Let me start with some disclosure: I know Jeremiah Wright. I’ve worshiped at Trinity United Church of Christ a time or two. I’ve heard Wright speak at clergy conferences. I’ve had a couple of one-on-one conversations with him.
With that said . . . Oh, that man can preach. But as any preacher will tell you, it helps if people would listen. As a preacher with some 20+ years of my own experience in the pulpit, I shudder to think what would happen if some of my sermons were snipped and sliced and diced in the same manner as those of Jeremiah Wright.
The most lamentable aspect of the way Wright has been swift-boated is the manner in which his critics snipped his quotes out of context. CNN’s Roland Martin, underneath the broader radar of the media, noted that Jeremiah Wright’s now-infamous sermon addressing 9/11 was completely misrepresented:
One of the most controversial statements in this sermon was when he mentioned “chickens coming home to roost.” He was actually quoting Edward Peck, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and deputy director of President Reagan’s terrorism task force, who was speaking on FOX News. That’s what he told the congregation.
To hear the media speak about it, though, this was Wright trying to burn down the White House. I’m not surprised that you didn’t hear this on Fox — though the initial interview with Peck took place on Fox! — but the fact that the media missed this is stunning. Even on CNN, apart from the blog post, you’d never get the idea that their reporters ever listened to the whole sermon. and judging from this morning’s performance by reporters at Wright’s appearance at the National Press Club, they’re still not listening.
Bill Moyers had a wonderful interview with Wright on Friday night. It struck me as a much more honest picture of Wright than has been out there in the media to this point. Wright’s not a wild-eyed radical, but he speaks in the vernacular of the Black Church in ways that those outside might easily misunderstand. The Moyers interview, especially the opening, gave a lot more context that I think probably helped those with a bit of an open mind to see him more on his own terms than on the terms of the religious and especially the political right.
Wright was absolutely on target in his analysis of his 9/11 sermon and the way it has been used. He was crystal clear for those worshiping that day, who heard the whole thing. The right, OTOH, was also crystal clear in the way they twisted his words, and they too communicated what they wanted to communicate:
BILL MOYERS: . . . Did you somehow fail to communicate?
REVEREND WRIGHT: The persons who have heard the entire sermon understand the communication perfectly. What is not the failure to communicate is when something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public. That’s not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they wanna do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a "wack-a-doodle." It’s to paint me as something. Something’s wrong with me. There’s nothing wrong with this country. There’s -its policies. We’re perfect. We-our hands are free. Our hands have no blood on them. That’s not a failure to communicate. The message that is being communicated by the sound bites is exactly what those pushing those sound bites want to communicate.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think they wanted to communicate?
REVEREND WRIGHT: I think they wanted to communicate that I am- unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ. And, by the way, guess who goes to his church, hint, hint, hint? That’s what they wanted to communicate. They know nothing about the church. They know nothing about our prison ministry. They know nothing about our food share ministry. They know nothing about our senior citizens home. They know nothing about all we try to do as a church and have tried to do, and still continue to do as a church that believes what Martin Marty said, that the two worlds have to be together-the world before church and the world after postlude. And that the gospel of Jesus Christ has to speak to those worlds, not only in terms of the preached message on a Sunday morning but in terms of the lived-out ministry throughout the week.
That "learned journalist from the New York Times"? Maureen Dowd.
Moyers also played a clip of the "God Damn America" moment from another Wright sermon, the transcript of which reads as follows:
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!
After the clip ended, Moyers asked him "What did you mean when you said that?" Wright’s answer was direct and to the point:
When you start confusing God and government, your allegiances to government – a particular government and not to God, that [sic – then] you’re in serious trouble because governments fail people.
That’s hardly a radical point of view. Pastors like Jerry Falwell on the right have said as much from their pulpits, and centuries of preachers of every stripe, on every continent have said the same.
At about the 10:40 mark in the interview, Moyers flashed a photo on the screen:
BILL MOYERS: He served six years in the military: two as a marine, and four in the Navy as a cardiopulmonary technician. That’s where our paths crossed for the only time.
[operating room photo goes up]
That’s Jeremiah Wright, behind the I.V. pole, monitoring President Lyndon Johnson’s heart as he was recovering from gall bladder surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. And right behind him is a very young me. I was the President’s Press Secretary.
REVEREND WRIGHT: As you know, the President had to be operated on and out of surgery by 9:00 when the stock market opened. And talking and wide awake. So, we scrubbed in, like, 3:00 in the morning.
When he awakened, unlike other patients, you did not move him to recovery. You didn’t move him to ICU. They kept him right there for security reasons. Secret Service all around, there was secret service in the whole operating suite and nobody else allowed in the operating suite except Secret Service.
So, after about an hour and a half, I went to get some coffee. And as I was coming back from the lounge where the coffee was, going back to monitor, I saw the guys talkin’ into their wristwatches and I was nodding, speaking to them. So, I turn to go into the room to check the pace. And secret service guys standing there grabbed me, knocked the coffee outta my hand, burned me with the hot coffee, twisted my arm up behind my neck and screams into his phone, "I got him." And I was, "Got him?" And I’m screamin’ in pain. And my assistant comes running out of the booth. He sees me jacked up and he starts laughing. I said, "Joe, don’t laugh. Tell him who I am." And he said, "He’s been here all morning."
BILL MOYERS: Standing above the President.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Guy looked at me, pulled my mask up over face [gestures to demonstrate], "Oh, yeah." And that was it.
The US Secret Service could admit their mistake at roughing up this Navy OR nurse. It would be nice to see the media and the McCain campaign do the same.
Oh, and I want a pony too.
Given the quality of most of the questions asked at Wright’s appearance at the National Press Club this morning, however, I’m not holding my breath. (transcript here; CSPAN video here) The very first question from one of the press club members was this:
You have said that the media have taken you out of context. Can you explain what you meant in the sermon shortly after 9/11 when you said the United States had brought the terrorist attacks on itself? Quote, "America’s chickens are coming home to roost."
Wright’s initial reply was not exactly diplomatic — "Have you heard the whole sermon?" — but it was absolutely correct. Any reporter who had bothered listening to the whole sermon, or had viewed a longer excerpt of the sermon, would not have even bothered asking the question.
Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning-News, for instance, never would have asked that. Indeed, Weiss said this last month:
I’ve now read and heard the entire [famous/notorious "God damn America" sermon].
For everyone who has either attacked or defended Rev. Wright, I have a suggestion: Go and do likewise. The text and audio of the whole 40 minutes or so of what is formally entitled "Confusing God and government" were eye-opening to me — and not in one direction. This sermon is profoundly anti-government in general, anti-U.S. government in specific, and boy-howdy anti-George W. Bush. But it’s also a message of hope and redemption with a solid stream of links to bible verses.
So much for question #1 at the National Press Club. What’s next?
Some critics have said that your sermons are unpatriotic. How do you feel about America and about being an American?
Again, "diplomatic" is not the word I would use to describe Wright’s answer:
I feel that those citizens who say that have never heard my sermons, nor do they know me. They are unfair accusations taken from sound bites and that which is looped over and over again on certain channels. I served six years in the military — does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?
When Wright finished that answer, he stepped away from the microphone, shrugged to the audience, and saluted. Once more, not diplomatic, but a direct slam at those members of the media who can’t be bothered to do their own research and would rather simply pass along rightwing talking points.
You get the idea. Let’s hope the media does too.
Yeah, I know. Maybe I’ll have better luck getting that pony.