Jammin' with Jeremiah Wright
By Jon Pahl
I sat in on the alto sax with the excellent choir at the Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ last night as Jeremiah Wright, Jr. preached. The infamous pastor has not noticeably tempered his rhetoric. But in between my own improvisations, it occurred to me that understanding Wright as an artist can explain in part the flap that led to his painful distancing from former parishioner, Barack Obama, about which I've written previously on these pages (http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2008/03/jon-pahl-on-jeremiah-wright.html).
Wright is an improvisational artist. And sometimes, when you improvise, you hit wrong notes. But, more often, when you're as good at jammin' as Jeremiah Wright is, you create something new, good, beautiful, and true.
Wright speaks truth to power like no preacher in America today. Countless sharp insights peppered his 40 minute sermon on Matthew's story of the Three Wise Men, whom Wright called--in a sermon delivered as part of our Seminary's "Preaching with Power" series--"scholars." The story traces Herod's attempt to capture and kill the baby Jesus by enlisting the "scholars" as unwitting accomplices to Herod's paranoid megalomania.
Wright repeated the basic point he drew out of this story several times: "Governmental policies that put politics before people are harmful." It was not difficult to hear in this sermonic theme some of Wright's own pain at his treatment by Barack Obama.
Wright's sharpest words were directed at the United States. Herod's genocide was just the logical extension of his "Homeland Security" policy, Wright offered. In a line that drew laughs from anyone who has had to deal with ridiculous TSA policies in airports, Wright suggested that the real name of the policy should be "Homeland Stupidity."
Wright compared the Roman Empire, in which Herod was a "puppet," to the British Empire, as examples of how being an imperial power "makes you think you're in charge of other people's lives." He then went on to riff that we also need to look carefully at the policies of "The United Empire of America."
He backed up that rhetoric by tracking a bit of 20th century history, notably the annexation of Hawaii and Alaska and the burgeoning number of U.S. military bases around the globe, and then documenting the methods of this empire--a "preemptive" war that "should never have been waged," costing the lives of over 4300 "young Americans," and "torture." These imperial practices coincided with governmental policies that leave millions "with no healthcare," and that leave millions of black and brown children behind with no decent education.
Finally, Wright turned to Herod's attempt to use religion for political purposes, by bringing the "scholars" to Jerusalem. "Beware when politicians call a bunch of preachers together," Wright suggested, "you got some faith-based foolishness about to begin."
But in the last third of his sermon, Wright turned to gospel. "I love the Word of God," he riffed. "It tells us about lying politicians, it tells us about Empire, and it always tells us about a loving God who gets the last word."
That word was "worship." "The government is out there," Wright preached, "and the government isn't going to change, but in here we worship, and worship changes us!"
The story of the three scholars ends with them going home "by another way" to avoid Herod's spies. Wright suggested that when we worship--when we come into the presence of the living God like the scholars did at Bethlehem, "we're changed. We go home by a different way."
God changes things, Wright concluded. The bitter becomes sweet. The curse becomes a blessing. Obstacles become opportunities. Crucifixion becomes resurrection.
That Lenten theme fit perfectly Wright's own biography. For all the abuse he has received at the hands of the press, in popular opinion, and even from his President, Jeremiah Wright is still jammin'.