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Wright’s Wrong Turn

May
1
2008

[T]hus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment.

These words were first uttered from an Enfield, Mass. pulpit more than 265 years ago by the famed Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, in whose wake entire communities repented. The now famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was a catalyst for America’s First Great Awakening, and played a role in establishing an independent spirit among New England colonists that helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution.

In the next century a new generation of preachers looked out at the moral condition of America and once again told its citizens they needed to examine their souls. Charles Finney, Asahel Nettleton, and James Finley, among others, boldly called upon the nation to repent of its wickedness. The result was a cleansing of the country’s great sin: slavery.

One hundred years later another minister, seeing iniquity in the land, preached a new message that would bring about the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the jailhouse to the Capitol, and his words carried a message that could not be ignored.

In short, we have a long history of being called to task by clerics. The desire for religious freedom that drove pilgrims to our once savage shores and that was codified in our Constitution, made such a phenomenon possible. Emboldened by revelation and not beholden to the pleasure of government, preachers have been at liberty to speak their minds to congregations large and small.

Today we find ourselves being taken to task by another man of God – Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Like the spiritual firebrands before him, Rev. Wright knows his craft, and he plies it well. Alliteration, clever turns of phrase, theatric enunciation, high rhetoric, dramatic gesticulation, and a penchant for vivid verbal illustration are all tools in the evangelist’s belt. Wright is skilled with the entire set – maybe too skilled.

Wright sees injustice, the brunt of which his people have traditionally borne the greatest burden, and he seeks to call attention to it while calling his flock to action. He wants change and repentance and he’s using his pulpit to bring it about.

And he’s right, to a certain degree.

Inequality remains a problem in America in 2008, and bigotry is far from absent. One could even argue that the cause is endemic to our society. At certain levels, white establishment remains cool to opening the door to anyone markedly different in appearance. Take a look in boardrooms and legislatures across the country and you’ll find mostly white, male faces.

Any reasonable person with a concern for others might be compelled to ask, “Why?” Why have we not come further since 1968? Why are minorities still disproportionately among the poor, incarcerated, and prematurely dead?

And outrage and anger – or its vivid demonstration – is a legitimate rhetorical tool. But Rev. Wright has a problem. In the age of YouTube, talk radio, and a lazy media, an outrageous statement meant to call a congregant to action can be blown out of proportion. His infamous cry of “God damn America,” taken in context, is a legitimate theological position and a call for national self-examination. Can we expect God to continue to bless our nation in the face of increasing immorality? That message is not so much different than what Edwards preached when he warned New Englanders of their fiery eternal prospects centuries ago.

Wright’s bigger problem, however, is when his hyperbole becomes fiction and most of America – especially white America – tunes the message out.

Tell me I’m a sinner and make your case with reasoned argument and, even if I resist, if I examine my heart I’m likely to admit that you’re right. Truth is a powerful force. But call the country the US of KKKA and you won’t win many political converts.

Say that more blacks have a difficult time accessing quality healthcare and back it up with statistics, and you might find an audience that is willing to open its mind and work toward a solution to the problem. It doesn’t take much to convince a reasonable person that life can be difficult for blacks in America. Truth is a powerful force. But say that the federal government manufactured AIDS to eradicate non-whites and nothing else you say matters. Lies are a powerful force as well.

Thanks to his association with Sen. Barack Obama, the first black man to seriously vie for the U.S. presidency, Rev. Wright has been in the national spotlight for a number of weeks. No timid soul, he’s embraced the attention and, sadly, he’s used it to continue his assault on America – and on rationality.

Productive dialog on race is sorely needed in this country, and that dialog requires a voice that can speak with the authority of moral conviction. Rev. Wright may have had grounds to rail against the establishment, but it’s no longer the high ground from which he began speaking.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 10:43 AM | Permalink

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