For more than a week the nation has been analyzing the incendiary words of Reverend Jeremiah Wright that are short snippets of sermons- a few minutes of years worth of sermons made throughout his career. Reverend Wright’s comments were offensive and have been roundly criticized and condemned including Wright’s own parishioner Barack Obama.
Many preachers have said things that make their congregants cringe from time to time. But should a preacher be judged by a few words said at a time of heightened emotion, the days following 9/11 rather than a body of pastoral work that stretches a lifetime? Reverends Falwell and Robertson made comments equally offensive blaming the “morals” of the United States for the wrath that was wrought to the nation when the nation was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. I was offended by their remarks and felt that Reverend Wright’s incendiary comments were offensive to many in this country and the language he used was inflammatory and wrong.
In the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 there were many things said by many people that surely are regrettable. There was anger, grief and a sense of vulnerability that was being voiced in a variety of ways. Sometimes expressions of these highly volatile emotions can come out in very ugly ways and they did from many people. Reverend Wright was not the only one- but to hear the story told today you would think that Wright was the only one who felt that our foreign policies in the Middle East and throughout the world since we had become the only super power fomented some of the emotions that lead young angry men to be recruited by radical jihadists.
Reverend Wright used some questionable language to express the viewpoint that the United States needs to examine its own policies when hatred towards our nation is expressed in such a heinous way, but many people, privately and publicly, had those views and were asking difficult questions. At the time however- it was considered un-American to question previous American policies having some part of why radical jihadists might have been successful in recruiting men and women into their cause.
However Reverend Wright’s comments that day have only come to light because one of his congregants is a Presidential candidate. Reverends Falwell’s and Robertson’s comments were parsed long ago.
Falwell’s and Robertson’s careers have been defined by divisiveness, vilification, and no interest whatsoever in tending to the social ills of the poor, the disabled and the elderly unless it has been tied to the coffers of their churches and their own political interests. The difference for me is that Reverend Wright has a lifetime of work of social activism that is admirable and Christian at its very core.
Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. is one of the most widely acclaimed black preachers in the United States. Combining social concern, spiritual growth, and political activism, Wright, who preaches in a black traditional style, brings a message of hope, redemption, and renewal. In 1972 he became pastor of a small United Church of Christ congregation in the inner city of Chicago. After over 30 years in the pulpit, his congregation has grown to 10,000 and is the largest United Church of Christ congregation in the United States.
According to Wright, the Christian call extends in two directions: upward to God and outward to the community. As a result, Wright takes seriously the need to reach out to others, especially Chicago’s inner-city residents. Trinity has 70 ministry programs, 22 of which target youth. Half of the programs target the community, including adult education, literacy, computer, child care, and education for unemployed or low-income families. For Wright, religion, social outreach, and political activism go hand in hand. He vocally opposed the U.S. involvement in Iraq beginning in 2003 and has tackled such previously taboo issues such as AIDS from the pulpit.
While I do not come from a tradition of a black church and cannot judge some of the rhetoric that comes from past racial inequities and the nation’s original sin of slavery and the legacy of Tuskegee, I can understand Mr. Obama’s draw to Reverend Wright’s church and his message of social activism; a strong message to a community organizer.
I grew up in the Episcopalian Church and during my high school years my life was one that was searching for faith, God, morality and justice. The Episcopalian Bishop of New York, the Right Reverend Paul Moore was a hero to me. Moore was the personification of a priest who took his pastoral duties seriously into the realm of social activism.
After Seminary, Moore was named rector of Grace van Vorst Church, an inner city parish in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he served from 1949 to 1957. There he began his career as a social activist, protesting inner city housing conditions and racial discrimination. He and his colleagues reinvigorated their inner city parish and were celebrated in the Church for their efforts. In a recent article in “The New Yorker” by Honor Moore, the Bishop’s daughter, she writes eloquently about a Christmas Eve sermon that her father gave in Jersey City where he talkled openly about racism and poverty- rather gutsy preaching for the early 1950’s
In 1957, he was named Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, Indiana. Moore introduced the conservative Midwestern capital to social activism through his work in the inner city.
Moore was appointed as Suffragan Bishop of Washington, D.C., in 1964. During his time in Washington he became nationally known as an advocate for civil rights and an opponent of the Vietnam War. He knew Martin Luther King, Jr., and marched with him in Selma and elsewhere.
In 1970, he was named as coadjutor and successor to Bishop Horace Donegan in New York City. He was installed as Bishop of the Diocese of New York in 1972 and held that position until 1989. Bishop Moore was widely known for his liberal activism. Throughout his career he spoke out against homelessness and racism. He was an effective advocate for cities, once calling the corporations abandoning New York “rats leaving a sinking ship.”
