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[Chalice] The "News" of Rev. Wright or [Chalice]
How the More Perfect Union Remains a Dream

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Presented April 6, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Because it is almost April 15th, a few days ago I sat down with my tax lady for our annual appointment. She is a wonderful and interesting lady and we tend to talk about everything and eventually get around to receipts and deductible expenses and other tax-related things I think we both find small and irritating. Of course we talk about politics and the current election campaign. My tax lady is a college educated woman professional, white, about 50 years old,, the perfect demographic for Hilary Clinton. So of course I ask if she is supporting Clinton and she says yes. When I ask about Obama she says she has serious misgivings about him. Why, I ask her. She's heard about some of the radical statements made by his minister, and he's gone to that church for a long time, she says, so he must believe what that minister believes.

Now I am sure I don't need to fill you in on this recent controversy about Obama and his membership in the predominantly black Trinity UCC Church and its now famous minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It has been a controversy for about a month now, and almost everyone is talking about it. Have you had conversations about this with family members or friends at work? This whole controversy involving Obama and Rev. Wright is interesting, and as a religious philosopher and a liberal minister I am sure I am more interested in the various forms of religious communities in American than most people, but on so many levels and for so many reasons I also find this whole episode we are living through right now distressing and depressing.

Distressing and depressing for example do you know exactly what statements made by Rev. Wright have been used to create this controversy about Obama and his crazy black minister? I didn't. This is not the kind of thing you hear if you get your news from NPR or by reading the Chicago Tribune or The New York Times. But I knew I could see the actual video clips of Rev. Wright's sermons seen by millions of Americans on Fox News or on-line just by going on-line myself. Google Rev. Wright and it will take you straight to You-Tube where you can see the momentary clips of Rev. Wright preaching the statements that have been used to create the controversy. These momentary clips are taken completely out of context, put on Foxx News, put on various sites on the internet, passed around so easily from one person to another just by the press of a button on your computer. An aspect of the world we are living in now I do find distressing and depressing is that this is how so many people, and especially younger people these days, get their news. By seeing these clips on You Tube people think themselves up on the news, informed about the news of Rev. Wright and the controversy. People "know" about Rev. Wright and about the controversy because they have "seen" the sermons on You Tube. But where in this version of knowing the news is the role of reading, thinking, reflection? What we regard now as "knowing" and being up on the latest news is really so impressionistic and thinly literate that it actually takes us farther away from true understanding and knowing and actual thinking, and I find that distressing and depressing.

I find what I will call the inevitability of this news and this controversy about Rev. Wright distressing and depressing. You remember about six months ago or so when the big question debated on the news and on the internet was whether the black community would find Obama black enough? How many hours of time in the media or in conversations were spent discussing whether black people would vote for Obama. The theory was that since Obama was part white and was Harvard educated and didn't sound like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton that black people wouldn't vote for him. Of course even at the time it was obvious that if a lot of black people and a lot of white people voted for Obama and he became a serious candidate for the nomination, then the conversation would change. Then there would be an effort made to show white America that Obama was actually plenty black, too black, a lot blacker than he pretends to be, a lot blacker than you White America thinks he is. So how can we get White Americans who have been so accepting of and open to Obama see him not only as a black man but as the kind of black man we whites could never vote for? The blacking of Obama was an inevitable part of this campaign if he became a serious candidate, and one of the obvious ways to make Obama seem more black to white America is to bring attention to his membership in a black church on the south side of Chicago. There is a distressing and depressing inevitability to the "news" about Obama's crazy black minister.

