Saturday, April 26, 2008

Jeremiah Wright

Lord help me, I just listened to Bill Moyers' hour-long interview with Obama's now-famous former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. And I'm going to write down and post my reactions here without consulting what any other commentators have to say about it.

I watched it because I was curious at what he had to say. After watching it, I can say that I'm genuinely impressed with the man. He's an obviously intelligent man with a serious theological background. Surprisingly, he did not come off as defensive or hostile, nor did he back down from the sermons from which the most controversial sound bites have been extracted. Moyers also broadcast several minutes from the two most controversial ones, the "God damn America" and the 9/11 chickens coming home to roost one, to give a better feel for their actual context.

Wright also gave a theological sophisticated description of the concept of liberation theology, which recognizes that oppressed peoples understand God through their own personal and collective experiences of oppression. As he pointed out, the Christian Bible, from Genesis to Revelations, was written to a large extent by those giving voice to the experiences of the Jewish people under Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonia, Persian, Greek and Roman domination. (Wonk alert! I'm going to talk about theology here.)

This is actually a very important point to understand about the Christian and Jewish religions and their effects on Western civilization. Frederick Nietzsche, with his idealized pagan sensibility and his provocative style, did some very perceptive work illustrating the same theme. Aristocratic morality as he saw reflected in Greek and Roman religion, fundamentally understood morality as a matter of good and bad. When Homer talked about about something being κακόσ (kakόs), bad, it was primarily understood as "non-aristocratic". While αγαθόσ (agathόs) meant doing things the way aristocrats did them.

Nietzsche argued that the Jews of the Hebrew Bible formed their moral concepts from their experience of slavery and oppression and reversed the aristocratic morality. In that system, the slaves are the source of good, but their opposite, the rulers and slaveowners, are not simply bad, but evil, despicable, to be utterly rejected. And he argued that the Christians elevated this "slave morality" of good and evil to an even greater intensity.

The most interesting part of the interview was the part in which he discussed with Moyers the theology of Psalm 137, a nine-verse psalm, quoted here in full from the Revised Standard Version. The first verse is quite well-known in English for its opening phrase. Verse 5 provided the title of one of William Faulkner's novels, If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem.

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, "Rase it, rase it! Down to its foundations!

O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
This psalm recalls the bitter days of the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE), in which the Babylonian armies conquered the southern Israelite kingdom of Judea and took most of the population into exile in Babylon.

Wright called attention to the progression of emotions on the part of the Israelites in this psalm, from sadness and mourning to anger to hatred to desiring the murder of the enemy's children. As Wright put it, this process it begins with hating the armies who took them into exile, and ends with desiring that little babies' brains be bashed out on a rock.

He discussed toward the end the need for all religions to confront the ugly aspects of our own holy books. And his view of Psalm 137 provided a good example of how to do that. He did not treat it as God somehow declaring that this was the right attitude for his people to take, or that God was declaring that He wanted the enemy's babies killed. Wright read it as a perceptive description of the process that people can go through in reaction to evil deeds inflicted on them, a process that can lead them to commit unjustified and ungodly acts, as well.

Psalm 137 was the text Wright used on the Sunday after 9/11/2001. And in the longer excerpt of his sermon that Moyers showed, he talked about some of the more notable acts of war that the United States had carried out against other countries, including the decade-long off-and-on bombing of Iraq during and after the first Gulf War. He talked about how something like that process described in the psalm had led to the hatred driving the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. And he said that the US was now on the verge of possibly committing the same kind of wrong in response to the attack.

Looking at it now, I still wouldn't like the "chickens coming home to roost" metaphor because of my own view of the high importance of assigning responsibility to the perpetrators who actually commit bad acts, including in international conflict. And I think that particular metaphor blurs it.

But Wright's framing of the events otherwise holds up well, so far as I saw in the program. This Bush/neocon/Christianist business about how "they hate us for our values" is just goofy. It's a deliberate attempt to get American citizens not to look at our policies and how those affect conflict situations, but instead to shut up and follow moral monsters like Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft and the rest of those high officials who sat in dozens of meetings meticulously designing torture procedures to be applied to individual victims. And since when did trying to understand our enemies and their motivations become a sign of weakness? That's just nuts.

Wright was doing what religious leaders and our political leaders as well needed to be doing at that point: to try to help people understand what was happening and the context in which it was happening, and to call on people to exercise responsibility in talking and thinking about how the US should respond. When I look at the disaster Cheney and Bush and their fellow torture enablers created by their foolish, spectacularly misguided war in Iraq, a war for which they cynically exploited the anger and war fever from the 9/11 attacks, it makes me wish we had had far more leaders who were willing, as Wright was, to speak in a "prophetic" voice and to help us all keep our moral bearings.

My own Catholic parish held a series of presentations on Islam after the 9/11 attacks, in which Muslim speakers came in to talk about their faith. They also invited other speakers to talk about the issues involved with some kind of religious and ethical perspective. I honestly don't see anything scandalous about Wright's use of Psalm 137 to try to help his church members, who I'm sure were dazed as almost everyone was from the events of that weeks, to understand those events in a Christian and Scriptural context.

Moyers also dealt with Wright's "God damn America" soundbite. That one came as part of a lesson about Biblical teachings on God passing judgments on nations that fall into sinful ways. As many others have pointed out, white fundamentalist preachers routinely make similar denunciations of the sinful ways of decadent America, somehow without Republican talking heads being endlessly outraged at their supposed lack of patriotism.

Here again, I don't feel comfortable with that particular phrasing, and I also differ on the particular framing of the issue. But that's because I think the notion that God works through history by bringing benefits and calamities to nations based on their spiritual worthiness, which was a common belief in Near Eastern religions in the time much of the Hebrew Bible was written, is deeply problematic from today's perspective. But I also recognize that it's a perspective that is widely shared by present-day Christians, even in non-fundamentalist denominations.

Moyers asked Wright about his feelings about his long-time member Obama making highly critical statements about him in response to the infamous sound bites. Wright didn't express any resentment that was obvious to me. He said a couple of times that Obama is speaking in his role as a politician, and he (Wright) speaks as a pastor and continues to see his role as speaking in that vein. And he clearly sees a "prophetic" role in the Biblical sense as part of his message.

He also quoted from Joseph in Genesis - one of my favorite Biblical stories - saying that what people may do intending evil, that God can turn to good. And he saw Obama's impressive speech on race in America, given in response to the initial brouhaha over Wright's sermons, as possibly a way that what were meant as political attacks to embarrass Obama may have already provided the occasion for something positive to occur.

I won't speculate on what soundbites might be plucked out of Moyers' interview to attack or defend the Rev. Wright. I was unexpectedly impressed by Wright in that interview. And he came across not at all as some kind of hate-monger but rather as a thoughtful and serious pastor and conscientious student of the Scriptures.

And if some trolls think my take on it is also scandalous: bite me! (I'm not so gifted with Christian diplomatic skills as the Rev. Wright.)

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