The Meaning of Reverend Wright

The Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor, has caused quite a stir, as various news outlets have aired excerpts from some of his sermons. Now the question is, What should we make of it? This is a dangerous topic, because no matter what one says or writes, there is a very real chance that it'll be twisted and turned to fit another person's narrative. So, I weigh in with these thoughts, knowing full well that I run that risk. Let me say from the outset that I do not endorse - indeed, I flatly reject - much of what I have heard Reverend Wright say that is now being reported in the news, comments like these carried by MSNBC.com:

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York, 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 brought right back in our own front yards."

"No, no, no not God Bless America - God damn America!"

But in everyone's rush to condemn the Reverend, I wonder if we have missed some key insights.

First, the tendency among political leaders, bloggers, news reporters, and others to corner Senator Obama and get him to shout "Uncle!" seems blatantly ridiculous, serving no other purpose than to fan the flames of political division and score points. I often watch with utter disgust and disbelief as they manipulate news in ways that only coarsen and cripple public life.

Instead, there is the question I wish Senator Obama would answer: What is it that you found to be inspiring, insightful, or engaging about Reverend Wright and Trinity Church in the first place? The Senator could have joined any church, but he joined this one - why? I suspect his answer to that question will yield something about Reverend Wright, but even more about the Senator's own beliefs and values. My guess is that there is something powerful in the history and teachings of that church that speak to the Senator's sense of faith and service, something beyond the handful of comments by Reverend Wright now being highlighted.

Next, what does it mean to have people in society, such as Reverend Wright, who aggressively challenge the status quo, who send out messages which some say are phony and which others call prophetic, who dare to cross the line of politeness and rupture norms of give-and-take, and whose comments merely reflect a portion of what they preach?  Such comments can be mean-spirited and can produce ill-effects; we should not turn a blind eye to those. But neither should we automatically condemn someone's entire career because of selected remarks pulled out of context; indeed, we must not be driven by our fear of their remarks.

The alternative is to step forward and renounce them in ways that reflect the kind of public life and politics we seek to create. Let us take in the fullness of their argument and respond in kind - with clarity, forthrightness, and strength of conviction, even love. I do not suggest that anyone should back down, but neither do I advocate a slash and burn response that poisons the very public square we wish to invigorate.

Finally, I think the Reverend Wright situation raises the question, What does it mean to stand by a leader - in this case Senator Obama - who has worked for years to reengage people and build bridges, and who himself can hardly be accused of promoting incendiary comments that pit people against one another?

It seems to me that we must learn how to judge a public person, with all their misdeeds and maladies, with the expectation that they cannot comport themselves with absolute holiness over time, and nor should we be ready to grant them unfailing redemption at each turn. Doing so would forfeit our own claim to think and act for ourselves. Indeed, it is the depths of our very engagement -- our own willingness to step forward -- that may be the biggest issue we face this year.