And how did this story about Obama's minister become the "news" we all discuss together? In our mania to follow the media and to know the latest news, so we ever give ourselves Thomas Merton's monastic contemplative separation from what is happening right now in order to ponder just how it is that this latest issue now is the "news"? There was an article back in January in the Washington Post about how Obama's church honored Louis Farrakan, and articles in the Chicago papers when Rev. Wright retired. But the issue of Rev. Wright's radical sermons and his connection to Obama did not become news until the TV networks picked up the story and put it on the air. Now I am sure you could guess which network delved into the story and first presented video clips of Rev. Wright's sermons and made this whole controversy "news". Yes, of course Fox News. Of course if you learn of this controversy a bit later, through ABC or NBC or PBS, you may not even realize that their coverage is in a sense an echo of Fox's earlier success at creating what we take as "news." And this controversy about Obama's crazy black minister is just the first way Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Shawn Hannity and O'Riley and all the others have tried to make Obama look too black. There will be many more attempts to make Obama look too black for white American if he gets the nomination, and I find this too distressing and depressing.

Now I do want to look at specific comments made by Rev. Wright that have shown up on Fox News and now the other networks and on the internet, but before we do that I'd like to say that I am disappointed with the reaction of so many white Christians to these comments made by a black minister in a predominantly black church. It seems a lot of white Christians in this country are shocked and appalled at these statements and the way they are preached in a black church. White people ask: how could a minister say such things? But white Christians shouldn't expect black, inner city churches to be just like the churches they go to. Black churches reflect the experiences of black people in our society, and black ministers and black churches tend to and should talk much more about racism, slavery, poverty, the white power structure of our society, prejudice, the history of segregation. Black churches, to put it simply, do tend to be different from white churches, and what is wrong with that? I have been teaching William James lately, that great American pluralist. James was white and wealthy and religious. What he most appreciated about religion was its diversity. He wrote perhaps the greatest book ever written by an American intellectual about religion: The Variety of Religious Experience. This is another thing I find disappointing about this whole controversy: Where is our Jamesian-and James himself would probably say our American-appreciation for diversity and plurality? There are many different forms of Christianity in America, and an inner city black UCC church is going to be different from a UCC church in the suburbs, and that difference is a great thing and something we should appreciate and not lament as Americans.

Now if we turn to specific comments made by Rev. Wright that have been used to make news and to create this controversy, there probably are two that have been talked about most and have been most controversial. One is where Rev. Wright in a sermon given right after September 11th says Americans chickens are coming home to roost, and the other is where he says God bless America? No, God damn America.

If we look at the video clip where Rev. Wright after 9/11 says "America's chickens are coming home to roost," of course this momentary video clip is taken completely out of context. Rev. Wright was actually quoting a white male undersecretary from the Reagan administration who actually talked in an interview on TV about the misadventures of our foreign policy winning us enemies around the world. Now how in the world is it ethical to blatantly take something out of context like that and to cut the clip down and show it without Rev. Wright quoting this other person? Would Rev. Wright seem like such a crazy black minister to white America if this unethical editing hadn't been done? And even beyond that, this statement about America's chickens coming home to roost this is the type of statement made by many Americans, myself included of course, after September 11th, and those of us who made them publicly can remember how controversial they were at the time. We can remember how at the time the country didn't want to hear such things and wasn't going to receive them. But how can a statement like this still be controversial and received with shock and resentment now? It's not 2001, not even 2004. It's 2008. Surely by now we have enough distance from September 11th that we can hear, receive, and think about critical statements about America foreign policy in a very different way than we did after September 11th.

Probably even more controversial and offensive to many white people in our country is the video clip of Rev. Wright saying "God bless America? No, God damn America." Now to those who are shocked and offended by this statement, one is tempted to respond: Duh. What do you expect to be said in a black church? That a black minister might say to a black congregation that God might damn America for its history of slavery, racism, segregation, and the black congregation would respond in agreement and affirmation, that sounds kind of reasonable if you think about it from a black perspective. Funny how it is that the same thing that seems crazy from your own perspective seems kind of reasonable if you think about it from the perspective of someone else.

©2008 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2008. The "News" of Rev. Wright - or How the More Perfect Union Remains a Dream, /talks/20080406.shtml (accessed July 7, 2020).

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