God Damn America?

Reflections on Jeremiah Wright's Critique of America, and the Reactions of Politicians and the Media

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Yesterday Barack Obama gave a speech entitled "A More Perfect Union," in which he discussed race and politics in the U.S. He gave the speech in large measure as a response to media scrutiny and opposition critique of some of the statements of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright, the recently retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, has spoken out forcefully over the years to criticize the U.S. government for its failure to address the continuing racial divide that puts many Black Americans at a disadvantage in terms of education, jobs, and health care. Without giving any specifics, Obama condemned Wright's "incendiary" language, while at the same time noting that he expresses views common in the African American community. It is impossible to tell exactly which of Wright's comments Obama has rejected, though he explicitly rejected what he perceives to be Wright's "profoundly distorted view of this country--a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." Are the comments Wright has made on these subjects truly objectionable, or are they rather valid critiques of American faults that have been expressed in a bold manner? It is clearly impossible to analyze all of Wright's sermons and statements over several decades of public life, so this article will focus on those comments which have drawn the most media attention.

Perhaps the most shocking of Wright's statements come from a sermon he preached in 2003.

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.
Some Christians may be offended by the juxtaposition of the words "God" and "damn," believing them to be a violation of prohibition against taking God's name in vain, but in fact they are perfectly in keeping with the rhetoric of the prophets and of Jesus himself, who used similar language in Luke 6:24-26, proclaiming the condemnation of God on the rich, the well-fed, those who laugh without concern, and those who enjoy popular support of those in power. A larger number of Americans, Christian and non-Christian alike, are disturbed by Wright's very act of condemning America, their patria. (The term Fatherland, which might be considered a literal translation of patria, has unfortunate connotations because of its use by the Nazis, so the less provocative term is preferable in this context; however, it is valid to ask whether Fatherland, with its connotations of extreme nationalism, might not accurately reflect the way in which many Americans view their country.) Are they justified in their concern? Certainly Wright's language here is provocative, perhaps even inflammatory, and if criticism of the U.S. is deemed out of bounds for an American pastor, then Wright is certainly blameworthy. However, for those who believe that it is proper, and indeed obligatory, for religious leaders to speak prophetically to their nation, then Wright's words are perfectly legitimate. To the extent that America indeed kills innocent people (e.g., by dropping bombs on civilians), treats its citizens as less than human (e.g., by continuing to support degrading living conditions in public housing projects), or behaves in a manner that suggests it sees itself as above international law (e.g., by waging war in violation of the U.N. charter or by rejecting international definitions of torture), America is right to be condemned, and in the strongest possible terms.

Wright's sermon on the Sunday immediately following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, has also provided fodder for his critics. In that sermon, he said,

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.
Wright's critics claim that he is blaming the U.S. for the terrorist attacks on the country, similar to the way in which Jerry Falwell blamed America's purported moral failures for the attacks. However, Wright's words are far different from Falwell's. Falwell claimed that God was so incensed with homosexuals, feminists, pagans, abortionists, and the ACLU that God "lift[ed] the curtain" of protection so that America's enemies could give us "what we deserve" (Pat Robertson concurred with Falwell's assessment that God was punishing America for its sins). Wright, on the other hand, does not attribute the 9/11 attacks to God's divine judgment. Instead, he argues that America's acts of violence around the world over the past several decades, coupled with policies that many worldwide have seen as supportive of repressive regimes, gave rise to feelings of outrage among the disaffected individuals who perpetrated the attacks. Wright is undoubtedly correct in his analysis. The terrorists who plotted and executed the 9/11 attacks are guilty of the murders they committed. The victims of the attacks are in no way to blame. However, citizens of a nation that perpetrates acts of violence (either hard or soft) must consider the likely repercussions of their deeds. Wright argues not that God was behind the attacks, much less that the victims were responsible for their own deaths or suffering, but that the nation's policies contributed to the hatred the terrorists--and many others around the world--feel towards Americans. If Americans were incensed that the Taliban in Afghanistan had harbored many of the terrorists responsible for planning and executing the 9/11 attacks, it should not be surprising that some people in the Muslim world have been angered by U.S. policies in the region.

