In Defense of Rev. Jeremiah Wright

I heard that great humanitarian Karl Rove criticizing Dr. Jeremiah Wright's sermon in which he talks about a black and poor Jesus being crucified by the Roman ruling class. He expressed outrage that Dr. Wright would say this. At that point it clarified for me why so many people had rushed to call Dr. Wright's words hateful and racist. The reverend had attacked all of America's sacred cows, including its civil religion, in which the idea of a black Jesus just doesn't fit.

The theology of liberation is a direct challenge to the philosophy and tenets of American Civil Religion. Civil religion, to paraphrase the scholar Robert Bellah, is a public religious dimension that is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals.

Civil religion's philosophy is essentially racial and political, rather than universal or spiritual. It has its own symbols, its own codes, its own holidays and even its own morality. Bellah, in his essay "Civil Religion in America" points out that the adherents of the philosophy have, "an obligation, both collective and individual, to carry out God's will on earth. God's work will be our own." And therein lies our problem.

One of the primary tenets of American civil religion is that the people who came from Europe were the new Israelites or, to be clear, the "Chosen People." These immigrants, like the Israelites of old, had made their "exodus" from Europe and were chosen to take over the "Promised Land." And like the Hebrews of the Old Testament, God had granted them the right to take over this land, by any means necessary. Some know it better as "Manifest Destiny," and according to its tenets and, of course, consistent with the Hebrew scriptures, they were compelled to take over the land of Canaan. Already inhabited, no problem, we are the chosen people, and the Indians, well, "not so much." What followed was the annihilation and dispossession of the Native Americans.

The land that the new Israelites inhabited was hard and unwelcoming. So they reached across the waters and again their canon of scriptures aided them. Their black African brethren -- the descendents of Ham who had been biblically cursed (Genesis 9:25) and designated to be "the lowest of slaves to his brothers" -- were perfectly suited for the task. When they needed to buttress this flimsy justification for dehumanizing their fellow human beings, they used Joshua 9:23, which spoke of another curse of folks, unfavored by God, who were to be Israel's "hewers of wood and carriers of water."

This is why the U.S. government's history of conquest and exploitation can be so easily explained away and there is so little national angst. It was blessed, sanctioned by the Almighty, a part of our destiny. Those others just got in our way and, besides, left to their own devices they would have done far worse. The Native Americans would have killed one another off anyway, and the Africans we kidnapped, would have knocked one another off eventually -- after all, look at them now. So we did them a favor by civilizing them. This kind of racist discourse is still considered acceptable in some circles.

Signs of this religion are everywhere. All one has to do is look at your currency, every bill says, "In God We Trust." Every time you attend an event, the national anthem (the religion's hymn) is played, and you pledge allegiance to its symbol, the flag, and acknowledge "one nation under God." Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States, words in Latin proclaim, "God has favored our undertaking." It even has its own holidays, Thanksgiving and Memorial Day.

The beauty of civil religion is that it doesn't interfere with any specific religion, which is why conservative and right-leaning Christians have no problem with the doctrine. However, those who use a word other than God to address their Higher Power are looked upon with suspicion and enmity.

Other significant features of the pantheon of civil religion are the philosophical tenets (sacred cows) that keep its adherents from peeping behind the throne. When Dr. Wright criticized the role of "rich white folks" or the ruling rich for making many of our lives and folks in the rest of the world miserable he challenged the long-held myth that "you can get rich if you work hard enough."

Poor white folks and working-class white folks wanted badly to identify with the people who bear their skin color but who are really wealthy and run this country. They badly want to believe that they too can be rich and take their place in the front of the line and be exploiter rather than exploited, boss rather than bossed. Unfortunately, the Horatio Alger tale was a cruel exaggeration, and while a few actually rise above their class status, the rest are stuck. And while working-class whites may look like their richer cousins, the truth is, they are "their color but not their kind."

While pointing out the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as touching on the U.S. failure to stand with the rest of the world against the former Apartheid South Africa, the pastor challenged the blind loyalty that birthed the phrase "my country right or wrong." And this government has been wrong quite a bit. Its military adventures dating back to the pickpocketing of Mexico to its intervention in the Philippines to its more recent plundering of Vietnam and its meddling in Latin American affairs, while deposing leaders it didn't like, were not ordained by God but were dictated by capital's need for new markets, expansion and accumulation. And today U.S. imperialism is wrongfully in Iraq and, yes, Afghanistan as well. And nearly always its victims have been people of color.

Another sacred tenet states that "thou shalt not criticize Israel." And this is not because of a powerful Jewish lobby as many wrongfully interpret but because supporting the Israelis fits the needs and the desires of U.S. imperialism. The Palestinians are an oppressed people and deserve our sympathy and support as well as that of the rest of the world.

Wright even challenged the notion that white life is more valuable than any other and challenged the idea of the sacredness of white womanhood. He took issue with the fact that night after night, the big business press trumpeted the continued search in Aruba for the then considered missing young Alabama girl, Natalie Holloway. What happened to young Holloway was indeed tragic. However, the constant trumpeting of her disappearance and the daily and almost hourly updates and attention paid to her was out of proportion. This was so, especially when one considers that the conflict in Darfur was going on, a war was being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a large part of the mostly colored Third World goes to bed hungry most nights and is being felled by preventable diseases and scourged by new ones such as AIDS. What can one conclude from this strange imbalance and preoccupation?

I read several websites, blogs and news sites in which respondents repeatedly accused Wright of being racist because he said, "The government gives them (poor blacks) drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strikes, and you want them to sing 'God Bless America.'" Of course the song is another hymn in celebration of the civil religion, but the anger directed at him is a result of their unwillingness to believe that this government really does give blacks and especially poor blacks, the back of its hand.

Ultimately what has some folks so up in arms is not that Dr. Wright was angry and seemingly hostile as many would have us believe but, rather, the implications of what he said. What Dr. Wright did more than anything was to challenge all the accepted illusions that allow citizens of all colors, sex and ethnicity to wrap themselves in a fake patriotism buttressed by a made-up religion, which prevents them from looking critically at their country and its policies.


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