Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Prophet Motive

The absence of Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. from the media after clips of his sermons surfaced on the internet is now nearly matched by his ubiquity over the past few days. He has appeared on fora as divergent as PBS, the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and the National Press Club, speaking to some degree at each venue on the prophetic traditions of the African American church.

But his recent interviews did little to add nuance to remarks that could certainly have benefited therefrom. If anything, the lengthy snippets from Wright's sermons that appeared on his Bill Moyers Journal interview seemed to confirm that most people's initial impressions were right on the money. (That such was the case is remarkable, as Bill Moyers was more than gracious to his co-religionist, often tossing him slow-pitch softball questions such as, "So God is not...exclusively or totally identified with just the black community?")

The subtlety-challenged Wright was even more pointed in his commentary at his NAACP appearance on Sunday (CNN transcript here), where he spoke of his "stuck on stupid friends" who attempt to capitalize on Sen. Barack Obama's middle name. (I confess that I am with Wright on this one; with friends like Bill Cunningham, John McCain doesn't need enemies.)

But it was Wright's remarks before the NPC (New York Times transcript here) that have caused the most consternation.
To be sure, Wright was emboldened by his reliance on a "prophetic voice," a mainstay of liberation theology that posits that religious leaders and organizations have as their prime obligation speaking out against injustice regardless of its source.

The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive... It frees the captives and it frees the captors. It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors. The prophetic theology of the black church, during the days of chattel slavery, was a theology of liberation. It was preached to set free those who were held in bondage spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically.

And it was practiced to set the slaveholders free from the notion that they could define other human beings or confine a soul set free by the power of the gospel... It was preached to set African-Americans free from the notion of second-class citizenship, which was the law of the land... The prophetic theology of the black church in our day is preached to set African-Americans and all other Americans free from the misconceived notion that different means deficient.
By concluding that religiosity among African Americans was and remains solely about the struggle against racism, Wright conflates his personal belief system with that of the entire "black church" (such as it can be exactly defined.) He also - and by my lights incorrectly - asserts the centrality of liberation theology to the missions of black congregations, even though many inner-city churches are focused on economic or intra-racial concerns.

For those hoping that Wright would strike a tone of conciliation, Donna Leinwand's Q&A session was another opportunity for him to poke his detractors in the eye with a sharp stick, with her insipid queries equally matched by his flippant responses. Many (liberal) commentators now seem convinced that Wright is at best even more of a drag on Barack Obama's campaign, and at worst is doing so deliberately.

I'm not inclined to be of the opinion that Wright aims to mortally wound Obama's campaign (although Wright's tone of disdain and condescension to politicians of all stripes is unmistakable.) I think that Wright, like most black clergy, appreciates a certain theatrical element of preaching. Such is today's prophetic voice; the men of the cloth who claim to speak truth to power with the authority of the Almighty are far from eating locusts and honey.

Today's "prophets" are well-fed, well-shod and exquisitely housed. Their prophecies are belied by the fact that they are socially, politically and economically integrated into the very system that they condemn. In most cases, they are elites in their own right, and are as divorced from the downtrodden as the "oppressors" that they rail against. Whatever the merits of liberation theology were in the past, it is now just the sharpest tool for false prophets.

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