Jon Pahl on Jeremiah Wright

The Lynching of Jeremiah Wright
Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

Barack Obama has already issued his important, eloquent, and historic speech on race here in Philadelphia. In it, he carefully and clearly defends Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. from the unfair treatment his former pastor has received in recent days. At the same time, Obama beautifully stakes out a higher road than Rev. Wright's admittedly inflammatory rhetoric.

But it would be a mistake to overlook the dynamics that led to the focus on Rev. Wright in the first place. After all, it's Holy Week. Lynching time. And the recent treatment of Rev. Wright demonstrates to a perfect "T" the scapegoating, exaggeration, and violence Christians remember in this sacred season. It would be ironic if it weren't so tragic.

The right wing press first "broke" the story of Rev. Wright's supposed "anti-Americanism" and "anti-Semitism." Sean Hannity started the mob moving. But the mainstream press, without any apparent critical thinking or additional homework, simply accepted the Willie Horton film-clips. Even a little research might have suggested that Rev. Wright was a slightly more complex figure than the sound bites suggested.

I first learned of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. through research for my book Youth Ministry in Modern America. What I discovered is that the program for young people at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (then led by Rev. Wright) was extraordinarily creative and comprehensive. Youth at Rev. Wright's church were not treated as some sort of idealized "future," segregated off into some separate sphere. They were fully woven into the fabric of the congregation. They participated in the church through teaching, preaching, rites of passage, and the whole range of being a Christian and a citizen. If you want to understand Barack Obama's extraordinary appeal to young people, it wouldn't hurt to start with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

A great strength of the Black Church since its inception has been the ability of congregations to link sacred with secular concerns. This linkage was necessary to protect African Americans from a brutally oppressive society. And anyone who thinks this oppression is over has not looked at economic or prison statistics lately--as Obama's speech makes patently clear. For all of the success of the Civil Rights Movement, racial inequality that exacts real suffering in the lives of African Americans continues to be a fundamental problem in American society.

Consequently, Rev. Wright has been a tireless advocate for social justice. The list of "ministries" on the web site for Trinity United Church of Christ runs to five pages. Active Seniors and Friends Ministry, Drug and Alcohol Recovery Ministry, HIV/AIDS Ministry, Legal Counseling, Prison Ministry--and much more constitute what's really going on at Trinity United Church of Christ. Anyone can see with a little research that these ministries serve "the least among us," and thereby serve the entire society. They are faith-based activism at its best. And as Obama's speech clarifies, that's why such a church was attractive to him, not because of some supposed anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism of the pastor with which he is now being "associated."

Rev. Wright's comments about state-sponsored terrorism, 9/11, and the violence of U.S. policies toward Palestinians are hardly unique to him. Noam Chomsky has said the same thing. "The current U.S. leadership is . . . quite frankly and openly committed to the use of violence to control the world," Chomsky said in a May 21, 2002 interview. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War, lamented that "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government."

To assert, then, with the Rev. Wright that America has a violent history is not a radical or anti-American "perspective." It's a fact. The violence that built this nation is evident to anyone without a blinkered nationalist view of history--from the Native American removals, through slavery, to the stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction, to Iraq.

As many commentators have pointed out, Rev. Wright's passionate remarks fit well into the long history of Judeo-Christian prophetic preaching. After all, the rabbi Jesus was not a nationalist. Any Christian who tries to make him into a pro-American patriot misses the rather significant detail that the Roman Empire found it expedient to put him to death. Jeremiah Wright has incarnated the prophetic tradition that calls nations to be accountable to God. In that context, even his statement "God-damn America" makes sense. Prophets say such things. God is beyond any nation. And when a nation doesn't treat its people justly, then prophets resort to the rhetoric of divine damnation to try to change the people of a nation.

So, in the end, Rev. Wright is neither anti-American nor anti-Semitic. He does tell the truth about American violence--out of love for the nation's best ideals. He is unapologetically a Christian. He is unashamedly Black.

Those are features to admire, not condemn. Such loyalties to one's particularity, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued in The Dignity of Difference, can uplift us all and strengthen the social fabric. The proof of that is in the hope inspired by the Obama campaign. Such hope is founded in the faith, integrity, and courage--despite human flaws, of a man like the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.

That such faith-based hope would inspire fear on the part of some in our society is no surprise. What is surprising is that the mainstream press so uncritically joined the mob.

Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He is Visiting Professor of Religion at Princeton University.


John G. Turner at: March 21, 2008 at 6:34 AM said...

