I was troubled to learn that the Associated Press reported that Barack Obama had “denounced” remarks made by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. and had removed Wright from his role as his spiritual advisor. According to the Associated Press, Rev. Wright made “inflammatory remarks” following the Sept 11, 2001 terrorists’ attacks and was characterized as having “railed against the United States and accused the country of bringing on the Sept. 11 attacks by spreading terrorism.”
The first thing that confused me was why was Obama being held accountable for things his pastor said. From my years as a pastor I know there were many times I said things that my parishioners disagreed with. Part of my pastoral role was to provoke thought, and sometimes we simply had an honest difference of opinion. I, not they, was responsible for my views. Second, “the “inflammatory remarks” made by Rev Wright were part of a larger sermon, but the rest of that sermon is not reported. So we don’t know the full context of his remarks. However, third, from what I can tell, Rev. Wright spoke the truth.
The statement in question (as reported by the AP), spoken on the Sunday following the 9/11 attacks, was as follows:
“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye,” … “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
I suspect that in the rest of his sermon, Rev. Wright, whom I have heard speak and whose ministry is well known, expressed remorse for the families of the victims. However, what this statement highlights is that what happened on 9/11 did not happen in a vacuum. U.S. foreign policy has placed the United States on the wrong side of many actions, and millions of innocent people have died at the hands of our bombs, and still are. While what happened on 9/11 was a heinous act of vengeance, it makes sense in the larger cycle of violence of which we are a part.
On the Sunday after 9/11 the pastor of the church that I was attending talked about a conversation she had with a Kenyan seminary student. The Kenyan told the American woman, “Now you have experienced and know what I and millions of other people around the world have suffered for decades.” We had become victims of the same violence that had so often been used against others, often with our consent and our weapons.
About six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Dr. Phyllis Cunningham, an adult educator, from Northern Illinois University spoke at a conference I attended in Austin, Texas. She noted that at that time American citizens were asking “Why would anyone want to attack the U.S. like they did on 9/11?” Dr. Cunningham told the gathered group of educators, “If people do not know the answer to that question, then we are not doing our job.” While thousands of U.S. citizens were directly or indirectly victimized by the 9/11 attacks, all of us were either unconscious or willing participants in a cycle of violence where often our weapons and our military were perpetrators rather than victims. While we denounce terrorist organizations like Hamas, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, in the past our government has supported repressive regimes like South Africa, Israel, Guatemala, and throughout Latin America. This past week, the Congress failed to override a presidential veto on a bill that would have prevented the United States from using acts of torture we so freely condemn others for. In Rev. Wright’s colloquial expression “the chickens came home to roost.”
I am reminded of a line uttered by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men.” Nicholson plays Col. Nathan Jessup, commander of the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay base on the tip of Cuba. Lt. Daniel Kafee (played by Tom Cruise) investigates the suspicious death of one of Jessup’s men, and eventually Col. Jessup is brought before a military tribunal. At a climactic moment in the film Lt. Kafee demands that Col. Jessup tell the truth of what happened under his command. In anger and defiance Jessup/Nicholson screams: “The truth! You can’t handle the truth!”
The problem with many Americans is that we can not handle the truth in Rev. Wright’s words. We would rather continue in our self-deception that we are innocent victims rather than participants in a cycle of violence that shattered us on 9/11, and to which we continue to contribute in our current “surge” in Iraq and elsewhere. Violence that kills anyone anywhere, especially innocent civilians, is tragic and regrettable. However, let us not delude ourselves in to thinking that somehow the violence of the present is not linked to the violence of past, and that our continued participation in the violence in the present will not contribute to more innocent victims of violence in the future. We operate under the illusion that violence will end the violence, when in fact all it does is keep the cycle going.
Senator Obama, for political reasons I am sure, chose to distance himself from the obvious truth his pastor spoke. Perhaps it was because he truly disagreed with Rev. Wright’s statement, or maybe it was because he would rather continue in the cycle of violence, rather than grapple with the truth. In any case, his remarks are disappointing and regrettable because in my view Rev Wright was right.