What The Strange Case of Jeremiah Wright Can Teach Us

I am dumbfounded as to why Rev. Jeremiah Wright would make such a spectacle of himself at the National Press Club. An older black woman, a commentator on Anderson Cooper’s show, said that, in her opinion, what had motivated Rev. Wright’s behavior was his perception that Barack Obama had “dissed” him, and, that Wright lashed out at Obama in anger. An interesting theory.

In today’s New York Times, Bob Herbert affirms that theory. In an article entitled “The Pastor Casts a Shadow,” Herbert writes, “Feeling dissed by Senator Obama, Mr. Wright gets revenge on his former follower while bathed in a spotlight brighter than any he could ever have imagined. He’s living a narcissist’s dream. At long last, his 15 minutes have arrived.

Herbert continues, “The thing to keep in mind about Rev. Wright is that he is a smart fellow. He’s been a very savvy operator, politically and otherwise, for decades. He has built a thriving, politically connected congregation on the South Side of Chicago that has done some very good work over the years. Powerful people have turned to him for guidance and advice. … So it’s not like he’s naïve politically. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Forget the gibberish about responding to attacks on the black church. That is not what the reverend’s appearance before the press club was about. He was responding to what he perceives as an attack on him.”

The judgment that Wright is acting out of ego and out of selfish anger I’ve heard repeated in many versions. It seems the best explanation. This is a strange case that, to me, doesn’t make sense. Why would Rev. Wright, a man of seasoned maturity, throw away so much? Why would Rev. Wright seek to sabotage his parishioner, a person he has known and influenced from the time he was a fatherless young man in his twenties, a man who obviously has affection for Rev. Wright and who, over time, has established what he thought was a basis of trust with the minister. Why would Rev. Wright discard such a friendship?

And with his decision to throw away his friendship with Barack Obama, Rev. Wright also discards a wonderful opportunity to have positive national influence, an opportunity to transform our nation’s discussion about what it means to be a Christian. Wright, as potentially the president’s pastor, could have had the platform to teach the nation about his understanding of “liberation theology,” about his commitment to define Christianity in terms of service to others, about how Christianity caused him to want to serve and uplift his community. Rev. Wright could have provided the teaching and the inspiration that might have provided a valuable counterbalance to the view of Christianity presented by “God wants you to be rich” TV evangelists and to the view of Christianity promulgated by narrow minded right wing evangelicals. It is hard to understand why Rev. Wright threw such an opportunity away.

One thing is for certain, Rev. Wright, because of his actions, has a real problem. His claim to legitimacy is not that he is a scholar, not that he is a community leader, not that he is a black man. His claim to legitimacy is his claim that he is a man of God, a man dedicated to a life of Christian ministry. His actions have now undermined his very legitimacy as a minister. Does a man of God, who feels he has been “dissed,” seek to get even, does he seek to lash out in destructive words and actions? Does a man of God seek his own way? Is Wright’s actions and attitude a good example to anyone who is seeking to understand Christianity? I don’t think so.

It is possible that before this is all over Rev. Wright will surprise us and repent of his sin of ego and self centeredness. Possible, but unlikely. It seems that Wright sees himself as a prophet, and having boldly presented himself to the national stage in a certain manner and with a certain message, it seems unlikely he will reconsider. In the Bible, we are warned about false prophets. And much of the negative trends in today’s world can be blamed on the false prophets of our time. We criticize Moslem religious leaders for leading their flock astray, but the Moslem religion is not the only religion with false prophets.

I imagine that Rev. Wright feels his actions and words are justified. But, what the behavior of Rev. Wright can remind us is that any man who is ego driven, whose thinking and actions are self centered, can delude himself as to his own motivation and can do great harm, while convincing himself that he is doing great good.

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8 Responses to What The Strange Case of Jeremiah Wright Can Teach Us

  1. Rick says:

    The Rev Wright has caused significant political damage to the Democrat Party’s presumptive nominee. M. Bock, you are correct, the good Rev is ego driven. So are an awful lot of politicians of both parties.

