Barack Obama’s speech “A More Perfect Union” on Tuesday March 18 both addressed some concerns about his candidacy and raised some important questions regarding the place of race and ethnicity in the collective psyche of this country. In that speech he spoke extensively about his relationship with Rev Jeremiah Wright, Jr., his pastor and father figure, whose comments regarding the United States of America and its sad history of racism have been played and re-played (out of context) in the media and on the Internet. In addition to raising important issues around race, Rev. Wright’s comments raise some important questions about the role of religion, particularly Christian faith, in our public and cultural life. Because while many refer to Rev. Wright as a “firebrand” and “controversial,” in the Christian Biblical tradition Rev. Wright is called a prophet.
In the Biblical tradition, the prophet was often one who challenged the status quo and those who benefited from the oppression and deprivation of others. Prophets often said things that people didn’t want to hear but needed to hear, such as when the prophet Nathan confronted King David for his wanton abuse of power and position (II Samuel 12). For their remarks prophets were often imprisoned (Jeremiah), exiled (Amos), denigrated in public discourse (Hosea) or killed (John the Baptist). They were often considered eccentric (Ezekiel) and suffered physical and social isolation (Elijah). Thus, prophets tended to live unnaturally shortened lives. Jesus himself referred to the frequent persecutions experienced by the prophets, and commended his followers to take heart from their example when they too came under fire (Matthew 5.11-12).
Somehow in our Western Culture many have forgotten and neglected to appreciate the role of the prophet in our midst. In his book, The Devaluing of America, former Education Secretary William Bennett, a devout Roman Catholic, criticizes pastors and priests who opposed U.S. policies on Central America and the Persian Gulf War I for being “out of step” with their congregations, while at the same time arguing for a proper place for religion to be discussed in public schools. He states that “American culture and American greatness – perhaps more accurately American goodness – draw strength and direction from the Judeo-Christian tradition” (p. 208).Yet a few pages later he laments “the chasm that now separates the values of many church leaders from those of the American people (p. 223). The implication of these statements is that the role of religion is to support the actions and values of our culture and not to challenge them. It is this same underlying assumption that has led so many political leaders, media commentators, and regular citizens to consider Rev. Wright’s views “out of bounds.” Apparently, despite our Judeo-Christian heritage, we don’t tolerate our prophets any better than our Biblical forbears.
Bennett, like many others of his perspective, in his book refers to the legacy of Martin Luther King, and quotes his “I Have a Dream Speech,” focusing on the famous line that people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Some contemporary commentators, like Bennett, use these words even to suggest that Dr. King would not support today’s affirmative action policies that make a race or gender a factor in hiring or admissions policies. Yet, what is conveniently forgotten is the fact that when Dr. King uttered those famous words, he was considered a far greater threat than Rev. Wright ever will be, to the point that he was constantly being shadowed by the FBI and numerous hate groups.
Moreover, when King’s 1963 speech is intoned, it is often done without remembering the later King, who criticized U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam and challenged the basic assumptions underlying U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. On April 4, 1967 over the objections of friends and foes alike, King delivered a sermon entitled “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York. In that sermon he came out forcefully against U.S. policy in Vietnam. He said that the war was poisoning American’s soul and that the violence in urban ghettoes was tied to the violence in Vietnam. He warned that if the nation did not reverse its policy in Vietnam, “we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
For these words King was vilified in the press and lost his access to Lyndon Johnson at the White House. Like Jeremiah Wright, Martin Luther King spoke words the nation neither felt willing nor ready to hear. Time has sanitized our view of King, so that now he is a national hero. How quickly we forget the angst he created in our national soul, so that we rejected his words and impugned his character. How quickly we forget that the truth of his words was not readily accepted and only much later was seen as justified.
In fact one could walk through the course of U.S. history and see numerous instances of prophets who said words that in retrospect we realize the nation needed to hear, but at the time were labeled as firebrands and malcontents: Samuel Adams, Frederick Douglass, Elijah Lovejoy, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B Dubois, Dorothy Day, Betty Freidan, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Myles Horton, Shirley Chisholm, and Ralph Nader. Many other names could be added to the list. The point is that often it is the prophets who challenge us to move beyond the complacency of the status quo to a higher purpose.
On this Easter weekend, we remember the death of Jesus on a Roman cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. He was not killed because people saw him as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” He was killed because his words and his actions called attention to injustice, hypocrisy and immorality at all levels of society. Like those before and after him, Jesus was a prophet. Those of us who embrace Christian faith also consider him to be a savior, but that does not diminish his role as a prophet who paid an ultimate price. Prophets still rise from time to time (and not always Christian, by the way). That is at the heart and genius of the Judeo-Christian tradition. So when a preacher or some other outspoken person says things that cause our ears to burn and our stomachs to churn, perhaps we need to listen; we may be hearing the words of a prophet.