As long as my colleagues continue to post ringing defenses of Rev. Wright, I will continue to post partial dissents!

Yes, Wright has been a tireless advocate of social justice. And he has been an inspiring preacher of hope. I read "The Audacity to Hope" yesterday and think it is brilliant.

However, I dissent from these laudatory views of Wright's prophetic calling. Wright rightly (sorry!) denounces many of America's sins. Yet he also foolishly makes up additional ones. Even with the history of the Tuskegee experiments, I can't believe he buys into some absurd conspiracy theories. That cheapens some of his very justified critiques.

I don't think Chomsky's correct either, for what it's worth. I have less trouble with King's statement.

The real issue here is political. Nobody would be talking about Wright if Obama didn't attend his church. The real issue is that Wright offers an at least partly justifiable view of American racism and imperialism and Obama has offered a very different, postracial vision (as in "there is no black Americans, no white Americans, only Americans.") There is a large divide between Obama's rhetoric and Wright's rhetoric, so it makes it easy for Obama's critics -- fairly or unfairly -- to use Wright's words against him.

Anonymous at: March 21, 2008 at 7:52 AM said...

And yet nobody is making any stink about the pastors that McCain presents as his guides and support, despite their own virulent messages of hate and discrimination. What's the difference? One has to do with race in America.

Edward J Blum at: March 21, 2008 at 8:42 AM said...
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John G. Turner at: March 21, 2008 at 9:07 AM said...


You're right about the past abuses, as I've brought up on a previous thread.

However, you can't be serious that critics of Wright need to prove his conspiracy theories wrong. You're misplacing the burden of proof. Anyone making such serious accusations needs to provide evidence to back up those claims. You can't make crazy claims and then say, "prove me wrong!" I think the McCarthy era is a good illustration of the logical flaw in your suggestion.

I don't like John Hagee's anti-catholicism either, if that's what the anonymous response has in mind. And I'm sure it's going to be used against McCain in the general election. I'm also befuddled about his embrace of Hagee given his frosty relations with most evangelicals. Surely he could have found a better evangelical mate.

Edward J Blum at: March 21, 2008 at 9:13 AM said...
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Edward J Blum at: March 21, 2008 at 9:17 AM said...
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Edward J Blum at: March 21, 2008 at 9:18 AM said...
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John G. Turner at: March 21, 2008 at 10:18 AM said...


Good debate. Happy to buy at the AHA but not conceding the point.

I agree that one of the roles of a historian (I prefer "a historian" to "an historian") is to be a memory keeper, including of communal memory. And I also agree that the government's past treatment of minorities justifies a healthy suspicion of current government behavior. But not suspicion to the extent that in a debate such as this the burden of proof is on [the government / me?] to prove that the government isn't purposefully giving African Americans AIDS or drugs. To accept that framework would mean that any allegation of racism stands unless it can be empirically controverted. That's not a reasonable standard by any stretch.

Moreover, one of the other crucial duties of historians is to trace change over time. Do you really think our government's stance toward racial minorities hasn't changed since the Jim Crow era or the Tuskegee experiments? One reason Obama's speech was largely effective is because he unhesitantingly talked about the injustices of the past and the injustices of the present while also paying tribute to the progress that we've made as a society.

I use Howard Zinn's People's History as one of my primary survey textbooks. One of the great strengths of the book is its ability to wake students up to the truly heinous things that white people and the rich have done in the American past. One of its great weaknesses is giving very little impression of change over time. As King would say, time isn't neutral, and I don't think progress is inevitable or bound to continue. And on the issue of racial equality, we are a long way off from the promised land. Yet as historians we have even more of an obligation than ministers to offer a nuanced account of change over time.

deg at: March 21, 2008 at 10:26 AM said...

Are we allowed to vote on who wins the beer?

Edward J Blum at: March 21, 2008 at 11:03 AM said...

Change over time... YES. I agree with you and I think there have clearly been improvements. So many improvements - no doubt!!!!!!!

Edward J Blum at: March 21, 2008 at 11:50 AM said...
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Edward J Blum at: March 21, 2008 at 11:51 AM said...
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Randall at: March 21, 2008 at 5:19 PM said...

I haven't kept up with Rev Wright’s comments and the media chatter as I probably should. But it does seem interesting that McCain got something like a pass on the Hagee endorsement. Besides pretty intense coverage on Bill Moyers' Journal, NPR, and a handful of outlets, it wasn't of major interest to the national media. The story had little traction.

