ up who we are as black people to become– to show somebody else that we – in fact, the music majors at Howard when I was– teaching assistant at La Vern they said to the choir director there, “We’re tired of singin’ German Lieder and Italian aria to prove to you that we– you know, we can sing foreign songs. But we have our own music tradition.” Prior to ‘68, there was no gospel music at Howard University. Prior to ‘68, there was no jazz major. The white universities are giving Count Basie and Duke Ellington degrees. We don’t even the jazz course. We don’t have blues. We don’t have any of our music on this black college campus. Because the missionaries had not allowed us to teach our own music.
And at that point in history, all across the country and all across denominational lines, the– the college-age kids started saying, no more. No mas. Nada mas. We’re gonna do our people. We’re gonna do our culture. We’re gonna do our history. And we’re gonna embrace it and not put– to say one is superior to the other. Because we are different. And different does not mean deficient, that we just different like snowflakes. We’re different. We talk about God of diversity? God has diverse culture, God has -and we’re proud of who we are because that’s the statement the congregation was making, not a race-based theology. [end of excerpt]
As Moyers points out later in the interview, this approach to Christianity has a name: black liberation theology. It is the interpretation of Scripture from the viewpoint of the oppressed. Moyers says, “As I understand it, black liberation theology reads the bible through the experience of people who have suffered, and who then are able to say to themselves that we read the bible differently, because we have struggled, than those do who have not struggled. Is that a fair bumper sticker of liberation theology?” Wright says it is. Moyers goes on to point out that this is the essentially the Jewish story, and Wright agrees. Having just been through Passover, I know this is true. The Exodus is liberation theology: If any man is in bondage, I am in bondage.
The common lament of those who feel abused by the media when their remarks become sound bites is that their words have been taken out of context, and Jeremiah Wright is no exception. But he may have a point. We see and hear him saying things that most of us, including me, find totally reprehensible, and we can’t understand why he would say them. They make no sense in a political context. But he isn’t a politician; he is a theologian, and in the context of black liberation theology, his words are understood by his parishoners in a different way than we hear them. This is a defense of Jeremiah Wright, but it is not a defense of Barack Obama, who is a politician and thus is charged with knowing how these words will be understood in a political context.
The discussion of the “God damn America” sermon comes next:
BILL MOYERS: One of the most controversial sermons that you preach is the sermon you preach that ended up being that sound bite about Goddamn America.
REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Where governments lie, God does not lie. Where governments change, God does not change. And I’m through now. But let me leave you with one more thing. Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilate - the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from East to West. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonized Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British government failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. 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 her citizen as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!
BILL MOYERS: What did you mean when you said that?
REVEREND WRIGHT: When you start confusing God and government, your allegiances to government -a particular government and not to God, that you’re in serious trouble because governments fail people. And governments change. And governments lie. And those three points of the sermon. And that is the context in which I was illustrating how the governments biblically and the governments since biblical times, up to our time, changed, how they failed, and how they lie. And when we start talking about my government right or wrong, I don’t think that goes. That is consistent with what the will of God says or the word of God says that governments don’t say right or wrong. That governments that wanna kill innocents are not consistent with the will of God. And that you are made in the image of God, you’re not made in the image of any particular government. We have the freedom here in this country to talk about that publicly, whereas some other places, you’re dead if say the wrong thing about your government.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you can be almost crucified for saying what you’ve said here in this country.
REVEREND WRIGHT: That’s true. That’s true. But you can be crucified, you can be crucified publicly, you can be crucified by corporate-owned media. But I mean, what I just meant was, you can be killed in other countries by the government for saying that. Dr. King, of course, was vilified. And most of us forget that after he was assassinated, but the year before he was assassinated, April 4th, 1967 at the Riverside Church, he talked about racism, militarism and capitalism. He became vilified. He got ostracized not only by the majority of Americans in the press; he got vilified by his own community. They thought he had overstepped his bounds. He was no longer talking about civil rights and being able to sit down at lunch counters that he should not talk about things like the war in Vietnam. He preached–
BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson was furious at that. As you know-
REVEREND WRIGHT: I’m sure he was.
BILL MOYERS: That’s where they broke.
REVEREND WRIGHT: And that’s where a lot of the African-American community broke with him, too. He was vilified by Roger Wilkins’ daddy, Roy Wilkins. Jackie Robinson. He was vilified by all of the Negro leaders who felt he’d overstepped his bounds talking about an unjust war. And that part of King is not lifted up every year on January 15th. 1963, “I have a dream,” was lifted up, and passages from that - sound bites if you will - from that march on Washington speech. But the King who preached the end of- “I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land, I might not get there with you,”- that part of the speech is talked about, not the fact that he was in Memphis siding with garbage collectors. Nothing about Resurrection City, nothing about the poor–
BILL MOYERS: Resurrection City was the march in Washington for the poor.
REVEREND WRIGHT: For the poor. That part of King is not talked about because we want to keep that away from the public eye, and the public memory, and it’s been 40 years now.
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Near the end of the program, Moyers raises the subject of Wright’s support for Louis Farrakhan:
BILL MOYERS: But even some of your admirers say it would be wrong to gloss over what Martin Marty himself called- who loves you- called your “abrasive edges.” For example, you know, Louis Farrakhan lives in the south part of Chicago, doesn’t he? You’ve had a long complicated relationship with him, right?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And he, you know, he’s expressed racist and anti-Semitic remarks. And, yet, last year-
REVEREND WRIGHT: Twenty years ago.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty years ago, but that’s indefensible.
REVEREND WRIGHT: The Nation of Islam and Mr. Farrakhan have more African-American men off of drugs. More African-American men respecting themselves. More African-American men working for a living. Not gang banging. Not trying to get by. That’s not indefensible in terms of how you make a difference in the prisons? Turning people’s lives around. Giving people hope. Getting people off drugs. That we don’t believe the same things in terms of our specific faiths. He’s Muslim, I’m Christian. We don’t believe the same things he said years ago. But that has nothing to do with what he has done in terms of helping people change their lives for the better. I said direct quote was what? “Louis Farrakhan is like E.F. Hutton. When Lewis Farrakhan speaks, black America listens.” They may not agree with him, but they’re listening.
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One of the significant moments in this interview comes when Wright says, “We have the freedom here in this country to talk about that [criticizing the government] publicly, whereas some other places, you’re dead if say the wrong thing about your government.” Moyers responds, “Well, you can almost be crucified for saying what you’ve said in this country.” And Wright responds–I’m paraphrasing here–no, no, I was speaking metaphorically about getting killed, you can be crucified in the way the media crucifies people, but you can REALLY be killed in a lot of other countries. That doesn’t sound like somebody who is anti-American to me, and, of course, we know about Wright’s record of service in the Marine Corps. There is a lot more to him than what we see on You Tube saying, “God damn America.” And some of his observations really hit home. Yes, Martin Luther King was a national hero when he wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, but I had forgotten that public opinion had turned against him when he criticized the war in Viet Nam and raised protests against conditions in urban areas such as Detroit, Chicago, and Memphis. He had, as the saying goes, “quit preaching and gone to meddling.”
After I first saw the film clips of Jeremiah Wright saying, “God damn America,” I thought Obama should have left the church as soon as he heard them. While I still find the words reprehensible, I no longer think that Jeremiah Wright hates his country. But the sound bite is so powerful that it drowns out any discussion of context, as was discussed by Moyers and Wright. And that is bad for the democratic process.