  2. Stan Hirtle says:

    We have two threads going on this topic. Wright’s National Press Club remarks (currently there is a link via Huffington Post ad to the right of the screen) includes a prepared address that is as impressive an overview and explanation of the black Christian church tradition as you will find, followed by a question and answer session where Wright becomes agressive and testy, showing both ego and intelligence, and suffering questions about whether he loves America with even less tolerance than Obama did in the Pennsylvania debate. He does have more to work with, having served in the military for 6 years “How many years did Cheney serve?” he says. Most Americans have proven that they don’t care whether Bush and Cheney served or not, so the argument won’t score any political points. But as Wright says, he is not running for office. He particularly does not like being asked about sound bites by people who have not read the whole sermon. He is also not going to step off the sidewalk for anyone. He calls for reconciliation numerous times, but also believes that reconciliation comes by admitting the hard truths about the past and present, not by sugarcoating them, denying them or doing what Obama is trying to do which is to sell the future and allow everyone to leave the past behind. Accordingly he is undercutting Obama, and generating media attention that pushes Obama’s campaign message off the screen. He apparently doesn’t care enough about the harm he is doing to Obama’s campaign to suffer his humilating attacks and sound bite distortions in silence. So he is not modeling the behavior of Jesus, who did not engage in verbal one upmanship with Pontius Pilate before being crucified, nor being the silent suffering servant. Wright’s explanation for his public campaign is that he went from it is better not to open your mouth and show you are a fool, (Proverbs) but eventually got to where they are talking about his mama (the black church). Many Obama supporters may wish that he had kept to the first.
    Is Wright a false prophet? Probably not if you look at the record that his church has accomplished over decades. But as he said, the church of the slave captain and the church of the slave were really different churches, and Wright is very conscious of how the legacy of slavery remains with us. Prophets speak the truth to power, while politicians manipulate power, affirm what people want to hear and thereby work out compromises, hopefully for good ends. Like the argument about whether MLK or LBJ were most responsible for gains in civil rights. You needed both. Will Wright make racial reconciliation look less attractive to the whites who must be convinced for it to happen, and Obama less attractive to all those superdelegates? Maybe. Or will he just become the embarassing uncle that everyone has, who doesn’t know when to shut up? To whites anyway. Wright remains very popular in the black community. In any case it is watching the entire interview, and maybe several of them, before just plugging Wright into some predetermined mental niche that we have created for him.

  3. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, you make a good point when you write, “Is Wright a false prophet? Probably not if you look at the record that his church has accomplished over decades.”

    I agree that the good work that Wright has accomplished in helping a lot of people in Chicago should be praised. But religious leaders, even those who do good works, can lose their bearings and begin to see their religious purpose all in terms of their own ego, their own personality, their own anger, their own personal history, their own personal aspirations. There is a repeated history of ego-bound, strong charismatic religious leaders who have led their flock astray into harmful and destructive thinking and practices — often thinking and practices patently opposed to the core message and values of their religion — promoting a sheep like thinking in their followers and leading them, for example, into avenues of hate and violence, or, more frequently, simply leading their followers into surrendering a lot of money to the leader for his or her greater aggrandizement. Such leaders can be called “false prophets,” and it seems there are many to be found.

    I was amazed at the ego centeredness of Rev. Wright’s performance at the National Press Club. Such a performance makes me think that he might be leading impressionable members of his flock astray — those whose spiritual connection to Rev. Wright cause them to look to Rev. Wright as an example by which to model their own thinking and their own behavior. But, I do not know enough about Rev. Wright — his life and his ministry and his impact on others — to begin to understand who he is. Certainly, if Barack Obama remained with him for so many years, Rev. Wright, overall, must have many positive wonderful qualities that, over the years, have made him a positive influence on many individuals.

  4. Rick says:

    M,Bock, you state, “Certainly, if Barack Obama remained with him for so many years, Rev. Wright, overall, must have many positive wonderful qualities that, over the years, have made him a positive influence on many individuals.” Perhaps. Or maybe Senator Obama shared some of the crazy beliefs that the Reverand Wright did, such as, but not limited to, antipathy towards caucausians. Senator Obama did seem to associate with people who were hostile to America. As this campaign progresses my hope is that the media actually does its job of discerning who this man really is, his faults and virtues.

  5. gary staiger says:

    My comment, WAS [IS] REV JEREMIAH WRIGHT REALLY THAT WRONG?
    is at leftofdayton.com.
    I didn’t think he whole thing would fit here.
    My basic view is that most of the “left” is falling prey to a neo con/conservative/DNC tainted trap. READ what the Rev actually said!!
    Knee jerk “liberalism”, which is afraid to confront the reality of race in America over our entire history, fails miserably in it’s “critique” of of Wrights words. I found Hillary and her surrogates [in particular, one named “Larry” who was a CNN commentator] to be particularly disgusting. Their language and “solutions’ were utterly reactionary, straight out of some Karl Rove play book.