It should have. Think about Hagee's record! His premill nationalism, outrageous comments about Hurricane Katrina and N.O., outlandish pronouncements on family values, etc. For McCain, it’ a little bit like getting an endorsement from David Duke. Certainly worth shying away from.

On the matter of the burden of proof… Is there anything that would be too “out there” to deserve disproving. Just because the government or the CIA has been involved in some heinous acts in the past doesn’t mean that anything is possible.

This reminds me of something I came across in my research of the Assemblies of God. One of the first high-placed members of the denomination to become involved in Missouri politics made a campaign issue out of the fluoridization of water, which he thought was surely a communist plot. How would a historian go about debunking or bunking that?

John G. Turner at: March 21, 2008 at 6:38 PM said...

As soon as the Clinton machine and the media turn their attention to J McCain, Hagee will get all the attention he deserves!

David Evans at: March 22, 2008 at 9:46 AM said...

I think that a very important question regarding African American conspiracy theories is being omitted. That is, why do these theories have as much traction, or any traction for that matter, in African American communities like Trinity UCC? Whether they are true or not is almost impossible to decide, but perhaps another point can be made about their existence- namely that the African American community has valid historical reasons for believing that governmental institutions in America are opposed to African American empowerment.

Edward J Blum at: March 22, 2008 at 8:22 PM said...

So do you want some proof of conspiracy theories; how about the rampant selling of drugs in inner cities by POLICE OFFICERS. See _Police Corruption: At Issue_. So... could it be that the closer we look, the closer Rev. Wright sounds right????

"In the fall of 1999, Rafael Perez, a police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department’s crime- and gangster-ridden Rampart Division, was arrested for stealing three kilos of cocaine that had been confiscated as evidence during an undercover drug deal. In exchange for a lighter sentence, Perez, who was assigned to the elite antigang unit known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), offered to tell investigators about other crimes he and his fellow Rampart officers had committed. The highest-profile crime Perez admitted to was shooting Javier Francisco Ovando in October 1996 and subsequently planting a gun on him to frame him for attacking him and his partner. Ovando, who was paralyzed by the shooting, was sentenced to twenty-three years in prison, but was released in September 1999 after Perez’s confession. Perez also told investigators that he helped cover up two other unjustified shootings by Rampart police officers, including one incident in which the victim bled to death while police officers delayed an ambulance’s arrival while they conferred on their cover story. He implicated more than seventy officers in such acts of misconduct as drug dealing, planting evidence, making false arrests, and covering up crimes they had themselves committed."

Edward J Blum at: March 22, 2008 at 8:24 PM said...

Or how about this story on drug trafficking by the CIA:

Tracy at: March 22, 2008 at 9:46 PM said...

John G. Turner said...

As soon as the Clinton machine and the media turn their attention to J McCain, Hagee will get all the attention he deserves!

And when will that be, one wonders? Here's a thought: When Clinton "wins" the Democratic nomination, and only then, will the Clinton machine and the MSM turn their withering gaze on Hagee. Check out the softshoe backpedal in tomorrow morning's NYT magazine. Hagee comes across as a warmer, cuddlier Billy Graham.

Sarah Posner has a nice piece up on Hagee at Religion That's as close to the MSM as this is likely to get, for now.

Tigress at: March 22, 2008 at 11:18 PM said...

I wanted to thank you for this post. I thought enough of it to post a link to it on my blog in hopes that others would read it.

I also enjoyed reading the comments.

I believe you find fault where you look for it and the media is very good at finding just enough to lynch someone and trusting that no one will do their homework.

I do believe it is possible for Obama to believe that there are "only Americans" yet still believe that others don't see it that way which is why he is trying to make a change. I believe that he can see that there is racism and iperialism that exists in America without letting it effect his vision of "only Americans".

I am a Black woman who was a child when Dr. King marched, when he was shot, when both Kennedys were shot. My father was in WWII and for a short time was in Tuskegee. I have family and friends and have seen and been a part of some of the atrocities. I firmly believe racism is still strong and very well hidden and that the government, even if not intentionally is making a great divide between the haves and the have nots and part of that will be the lack of education which suffers so greatly in the minority communities compared to the white ones.

And knowing all of this doesn't stop my belief that we are all Americans, that we should all be equal. Knowing all of this doesn't keep me from having friends I love from all nationalities. So, why can't Obama listen to what Wright is saying and know it as truth, and still believe that we can get past it?

