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By Gary Crosby
The firestorm surrounding the relationship between the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the candidacy of Barack Obama offers a tremendous opportunity to analyze the dynamic of the interaction between the political class, the fourth estate, the electorate and the role of religion in our society.
The electorate is being fed sound-bite analysis of a church and a man of deep faith by the mainstream, electronic media. The political class is assuming that the only dynamic at work is the quest for personal power by a black minister. The electorate is engaging the debate based upon the snippets being fed on cable news and is ignoring the more in-depth analyses that are available in print media and on the web. And the United Church of Christ is trying to use this opportunity to promote a more rational discussion, a sacred discussion, on race in America.
All of this is a result of our desire to have an ever more complex world boiled down for us into a single, simple sentence. Unfortunately, in the worlds of politics and religion, this is not possible.
As a pastor, Rev. Wright is driven by his interpretation of God's agenda for social justice. This agenda is presented in Christian scripture and the writings and teachings of the great monotheisms. This agenda transcends national boundaries and political ideology. This agenda demands the acknowledgement of historical reality and present day public policy. In speaking with Bill Moyers, Rev. White offered this: "When you start confusing God and government, your allegiances to government -- a particular government and not to God -- then you're in serious trouble because governments fail people. And governments change. And governments lie."
An agenda for social justice assumes that, in God's eyes, the eradication of the Jews by the Nazis is no different than the eradication of the Apache, Arapaho, Iroquois and Sioux by a young America in its quest for Manifest Destiny. It assumes that enslavement of dissidents in the Gulags is no different than banishment of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. It assumes that jump-starting a market-based economy with human slavery is no different than enforcing a state-run economy with the abridgement of freedoms. And it assumes that the heinous, terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a reaction to American sins, real and imagined, and not a spurious, whimsical stunt by a bunch of nut-jobs. While these equations may seem abhorrent to many Americans, to others they are frighteningly accurate.
Or, in deference to our sound-bite culture, America has a lot of dirty laundry. This acknowledgement of American mistakes and the attempt to rewrite history to be more inclusive of the more distasteful aspects of our past is necessary to elevate our standing in the debate. The first reaction of this writer to the September 11 attacks was: "My God, what have we done to foster this anger?" How many of you, reading this essay, had a similar reaction?
Before we jump to the conclusion that this smacks of a "Blame America First" mentality, ponder the possibility that Rev. Wright is expressing the frustration of a lost opportunity. Chicago's Trinity United Congregational Church is testimony of what is possible in America. From humble beginnings, Rev. Wright has built what President Reagan would call a beacon of hope. This beacon feeds the hungry, comforts the afflicted, clothes and houses the needy and provides programs that encourage all to lift themselves out of drugs, poverty and hopelessness. This beacon finds its moral authority in Christian scripture, a paradigm that acknowledges human frailty, the eternal battle between good and evil and provides a "how to" guide for achieving social justice. Consider the possibility that Rev. Wright sees a moment in time when the debate can be elevated in America and real progress in unleashing human potential in the quest for social justice can be made.
Today's "talking heads" media cannot conceive of a person who is motivated by things other than personal aggrandizement. The questions reverberate from the tube and flat screen: What's in it for him? Is he just intoxicated by the limelight? Why is he torpedoing Obama? Was he dissed by Obama?
These are all logical and relevant questions when discussing Katie Couric's ratings. They have nothing to do with Rev. Wright's agenda.
Rev. Wright is a man of God. He is not without flaws as he is made from flesh, but he is called to a life of service and faith. Though this writer has no particular "inside info" I believe that we can connect the dots and draw some fair conclusions.
• Dot 1. Through his leadership, the Trinity United Church of Christ has grown from 87 to more than 8,000 members.
• Dot 2. Rev. Wright has a legacy of service to his country and his God.
• Dot 3. Rev. Wright uses a confrontational style as a means to call people to action.\
Let's connect dots one and two. Go to CBS.com, PBS.org or chicagotribune.com and watch or read a complete sermon or two. You will see a man of faith, a man of passion and a man who is leading his people from the wilderness. You will see a preacher who rattles the rafters with oratory. And you will see a leader who has built a dynamic and talented congregation in a time when most congregations are shrinking.
At the National Press Club conference on April 28, in fielding a question about his patriotism, Reverend Wright retorted: "I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many did Cheney serve?"
Is he a patriot? Yes. Does he profess blind allegiance to the United States of America? No, his allegiance is to his God. He has been called to serve, first in the U.S. military, then in the ministry, and has demonstrated time and again that he can mobilize and motivate people to do good things.
During one of the famous debates with Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan challenged America to action when he asked a simple, powerful question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Similarly, Rev. Wright challenges his congregation, paraphrasing Psalm 137 as America lusted for revenge following the September 11 terrorist attacks: "Let's kill the baby; let's bash their heads against the stone." He goes on to say, "And that my beloved is a dangerous place to be. Yet, that is where the people of faith are in 551 B.C. and that is where far too many people of faith are in A.D. 2001. We have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. We want revenge. We want paybacks and we don't care who gets hurt in the process." What was his challenge? If you want to seek revenge, kill the babies. Is this what God wants of you?
We are left with a man who thoroughly confuses the media. We are left with a man who is a patriot that rejects the "My country, right or wrong" dogma. We are left with a leader who has built a church driven by service, Christian ideals and adherence to God's desire for a more perfect people. And we are left with a gifted orator who asks demanding questions, demanding excellence from the "shining city on a hill" when mediocrity is the norm.
So, why do we not hear this type of commentary in the media? Perhaps it is because it is misguided. Perhaps it is because we don't want to hear it. More likely, though, because it takes work, it takes reflection, it takes listening. And, when the air is rushing in through your ears and exiting through your mouth, it is very difficult to listen.
Gary Crosby lives in Fayston.