    As Stan points out above, it is critically important to READ the ACTUAL WORDS
    before leaping into the abyss of reactionary politics….

  6. Original Eric says:

    Huckabee on Wright:

    “Jeremiah Wright needs for Obama to lose so he can justify his anger, his hostile bitterness against the United States of America.

    “If it’s not true that a man, because of his color, is held back and can’t be president, then so much of what Jeremiah Wright has said is invalid….

    “His (Obama’s) campaign is not being derailed by his race, it’s being derailed by a person who doesn’t want him to prove that we have made great advances in this country.”

  7. Stan Hirtle says:

    Where to go with this now?

    It’s easier to solve someone else’s problem than your own. The Dayton Religious Trialogue, people from Christian, Jewish and Moslem traditions, recently studied the Israeli-Palestinian issue, reading a book called “Parallel Realities” and hearing speakers who had lived it.

    We learned that Jews in Israel remember pogroms, the holocaust and the way the West accommodated to the power of Hitler and refused to admit Jews. They heard Britain promise to create a Jewish state in Palestine. But Britain betrayed them and they had to fight to bring Jews safely to Palestine. When the Jewish State finally happened, their Arab neighbors attacked, expelled Jews from their countries who Israel then took in, and prepared to attack again, leading to the Yom Kippur war and expansion/occupation. Now the Palestinians continue to attack them with rockets and suicide bombs. Many Jews (in Israel and here) believe Israel is necessary to Jewish survival, believe that the occupation and the force they use is troubling but necessary to that survival, and that there is no alternative given the intractable opposition of an overwhelming majority of their neighbors.

    Palestinians, on the other hand, remember the importation of large numbers of Jews to their homeland due to actions in other parts of the world. They remember Britain promising them independence, instead creating new countries and installing new kings, finally creating a Jewish state ruled by former “terrorists” and backed by the US. They remember loss of homes, expulsions, creation of camps, assassinations, heavy handed military controls, destruction of homes and the olive trees they depend on, poverty, encroachment of settlements.

    Who has the truth? They both do. But that truth doesn’t get you very far, only justifying a cycle of violence that guarantees that violence will continue. The only solution is reconciliation, and you don’t get to reconciliation by clinging (that word again) to the anger-making truths of the past.

    Shift to America. What about what Wright says isn’t true? Maybe nothing. The comment about AIDS is obviously the most controversial. But no one really has a satisfying explanation for AIDS so it is pretty much open to fill with your own belief system. Scientists may say that probably some ape bit some human somewhere in Africa and unleashed a Darwinian epidemic that swept the world. Conservative Christian leaders think that God unleashed a Biblical plague on the US for tolerating liberals and gays. Many African Americans remember the Tuskagee syphilis experiments on top of slavery, lynchings, lethal injections and exclusion from the health care system. They are mistrustful.

    But they are also significantly in a minority. People believing what Wright said haven’t elected anyone President since 1968, if ever. The people who elect Presidents have believed in the goodness of America, the heroism of war dead, the opportunity that mostly rewards virtue, respect for work and family, consumer choice, and to some extent the privileges of the wealthy.

    Let’s say that what Wright says is either accurate or an understandable interpretation of present reality from a black perspective. Let’s also say that what Wright has done with his church in Chicago (in a largely white denomination, and there are whites and others that go there regularly) has been quite successful in dealing with that reality, in improving the lives and spirits of his community and in tapping into the extensive social justice material of Christianity.

    Let’s also say that the selective sound bytes of Wright’s sermons do not contain the contexts and hedgings and explanations and counterpoints that sermons contain, and are therefore misrepresentations of legitimate points that he was making, and that Wright is particularly angry about this. It is also undoubtedly true that Wright has an ego, and a combative personality when challenged. This is not an unusual feature for a man of his stature. Think of many white owners of professional sports teams, for example. At the same time, Wright constantly and no doubt seriously calls for reconciliation, although he no doubt also believes that true reconciliation requires both sides to admit reality to themselves and each other. And finally, he believes that Obama’s opponents are “talking about his mama (the black church)” and disrespecting something that he holds dear.

    It remains a fact that whites in America have a parallel reality of their own. Wright has probably gone as far as he can go in affecting the reality of white America. To bring about reconciliation and justice between blacks and whites will require more than Wright can accomplish by trying to fight the media on its turf.

    In the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a destructive struggle in which each side has emotional ties to grievances, and from their perspective, lots of reasons for them. And the struggle can not be resolved by conflict. The Israelis are stronger in many ways, but this strength does not mask the long term dangers that come from demographics within Israel as well as the obvious dangers of being surrounded by a large majority that remains hostile, and the ultimate potential nightmare of being pushed into the sea. The Palestinians continue to be the big short term losers, and have little hope of defeating Israel and little ability to even unite for best effect.

    The only hope there is some form of reconciliation,. Without that the conflict will continue in the future as it has in the past. With it, each side would have the possibility that its children and grandchildren will not have their lives dominated by violence and the fear of violence. However reconciliation would require both sides to let go of their present emotional state and the justifications for it. And many who are used to the present conflict and feeling their side of it, do not believe any change is possible.

    In America relations between blacks and whites are less violent than the conflict in the Middle East, but as MLK eloquently pointed out, the imposition of continued poverty (unemployment, poor education, denial of health care) is violence on its own. And this says nothing of the low intensity violence of incarceration, capital punishment and the occasional high profile police shooting or beating,

    Again whites will continue to outnumber blacks in numbers and certainly in economic and political power. However both sides also know that a continuation of the present situation will mean their children and grandchildren will continue to suffer.

    Only a racial reconciliation can being about that change. Whites, like Israelis, have to think that reconciliation is both possible in theory and doable in practice. Obama’s campaign is attempting to do that. Wright, no matter how true his words are or how many blacks agree with them, will not be able to bring about reconciliation. He keeps things the same. He threatens, scares and offends many whites, and particularly ones that Obama needs to convince to vote for him. They have to go out on a limb with Obama, and Wright generates good reasons not to go there. Eventually whites will have to go out on a limb to undo the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. The first hurdle to reconciliation is mistrust, and Wright, particularly as portrayed in the media, generates mistrust in whites. As Wright is substituted for Obama in the media, to say nothing of negative commercials, Obama can not pull his mission off.

    To some extent this may seem inherent in the divide in which we find ourselves in America. Someone coming politically from the black community, as Obama partially does, is going to have someone with ideas like Wright’s somehow associated with him. Black leaders whose power arose apart from the black community, such as Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas, may do great service for their side, but they will not bring the black community to reconciliation. Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” looks particularly audacious now, as we must look at what reconciliation would entail. Perhaps Wright should have shut up, faded from the news and given Obama a chance to occupy the space he needs in the debate, and possibly win the future. Or perhaps Wright is right, that America needs to remember, repent and reconcile, and without this Obama’s candidacy and even potential election will be doomed to fail or be meaningless.

  8. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, You write, that the only hope is for some form of reconciliation.

    I agree that reconciliation, unity, is not just a nice thought or fond dream, it is a fundamental requirement in order for a society to move forward.

    But, moving society forward, advancing the common good, is simply not in the interest of many individuals who enjoy power in the status quo. And so, such individuals often do what they can to frustrate reconciliation. The story of the Palestinian / Israeli conflict, for example, is a story of leaders on both sides who, for reasons of advancing or protecting their own personal power, have frustrated again and again any possibility for reconciliation. When the conflicts in the world are examined — even within the microcosm of, say, a family — what is apparent is that, often, conflict, with its suffering, is often initiated or encouraged by a fierce ego, content in the status quo, seeking its own way, seeking its own advantage.

    Reconciliation and unity is the way forward, but the question remains: Does Rev. Wright want reconciliation? I entitled my post, “What The Strange Case of Jeremiah Wright Can Teach Us,” because the behavior displayed by Rev. Wright at his Press Club appearance seemed to me, exactly, behavior directed by a fierce ego seeking its own way, seeking its own advantage. You write, “perhaps Wright is right, that America needs to remember, repent and reconcile,” but I get no sense that the message that America should reconcile is the message that Wright seeks to advance. Wright seems to me all about Wright and from the little I’ve heard him speak, he doesn’t seem to me all that interested in promoting reconciliation. In a time of reconciliation how could he express the anger he obviously relishes so much? In a time of reconciliation who would be interested in hearing his message?

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