Furthermore, I cannot for one minute listen to Obama's speeches and believe he could sit and listen to his pastor speak of racial hatred. It's too contradictory. I can't believe that there are white people in his church that would sit through it either and if you listen to the first speech aired he mentions that there are whites in the congregation. Has anyone even bothered to ask any of the white members of the congregation what they think of his sermons?

John G. Turner at: March 24, 2008 at 6:29 AM said...

Just for the record, I'm not impressed with your evidence, Ed. It doesn't support Wright's contentions (some rogue police officers, the government turning a blind eye to the drug trade for geopolitical reasons in the 1980s -- that doesn't equal Wright's assertions that the government has purposefully been spreading drugs and AIDS in the black community).

I think "tigress"'s comment is helpful. Let's move away from Wright's more crazy statements.

We certainly could talk about how the government has played a role in perpetuating the black underclass. See Thomas Sugrue's book. Or how our society as a whole tolerates failing schools, decaying portions of cities, etc.

Edward J Blum at: March 24, 2008 at 9:21 AM said...
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Edward J Blum at: March 24, 2008 at 9:34 AM said...

My guess, moreover, is that when it comes to racial discrimination, we have more of a problem than one or two 'rogue' police officers. Just a guess. But then again, why would there be books in Barnes and Noble titled 'How to Drive While Black' that are all about what to do when you get pulled over by a police officer for no reason.

John G. Turner at: March 24, 2008 at 10:15 AM said...


I still think you're unncessarily giving Wright a free pass for some of his ridiculous allegations.

Of course, I accept that the police in general discriminate against black people in a whole host of ways. You don't have a shred of evidence to support the contention that the feds are purposefully getting black communities hooked on drugs. [Re: the Perez story, I was going to flippantly ask you if you paid by the Clinton campaign to fuel Black-Latino animosity in light of the Bill Richardson endorsement]. Also, the sort of structural issues that, as you say, make black drug use more "probable" are very different from intentional conspiracies.

I like Randall's comparison of Wright's assertions to fundamentalist fears of fluoride (and, you know, the federal government used to discriminate against evangelicals in terms of military chaplaincies and radio licenses -- the feds must be trying to stamp out Bible-believing Christians today...).

Edward J Blum at: March 24, 2008 at 11:06 AM said...
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John G. Turner at: March 24, 2008 at 12:29 PM said...

I forgot to mention I'm a teetotaling evangelical, Ed!

Anonymous at: March 24, 2008 at 1:23 PM said...

I love how quick this blog is to belittle conservative religious figures (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson to name a few) when they are involved in "scandal," but then does nothing or tries to justify the "scandals" of leftist preachers (like Jeremiah Wright).

I find it absolutly ridiculous that Edward Blum is using less-than-credible "conspiracies" to somehow justify the actions of Reverend Wright. Your argument is neither historical or impartial, it's just partisan.

Regardless of your reasonings for defending Wright, the man should NEVER have been so foolish as to think that his statements would not cause conflict.

Edward J Blum at: March 24, 2008 at 2:55 PM said...

Umm... we all just heralded a new book on Bill Bright, a book I plan on assigning in class. But perhaps all you know of me anonymous is the short sound bites that you read here.

Manlius at: April 2, 2008 at 12:27 PM said...

It seems to me that Rev. Wright has tried to play both sides of the fence in terms of his relationship to the history of the black church. At times he sounds like a Howard Thurman or M.L. King,Jr., and at other times he sounds like James Cone and the more radical elements of black theology.

Based on the little research I've done, I think at heart he's a Thurman/King type (surely this is what attracts Obama), but can't resist the tempting dramatic rhetoric of liberation theology (which, perhaps cynically, Obama didn't mind cashing in on to avoid the "he's too white" criticism in Chicago).

BTW, John Turner, I'm an old friend (Alex Burgess) who attended a black church with you one summer outside D.C. I'll e-mail you soon to get reacquainted.

John G. Turner at: April 3, 2008 at 8:15 PM said...

I am astounded. Alex's comment is proof that RIAH does only promote the academic study of American Religion but also reconnects old friends. That should qualify us for another clio award.

Furthermore, even though we're done with this thread, Alex has provided me with some real life credibility on the issue.

alcohol rehabilitation at: March 30, 2009 at 2:38 PM said...

Rev. Jeremiah Wright's goal in helping those people who are into alcoholism, sets a good example to the youth. Moreover, his charitable works have given way for others to do the right thing by avoiding alcohol.

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