Barack Obama is being subjected to Willie Hortoning by the right, via a made-up controversy about the pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ, which Obama attends. Rev. Jeremiah Wright is accused of being a crazed, anti-American Black racist. Fox News and others repeatedly show clips of his sermons, highly edited to shock. This is a vicious racist injustice.

Reverend Wright’s namesake is the Prophet Jeremiah, preaching at a time when the Jewish Kingdom established by Saul and David had split in two (Israel and Judah) and was beset by existential threats from within and without.

Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, had invaded Judah and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, dragging many of the inhabitants off to slavery. Jeremiah denounced Nebuchadnezzar. But he also blasted the rulers and people of Judah for worshiping false idols and for thinking that an alliance with Necho, Pharaoh of Egypt, instead of faith in Jehovah, could save them. The ferocity of this prophet’s denunciations is the origin of the word “Jeremiad,” i.e. a fierce preaching against moral decay and evil acts on the part of the powerful.

Wright’s denomination is not an extremist cult. The United Church of Christ comes from the 1957 amalgamation of the Congregational Church, to which many of the most enlightened thinkers in our history belonged, and the German-origin Evangelical and Reformed Church. It believes in the compatibility of faith and science and that God wants Christians to worship him by doing justice to their fellow humans.

So what did Jeremiah Wright really say that got people so worked up? I will rely on some quotes from the Washington Post, March 15.

“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, we nuked far more than in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye … America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” (September 2001)

Millions think the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime. Far more died in those bombings than died on Sept. 11. Rev. Wright is pointing out that the United States cannot claim to be uniquely victimized by Sept. 11, and that the U.S. state has committed far worse atrocities. Who can deny this, except by denying history?

“We are descendents of Africa, not England …we have a culture that is African in origin — not European. The Bible we preach from came from a culture that was not English or European.” (“Blow the Trumpet in Zion,” 2005)

That African-Americans have an African cultural heritage (with European influences) is not seriously denied by any modern scholar. And the Bible came mostly out of a Hebrew and Aramaic speaking culture in the Middle East, not Europe.

“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.” (Sermon, 2003)

The idea that the CIA helped to develop the inner city drug trade for the illegal funding of the Nicaraguan contras is based on some evidence. The rest — bigger prisons, three strike law, killing innocent people — is unquestionably true. The fierce tone may shock, but it is no fiercer than Frederick Douglass’ famous Jeremiad against celebrations of the Fourth of July, in which he said U.S. independence from Britain was a misfortune for Black people.

“Racism is how this country was founded and how it is still run.” (Sermon, 2006) Can anybody deny that this country was founded on the racism of slavery, lynch law and Jim Crow, and that even today racial inequality serves the interests of the ruling class that fosters it?

Wright’s sermons and deeds show him to be a passionate man fighting for social justice for oppressed people, and couching his rhetoric in the language of the pulpit. Compare this with people like Pat Robertson who burn incense to Ahab and Jezebel and egg them on to greater crimes.

A movement that consciously understands racism and why it’s in everyone’s interest to struggle against it is essential in order to make progress. If Wright’s sermons have served to initiate that process, then we should learn from them.

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