One of the most widely condemned pieces of Wright's rhetoric revolve around his comments concerning the state of Israel. When pastor John Hagee endorsed Senator John McCain for president earlier this month, many criticized Hagee's anti-Catholic statements, and McCain himself disavowed those aspects of Hagee's rhetoric. No one, however, at least among McCain's major opponents, questioned his unwavering support for Israel in its ongoing struggle with the Palestinians. However, Wright's attacks on a U.S. policy that he sees as backing "state terrorism against the Palestinians" have been roundly condemned, including by Barack Obama. In fact, all of the major candidates for president still in the race are on record as being pro-Israel. Now there is nothing wrong with being pro-Israel, if one is not at the same time anti-Palestinian, but in fact McCain, Clinton, and Obama all seem to fall into this latter category, at least based on their statements on the campaign trail. A balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian situation finds plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the conflict, but Wright is correct to point out that the U.S. has generally supported Israeli attacks on Palestinians while condemning Palestinian attacks on Israelis (one notable exception was President Jimmy Carter, who dealt with the Israelis and the Palestinians in a fairly evenhanded way, and President Bill Clinton's policies were also considerably less unbalanced than those of Reagan or either of the Bushes). Furthermore, because Israel has far greater firepower than the Palestinians, the Israelis have inflicted far greater damage on the Palestinians than vice versa, though the average American would hardly know that based on the typical pro-Israeli news coverage of most major media outlets. The prophets regularly condemned the powerful for their exploitation of the weak, and in this regard Wright's criticisms of Israel are consistent with the overall message of the prophets.

Perhaps Wright can be faulted for not presenting his critique of the U.S. in a more nuanced way, but the prophets did not generally present their views in a balanced way, either. In particular, the prophets had no compunction about condemning the nation and its leaders if they believed that they were straying from the principles of justice established (they believed) by God. Thus, Amos rails against the northern kingdom of Israel in the eight century B.C.E.,

For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals--they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7).
In the early sixth century, Jeremiah not only condemns the current royal administration, but he goes so far as to reject the Davidic monarchy as a whole. He says of King Jehoiachin,
Record this man as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days; for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah (Jer 22:30).
Even more "incendiary" are the words of Ezekiel, who describes the nation of Judah as a "whore," which will suffer the penalty for its sins, before God ultimately offers forgiveness and restoration (Ezek 16). And that is the essence of the prophetic message. God condemns sin, especially the exploitation of the weak by the strong, in no uncertain terms. The prophets do not spare their own nation from criticism; on the contrary, they reserve their harshest criticism for Israel and Judah, the countries of their birth. In the end, however, they always hold out the possibility of reconciliation, if need be after a time of punishment. Those portions of Wright's sermons quoted by the media might not reflect the views of all, perhaps even most, Americans, but they are certainly consistent in theme and in tone with the words of the prophets. When the media caricature Wright's comments, they do a disservice to all Americans. To the extent that politicians distance themselves from the media's caricature of Wright's remarks, they do both themselves and the voters a disservice.

Obama's attempt to distance himself from Wright is particularly troubling, since he gives no further specifics about his disagreements with his former pastor. Does Wright really see white racism as endemic in America? If so, then Obama's critique is justified, but the quotations in the media are insufficient to support that evaluation of Wright's message. If Wright emphasizes the negative rather than the positive when speaking of America, he is following in the steps of the prophets, who believed it to be their duty to point out the deficiencies of their nation, not because they hated it, but precisely because they loved it and wanted its people to repent. Obama's remarks about Israel are especially problematic. Just because Israel is a "stalwart ally," is it above criticism? If U.S. government leaders have no problem criticizing other allies such as France, Russia, and even Canada, why are they afraid to criticize Israel for its economic blockade of the Palestinians, expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, missile attacks on civilian targets, and so forth? Being a stalwart ally is no guarantee of righteousness. After all, Saddam Hussein once fit into that category, as did the "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan, among whom was one Osama bin Laden. It should be noted in passing that this critique of Obama applies equally well to both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, too.

Is Wright a blasphemer, unpatriotic, a supporter of terrorists, or anti-Israel? I have seen nothing in the words cited by the major media that supports such conclusions. It is possible, perhaps likely, that Wright has said things over the course of his career that are inconsistent with the overall message of the prophets or of Jesus. However, he has undoubtedly also said many things that this nation needs to hear. Over the past several decades, Americans seem to have lost the ability to be self-critical. Whether one agrees with all of Wright's analyses or not, his sermons offer the opportunity to reflect on America's weaknesses as well as its strengths, and in doing so, he has done the nation a favor. One might argue with certain of Wright's accusations against the U.S. government or its people, but the right to criticize one's own government is not only enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution ("Congress shall make no law ... abridging ... the right of the people ... to petition the Government for a redress of grievances"), it is rooted in the very Judeo-Christian ethic that gave birth to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and to Jesus as well.

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