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Sunday, March 16, 2008
The church fights back (or, why are white people so squeamish?)
I have been thinking that the United Church of Christ, to which Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago belongs, ought to be offended at the mainstream media's demonization -- as if the church were some sort of radical sect akin to Wahabism. To the main UCC body's credit, they are not taking the demonization lying down -- and they shouldn't. The right has a tradition of overreacting to what they see as a war on Christianity everywhere they turn. Well, what we have going at present is a kind of war on this denomination, along with a bludgeoning of a man widely considered to be a top Biblical scholar, and the basis of selected portions of selected sermons. On Stephanopoulos' show this morning, George Will smugly declared it a certainty that Barack Obama was in the pews when some horrid racist bromide was uttered by Wright, and the other talking heads on the panel -- with the exception of Donna Brazille -- bobbleheaded in assent.

The plain fact is, that if Rev. Jeremiah Wright had said precisely the same things -- that the United States has routinely bombed other countries, looked the other way at the killing of Palestinians and that we supported the Apartheid regime in South Africa -- all true statements -- but had said them without the trademark volume and drama of a preacher, his statements would have been almost unremarkable:
"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."
What am I missing? Is it offensive to say that we bombed two Japanese cities? I mean, we did do that, didn't we? As for the Palestinians, this is something you can hear said on any street corner in Europe, or from your average UK back bencher. And hell, our sitting vice president opposed sanctioning South Africa and pushed to have the African National Congress -- that's Nelson Mandela's African National Congress -- designated a terrorist organization. Are these things not true? And are blacks only allowed to bring them up if we do so in a pleasant tone of voice?

Wright also said some other things being characterized as shockingly racist by white observers:
“Barack knows what it means living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people,” Wright said. “Hillary would never know that. “Hillary ain’t never been called a nigger. Hillary has never had a people defined as a non-person.”
Forgive me for the insensitivity, but precisely what is racist about that statement? To say that the above statement is racist, you'd have to believe that either 1) the U.S. is not primarily run by rich white people, and that it is instead a coincidence that historically, the president, vice president, most of the Congress and the heads of most major corporations have, in fact, been rich and white. 2) Hillary HAS been called a nigger, and 3) Hillary IS a member of a group that was been defined by the United States as a non-person.

Another "racist" statement from Wright:
“Hillary is married to Bill, and Bill has been good to us. No he ain’t! Bill did us, just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was riding dirty.”
I've heard worse things about Bill Clinton out of the mouths of Fox News anchors. Are they racist, too?

As for the "God damn America" comment, which has so appalled our friends in the press, how is that statement any different from this one by the late Jerry Falwell, during an interview on Pat Robertson's show just two days after 9/11:
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."
For his part, Robertson put out a press release just after 9/11 making it even plainer:
We have allowed rampant pornography on the Internet, and rampant secularism and the occult, etc. to be broadcast on television. We have permitted somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 million unborn babies to be slaughtered by our society. We have a court that has essentially stuck its finger in God's eye and said, "We are going to legislate You out of the schools and take Your commandments from the courthouses in various states. We are not going to let little children read the commandments of God. We are not going to allow the Bible or prayer in our schools." We have insulted God at the highest level of our government. Then, we say, "Why does this happen?" It is happening because God Almighty is lifting His protection from us. Once that protection is gone, we are vulnerable because we are a free society.
Translation: God has damned America. [Hat tip to Too Sense]

And then there's presidential candidate and fundraising rock star Ron Paul, who has said something on this order repeatedly, and on television:

Ron Paul: To me, if you overthrow a regime it’s an act of war, and it backfires on us. It has never served us well over the last 100 years. It’s sort of like what we did with 1953 by installing the Shah. We worked with the regime, we worked the British then, and we’re still suffering the consequences…

You’re saying overthrowing Mossadegh in 1953 and putting in the Shah led to the hostage-taking and 9/11?

Ron Paul: Absolutely.

That's from an interview last August with the magazine Human Events. And we all remember this moment from one of those infernal debates last fall:
Ron Paul: Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we've been over there- we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We've been in the Middle East - I think Reagan was right. We don't understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics. So right now we're building an embassy in Iraq that's bigger than the Vatican. We're building 14 permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting. We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us.

Goler: Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?

