Thursday, March 20, 2008

Race, Politics, Power and the Gospel

A friend of mine recently asked me my thoughts on "the myriad recent news clips about Barack Obama's pastor, Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright." Rev. Wright, for those of you who don't know, is pastor of the largely black Trinity United Church of Christ in the South Side of Chicago and a man that Sen. Obama credits as having played a central role in his own Christian faith.

I have posted below my response in an edited and expanded form.


While I try and avoid partisan politics, even with my friends, I found Rev. Jeremiah Wright's position as reported in the press and defended, or at least excused, by his supporters to be troubling.

On the one hand, the positions that he seems to advance are more than intemperate, they appear to be the paranoid ravings of a very angry, and even racist, man. An interviewer on NPR, hardly a John Birch Society stronghold, asked the Rev. Otis Moss, who replaced Wright as pastor of Trinity, if similar intemperate and racial charged language would be acceptable from a white American (or for that matter, and Asian-, Mexican-, or other hyphenated American)? Even granting the centuries long history of gross injustice against African-Americans, and laying aside both the Civil War in the 19th century and the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th, Wright's position is unacceptable.

Theologically I think you have put your finger on the key point. No matter how angry, and not matter how real the offense, Wright's language is not the language of the Gospel. Nor is it the language of the Prophets of the Old Testament. The biblical witness is clear, and even harsh, in its condemnation of injustice and those who commit it. At the same time, every prophetic denouncement is followed by a call to repentance ground not in human failure or anger, but God's mercy and willingness to restore us to communion with Him and each other. At least in what I have heard, and this has only been snippets and second hand accounts, Wright emphasizes condemnation, and even a kind of repentance, but the mercy and forgiveness that leads to reconciliation seems wholly absent.

While I am sympathetic with, and even in admiration of, the willingness of liberation theologians such as Wright to condemn injustice, these condemnations typically only mimic the biblical witness. At its core liberation theology is not theology, but political philosophy, specifically Marxist political philosophy. It is not founded on the mercy of God, however much it appeals to that mercy, but on class hatred and warfare. Again, I am very sympathetic with the anger expressed by Wright (and others who have suffered great injustices for that matter). Only willful blindness keeps us from seeing how that the poor and weak among us are exploited economically, politically and socially by people of greater means.

Having said this, I think we need to be careful that we not understand "the weak" or "the poor" in purely or even primarily political or economic terms.

It is not a social class per se that is exploited, but rather the weakness of individuals. This weakness is often physical, social or economic. But it can also be moral and personal. Precisely because they focus on the former and typically overlook the later, much liberationist theologizing is a romantic and sentimentality about the moral qualities about they identified as "the poor." This romanticism is troubling to me not only because it is untrue, but because it is degrading to the very individuals that the liberation theologian is trying to help. To be clear here, I am not saying this out of any theoretical view of the human condition, but as someone who grew up poor and who has ministered for over 25 years as a layman and then a priest in impoverished communities.

Yes, there is much that those of us with relative wealth and social privilege can do for our neighbor that we do not do. But if we have learned anything from the Gospel and the failures of the Great Society, while it is true that there is always more we can do (since the poor will always be with us), it is also true that there is only so much we can do, at least without the cooperation of those who we would serve.

Toward the end of his book, The Physician's Covenant: Images of the Healer in Medical Ethics, William F. May argues that medical ethicists cannot be concerned solely with the ethics of health care providers. If there are ethics for the healer, there must necessarily also be ethics for the patient. Failure to articulate the moral obligations of the patient to care for his or her own health is to neglect the full moral implications of illness and our care of the sick.

In a similar fashion, I think we need to be careful that—in our own areas of moral concern and care for our neighbor—we not neglect either our own moral obligations, or the moral obligations of those we serve. Speaking personally for a moment, it is here that I experience my greatest frustration as a priest with the general pattern of pastoral life in the Orthodox Church. Too often priest and parishioner collude to exempt each other from their respective moral obligations under the Gospel. Our appeals to economia no more exempt Orthodox Christian laity and clergy from our obligations then do Wright's catalogues of the real and substantial injustice committed against African Americans exempt him from using a temperate rhetoric that follows more closely the very biblical witness he invokes.

That said, I am concerned that there are many, and not only in the Black Church, who either support, or at least excuse, Wright's rhetoric.

My concern is not only that which I outlined above. However uncomfortable it may make us, it seems that for many of us, the American Experiment (of which I am a most enthusiastic supporter by the way) is a failure or at least not working as well as others of us might imagine. I am at a loss as to how to understand this in way that would lead us to the very reconciliation I find lacking in Wright's sermons. Wright's failures on these issues are his own, but my own certainly share a family resemblance.

What I am saying is this: While I disagree with his rhetoric, I think that Wright and his supporters are giving voice to something that is very real and which cannot be dismissed simply because of its (objectively) poor theological articulation. The fact of the matter is that my intellectual and theological precision and erudition tends to suffer most when my physical, psychic or spiritual pains are greatest.

How much more is this likely to be the case when I am giving voice not simply to my personal suffering, but the suffering of my people?

I agree with Wright on this, the questions about race that he and other are asking are important ones. At the same time though, and mindful of my own failures, questions of race, class, culture and sex, are always and everywhere questions of power and as have no other answer other than that given by Christ in His Body the Church. I can't help but wonder if "the myriad recent news clips about Barack Obama's pastor, Rev. Wright," aren't a call to the Church to take on more fully and intentionally our obligation to save, renew and unite all things in Jesus Christ.

Well, anyway these are my thoughts on the matter.

Thanks for the question.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory