Tuesday, April 01, 2008

"God Damn America" in Biblical Context: Reminding ALL Christians Who They Are

When it comes to religion, Barack Obama just can't seem to win. First he's attacked for allegedly being a Muslim, despite overwhelming evidence that he's a Christian. Then he's attacked for being a Christian... a black Christian with roots in a church tradition few whites (including me, mind you!) fully comprehend. (If you want to try, I suggest reading for starters James Baldwin's searing and painful novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.) Or maybe better yet, try Richard Wright's Black Boy (no idea if he was part of pastor Wright's family tree), or his more bombastic Native Son, a Chicago story based on real events in 1940s Chicago -- the neighborhood Pastor Wright's church currently stands in.

For historical background, try a dose of Thomas Jefferson's writings on how blacks smell bad (I'm sure his slaves, after a day in the field, did smell pretty funky); then consider his slave / concubine / rape victim Sally Hemmings. (I guess she smelled good enough to Tommy.) Read the passages from our founding documents regarding blacks' designation as 3/5s persons -- a designation given so the Southern states would have greater representation in the House of Representatives, among other things!

Then take a long, cold drink of water. Calm down.

This post really isn't about Barack Obama. Barack has repeatedly distanced himself from his pastor's more incendiary comments regarding 9/11 and God's judgment on America. I'm not even going to further comment on Barack Obama's involvement with all this, because I don't think he is involved. Period. Obama never agreed, never said he agreed, and the comments made are specifically disavowed even in the content of Barack's own words during and after the 9/11 era, up through the present, and in his two books. At least this mess produced a great Obama speech (see my two previous blog entries.)

But let's leave that. And let's talk about the comments his pastor made, comments which are often made by urban black pastors, -- and a few white ones. These are comments rooted in the private intimacies and urgent secret murmers of slave churches over centuries of time, comments rooted in the music of a persecuted and oppressed people, comments rooted in Old Testament prophecy and New Testament Hope.

Empires (Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and even Israel itself), warn the biblical prophets and preachers, are not going to last. They are too often kingdoms built on gold and iron and enslavement, built on the cruel strength of men. But there is a kingdom coming which will crush that earthly might with the awesome power of a Holy God, intent on rescuing his people. That God goes to any length, whether parting a sea or dying Himself on a cross as a common criminal, to rescue and redeem. And redeem he will; judge he will; condemn the proud kingdoms of this world he will.

Have we so quickly forgotten that Christianity is not the Kingdom of America, but the Kingdom of Heaven? And can we imagine going to church to not just figuratively, but literally, lay down our burdens and expose our inner souls to one another in what is a mingled time of worship, mourning, and declamation of the works of the world (our oppressors' world!), the flesh, and the devil? Can we imagine a pastor who cries his or her sermon out in mingled anger, prophecy, mourning and praise?

Here is the sound bite run by ABC and Fox in particular from a sermon Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor in question, preached:

"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

Now. Replace "America" with Babylon, or Rome, or Israel (the nation God was arguably roughest on of them all). Has the light gone on yet? America is no less liable to judgment than any of these other kingdoms were. America is not "God-blessed" by default. And, in a very real sense, America as a people risks being "God-damned" for reasons much like those Pastor Jeremiah Wright listed. I don't say that for political reasons, but for biblical reasons. And I would note that his final sentence in the above quote -- this not pointed out by any commentator I've heard -- greatly softens what he said before, and makes his commentary into a call to repentance. Worse, however, is the fact that this sound bite is torn out of a sermon which, when heard more completely, makes the above statement far more understandable and theologically defensible. Here's a large chunk of that sermon:

In short, the sermon entire is a balanced, if intense, call to repentance. We hear these calls to repentance in our white evangelical churches all the time. In fact, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and others went further than Wright went in saying that God's judgment was meted out on 9/11. Their reasons had to do with homosexuality and the ACLU, among other things. Yet in this election cycle, we see them (or those like them, such as John Hagee and Rod Parsley) used by John McCain and the Republican party. It is written about, but without much heat or even general interest in the media.

But back to theology. There are plenty of biblical examples where God through his prophets and preachers calls his people to repentance. Leviticus 26, for instance, offers one such biblical scenario echoed by Pastor Wright's words:

27 But if, despite this, you disobey me, and continue hostile to me, 28 I will continue hostile to you in fury; I in turn will punish you myself sevenfold for your sins. 29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars; I will heap your carcasses on the carcasses of your idols. I will abhor you. 31 I will lay your cities waste, will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing odors. 32 I will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to settle in it shall be appalled at it. 33 And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you; your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste. [New Revised Standard Version]

The words of God's impending judgment crash and clang against our human institutions. Rev. Jeremiah Wright follows in many biblical heroes' footsteps in his denunciation of American sins. I would note that he speaks as an American -- a Black American -- and as a Christian. His words in the larger sermon's context have both compassion and challenge in them. It is a mainstream sermon and I've heard others like it... from even white pastors, I might add.

I would also note that Rev. Wright is speaking from a historic context, one which (among other things) finds one out of nine black males have been or are in jail vs. one out of 106 white males. Deeply consider that the next time you're in church; look around at the males and think of what it would be like to know one out of nine of them had been or would be spending time in jail! (You'd have to imagine ones who aren't there because they are in jail.)

Did ABCNews discuss the legitimate anger, rooted in history, behind the words of Rev. Wright? Of course not. They are busily playing the same game Geraldine Ferraro did a few weeks back. Remember? She said how lucky it was for Barack Obama to be a black male right now. Sure. Ask the black males in this country how lucky they feel to not only see Barack Obama so disparaged, but then on top of it to see a Reverend marginalized who told the truth about their plight, if in terms far more fundamentalist and simplistic than warranted.

Remember.... I'm just a white guy.

Back to Rev. Wright. He also said, speaking of American history:

"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" (Sept. 16, 2001, sermon). He continued: "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."

The history is pretty accurate. The quote's underlying assumption that we deserve what happened because we have unjustly treated others is a seeming failure of Rev. Wright to attach his Christianity (specifically the doctrine of grace and redemption) to his message of judgment. But of course, that is only if we accept these snippets -- yanked from their overall context -- as being representative on their own. Again, I have to offer a slightly larger snip from the sermon to give a very different spin on the above quote:

What a stunning difference between an out of context snippet and a man's overall words, reflecting a warning *against* rage and violence, the very things he's being accused of promoting! Rev. Wright is in these quotes following a time-honored tool of preachers, and that tool is to speak prophetically to one's surrounding culture. The Apostle James, for instance, rails on the wealthy, telling them to weep and howl for the miseries which will come upon them. And frankly, there are a lot more verses discussing judgment by God on nations due to their lack of compassion for the poor and powerless than most Christians in this nation seem to be aware of. "Family Values" politics and preaching focuses almost exclusively upon matters of sexual sin, a legitimate but certainly not holistic approach to what the Bible has to say.

Yet somehow, we gulp down this lopsided "Christian Right" message with far less of a reaction than we have to Rev. Wright's more biblically rounded one. For instance, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, on Robertson's TV show, said, soon after 9/11:

JERRY FALWELL: And I agree totally with you that the Lord has protected us so wonderfully these 225 years. And since 1812, this is the first time that we've been attacked on our soil and by far the worst results. And I fear, as Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, said yesterday, that this is only the beginning. And with biological warfare available to these monsters -- the Husseins, the Bin Ladens, the Arafats -- what we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact -- if, in fact -- God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.

PAT ROBERTSON: Jerry, that's my feeling. I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven't even begun to see what they can do to the major population.

JERRY FALWELL: The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this.


JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system.