Ron Paul: I'm suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it, and they are delighted that we're over there because Osama bin Laden has said, 'I am glad you're over on our sand because we can target you so much easier." They have already now since that time have killed 3,400 of our men, and I don't think it was necessary.
[Hat tip to] And yet, Ron Paul has not been castigated as a hate-mongering racist. What gives?

The problem is, frankly, the clips of Rev. Wright frighten white people in America because of his tone of voice. There's a reason why white folks like Al Roker and dislike Al Sharpton. One is soothing and friendly seeming, the other seems like he might hit you back.

I wrote in this post that politically, Barack would have to distance himself from Wright, just as he did. But every black person in this country has heard, or has said, or thought, something on the order of what Wright said in those controversial clips. It's just that white people are so oversensitive on the subjects of race and American history, they can't stand to even hear the words "we bombed Hiroshima," let alone hearing them in a tone of voice that they find somehow frightening (too loud, too hot, too angry seeming... makes them nervous.) And let's not even get started on the Palestinian issue, which has become so lobbied to death, one is not even permitted to mention the suffering of the Arabs on the West Bank or Gaza or to breathe a word of criticism of Israel's policy in that regard, lest you be condemned as anti-Semitic. This despite the fact that such criticism has often come from black South Africans like Desmond Tutu, a leading voice in favor or divesting from Israel, and a man who knows a thing or two about apartheid.

That's why Barack can't win. He has to be Al Roker enough for white people, and yet Al Sharpton enough for brothas, a feat which can't really be accomplished without a core diagnosis of schizophrenia.

I really have come to the conclusion that what white Americans want, and perhaps need, is absolution. They want a collective amnesia to wash over the country, so that they never have to hear about such troubling things as racism again -- even if it remains in practice throughout much of the country (don't believe me? Just check the message boards beneath almost any story involving a black person accused of a crime. You'll have to wash your ears out afterward. And if that's not enough, process for a moment the fact that for many white Americans, the mere fact that 90 percent of blacks support Obama is enough to make them NOT support him. Explain that, would you?) White people want to be reassured that we're not mad at them anymore. That we're "over it" and will allow them to proceed apace without, as Barbara Bush put it, troubling their beautiful minds with such things.

Unfortunately for white America, that's not so easy for most black folk to do.

Anyhow, back to the church: Trinity's new pastor, Rev. Otis Moss II, vigorously defended Rev. Wright in this morning's service, with lots of reporters in the pews, and the church put out a strongly worded statement:

Chicago, Ill. (March 15, 2008) — Nearly three weeks before the 40th commemorative anniversary of the murder of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s character is being assassinated in the public sphere because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe.

“Dr. Wright has preached 207,792 minutes on Sunday for the past 36 years at Trinity United Church of Christ. This does not include weekday worship services, revivals and preaching engagements across America and around the globe, to ecumenical and interfaith communities. It is an indictment on Dr. Wright’s ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second sound bite,” said the Reverend Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ.

During the 36-year pastorate of Dr. Wright, Trinity United Church of Christ has grown from 87 to 8,000 members. It is the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination.

“It saddens me to see news stories reporting such a caricature of a congregation that has been such a blessing to the UCC’s Wider Church mission,” said the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, in a released statement. “ … It’s time for us to say ‘No’ to these attacks and declare that we will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their own narrow political or ideological ends.”

Trinity United Church of Christ’s ministry is inclusive and global. The following ministries have been developed under Dr. Wright’s ministerial tutelage for social justice: assisted living facilities for senior citizens, day care for children, pastoral care and counseling, health care, ministries for persons living with HIV/AIDS, hospice training, prison ministry, scholarships for thousands of students to attend historically black colleges, youth ministries, tutorial and computer programs, a church library, domestic violence programs and scholarships and fellowships for women and men attending seminary.

Moss added, “The African American Church was born out of the crucible of slavery and the legacy of prophetic African American preachers since slavery has been and continues to heal broken marginalized victims of social and economic injustices. This is an attack on the legacy of the African American Church which led and continues to lead the fight for human rights in America and around the world.”
With all that's happened, good for them. I think both Obama and the church are doing what they need to do, however out of concert they appear to be for now.

By the way, it should be pointed out, and it's no small thing, that the majority of UCC churches ... are majority white.

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posted by JReid @ 5:27 PM  
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