He was the first Episcopal bishop to ordain an openly homosexual woman as a priest in the church. His liberal political views were coupled with fierce traditionalism when it came to the liturgy and even the creed. In his writings and sermons he sometimes described himself as ‘born again’, referring to his awakening to a fervent Christocentric faith as a boarding school student.
After the US of invasion of Iraq, Paul Moore, a retired Bishop gave a sermon at New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on March 23, 2003, four days after the United States invaded Iraq, where he said “Your fate will be determined by the power of millions of people of all faiths against the war and one solitary Texas politician being alone with Jesus. . . . This has to do with two different kinds of religions, it seems to me. The religion that says ‘I talk to Jesus and therefore I am right,’ and millions and millions of people of all faiths who disagree.”
Would these words be considered unpatriotic to some? At the time the former Bishop Moore gave this sermon, speaking out against the Iraq War was considered by many Americans and many of the media to be akin to treason.
Another one of my pastoral heroes was Reverend William Sloan Coffin, Jr.- the minister at New York’s Riverside Church, an interdenominational congregation affiliated with both the United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches, and one of the most prominent congregations in New York City. Before his minsistry at Riverside he was the chaplain at Yale University.
While at Yale and by 1967, Coffin increasingly concentrated on preaching civil disobedience and supported the young men who turned in their draft cards. He was one af several well-known intellectuals who signed an open letter entitled “A Call to Resist Illegitimate authority”, which was printed in several newspapers in October 1967. That same month, he raised the possibility of declaring Battell Chapel at Yale a sanctuary for resisters, or possibly as the site of a large demonstration of civil disobedience. School administration barred the use of the church as a sanctuary. Coffin later wrote, “I accused them of behaving more like ‘true Blues than true Christians’. They squirmed but weren’t about to change their minds…. I realized I was licked.”
Coffin’s words in the Viet Nam era were considered by some to be anti-American as they were again when, like Bishop Moore, he spoke out against the US Invasion of Iraq.
While at Riverside he openly and vocally supported gay rights when many liberals still were uncomfortable with homosexuality. Some of the congregation’s socially conservative members openly disagreed with his position on sexuality.
Although many conversative members of Riverside Church disagreed with Coffin, they didn’t leave the congregration- because the work that the church did was larger than an issue or statements with which they disagreed.
Does that sound like a familiar contemporary scenario? However now we eviscerate Obama for continuing membership in a church where there was some incendiary rhetoric coming from the pulpit when there is a long history of congregants staying in the house of worship because of the bigger picture of what the minstry accomplishes.
Social activism always has political overtones- when there are issues of social justice, war and peace, attention to poverty and prejudices politics inevitably gets into the mix.
Social activists- like Moore, Coffin and Wright spoke to very different audiences but they had the same Christian message- take care of those in need, tend to the poor, the sick and the elderly, and expose inequity in society.
I find social activism an essential part of what Christian’s are called to do by faith and the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Sometimes this activism in itself is viewed as a political statement and can seem to some as a partisan view. But at its essence it’s a moral view- it’s based on doing what is fundamentally morally right.
No one minister, rabbi, imman, monk, priest or other leaders of faith in infallable. They are human- filled with anger, hope, love, greed, grief but they are called to lead people fundamentally in a faith centered world. Like with all humans, words come out wrong and angers get expressed in the heat of a moment and often displaced grief comes out as vetriole. And sometimes centuries of opression get expressed in terms that are offensive to many ears – as offensive as the oppression seemed to those expressing their anger.
That is why our politics should not have a litmus test for religion. It isn’t just that we have a freedom to be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Theist or Athiest in this country- it is that a man or woman keeps his own conscience with God and how that faith has grown or has been influeced has no place in the public square.
Unfortunartely since the 1980s when the Moral Majority came to power there has been an increasingly problematic blurring of faith and politics. We should not be questioning a candidate’s faith or how that very personal relationship with faith was reached. We shouldn’t be judging a candidate by sound bites of his pastor- a pastor with a lifetime of experience fighting for social justice and also serving this nation in the military. Wright, Sloan Coffin and Moore have all made statements and held positions that maybe unpopular with their congregants. I believe that through their work on social issues they have in fact given the words of Jesus Christ life in the current world.
However each one of us has our own complex relationship with faith, those that have led us on our spiritual journey, and our own failings as humans and our divine spark as people of spirit.
Judging a man by a morsel of statements from his/her spiritual guide is misguided and certainly has no place in politics. Faith and the one’s own journey of faith is deeply personal, nuanced and complex. In the end, what should be judged in politics the moral courage, judgement, fairness and integrity of a candidate. How one’s personal journey with faith or without faith got them to their endpoint is not the question.
The person who stands before us – the character, leadership, judgement and integrity that he/she now possesses is appropriate fodder for the realm of politics and are qualities that must be judged by the voters when making their decision.