James Dobson, head of "Focus on the Family," nuanced his 9/11 commentary but the judgment on America thread is still there:

"Christians have made arguments on both sides of this question. I certainly believe that God is displeased with America for its pride and arrogance, for killing 40 million unborn babies, for the universality of profanity and for other forms of immorality. However, rather than trying to forge a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the terrorist attacks and America’s abandonment of biblical principles, which I think is wrong, we need to accept the truth that this nation will suffer in many ways for departing from the principles of righteousness. 'The wages of sin is death,' as it says in Romans 6, both for individuals and for entire cultures."

I don't think Christians should be praying God Damn anything or anyone. To do so is to lose our hold on human love. That said, a Mother holding her mangled dead baby, in the aftermath of a smart bomb that wasn't so smart blowing her home and family to bits, might feel like saying "God Damn America." I can understand that. In fact, if she were a Christian Iraqi mother in the above scenario -- and there of course are some -- she'd be no less likely to say that than her Muslim counterpart. As a Christian man on 9/11, I prayed an imprecatory prayer to the Lord re Osama bin Laden and his buddies. I also prayed that the Lord would give me clarity on how to pray a better prayer for them than that, but admitted to Him that I could not at that moment pray any prayer but an imprecatory, raging, angry prayer. And as I prayed, I wept.

What I prayed most for were those innocent fellow humans, fellow Americans and others, who were destroyed in an instant or who had to leap to their deaths because the fire was so hot they had to escape it somehow. I think that Rev. Wright's prophetic voice may have failed most in his failure to mourn these people; a pastor is not only a prophet who speaks from God to the people, but also a priest who speaks to God for his suffering people. But we Christians as a whole tend to fail on that score. Strange, isn't it, considering the Lord's own example? He only spoke prophetically to the rich and powerful, it seems to me. His role as priest was the one that causes us to love him most.

In conclusion, I find Rev. Jeremiah Wright an often inspiring, sometimes rhetorically over the top, but mainstream and highly intelligent Christian leader. And I think those who criticize him in order to get at the man whom he led to Christ are barking up the wrong tree.

For more on Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I suggest visiting his church's website as well as reading Barack's two books, and particularly the second, Audacity of Hope.

Let me add just one more Jeremiah Wright quote to this post. "A government-sponsored religiousity makes you suffer from amnesia." This idea is behind me beginning the blog you are reading right now. Confusing nationalism with Christianity, making Jesus just one more additive to the peculiar Americanism which is not us at our best (putting it delicately), this is death to biblical faith. Christianity by its very nature is about constructing and establishing a Kingdom not of this world. While we may love our nation -- and we should, I believe -- we must not confuse that love with our love for God, His Word, or His Kingdom. Soren Kierkegaard warned of his native Denmark falling into the same trap. "Christendom," he called it. "Christianity without Christ."

Americans of all colors cannot afford to live in denial. That is what nationalism is. It ignores the nation's sins past or present and embraces a ideal best exemplified by the Nazi propaganda film, "Triumph of Will." It requires we close our eyes to history and today. Christianity requires the opposite. We must open our eyes, to our own sins and failings and weaknesses, and to our nation's. That too is love. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend."

Late addition: It should be noted that Reverend Wright's theology does, according to his Church's website, build on Dr. James Cone's ideas re liberation theology. I personally struggle w/ liberation theology sometimes recontextualizing Scripture in ways which seem not to honor the Word's own meaning. That said, there is also much good in liberation theology even for a theological conservative such as myself. The old idea of "eat the meat, spit out the bones" comes into play...

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Ruth Tucker said...


We have some lively interaction going over Jeremiah Wright and your blog at http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2008/04/04/jeremiah-wright-and-the-damning-of-america/


Jon Trott said...

Ruth, thanks so much. That is a lively discussion over there, and now I've left a couple comments to stir the soup a bit more. HERE is the link for others interested (as Ruth's link is broken somehow). You may have to subscribe to the blog in order to see the postings.