Were the controversial comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright “prophetic”? That is the claim made by a large number of black and white clergy, by the head of the United Church of Christ and by many other defenders of Rev. Wright.
As summarized by the religion editor of the Kansas City Star (March 29, 2008):
“Scholars and black clergy say Wright … simply reflects a heritage of prophetic preaching in the black church. Prophetic preaching ‘is the trademark of the black church tradition, of which Jeremiah Wright is perhaps one of the most illustrious exemplars,’ said Walter Earl Fluker of Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“‘Black prophetic preaching emerges from black slavery,’ said the Rev. Angela Sims, instructor of Christian ethics and black church studies at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. ‘Black prophetic preaching can be associated with Old Testament prophets, including Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah,’ she said.
“‘The African-American church has always had a prophetic role in black life in America,’ said the Rev. Donald D. Ford I of Second Missionary Baptist Church of Grandview.
“‘Wright fits in that tradition,’ said Peter Paris, professor emeritus of Christian social ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.” The Chicago Tribune (March 28) reported that “Wright’s preaching … is in the ‘prophetic’ tradition, one of many that have evolved in black pulpits. … ‘Shocking words like ‘God damn America’ lie at the core of prophetic preaching,’ said Rev. Bernard Richardson, dean of the chapel at Howard University.”
In the Wisconsin State Journal, Bill Wineke, a columnist and ordained clergyman of the United Church of Christ (UCC) wrote:
“You see, you and I may look at the short clips of Wright sermons played almost endlessly on cable television and agree that they are filled with ‘hate.’ [Hillary] Clinton knows better. … She knows the tradition of prophetic preaching in the church. Every theologian I know who has actually attended Trinity United Church of Christ — including Martin Marty, probably the most popular theologian in America today — agrees Wright’s sermons, taken in context, rest squarely in that tradition.”
Wineke then goes on to relate how another UCC minister, from a generation ago, also spoke from the prophetic tradition:
“In Madison, the late Rev. Alfred W. Swan, minister of the First Congregational Church (now part of the UCC) from 1930 to 1965, was regularly denounced for his preaching. One Sunday in 1952, Swan mounted the pulpit to announce ‘I am not a Communist, and I have no intention of being one.’ That was after Swan had criticized the Korean War, urged the country to make peace with China and suggested that Russians were better off than they had been before the 1917 Revolution. Not surprisingly, Swan regularly faced calls for his dismissal.”
The Rev. Anthony B. “Tony” Robinson wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (March 28), “After 9/11, Wright charged that ‘America’s chickens are coming home to roost’ … he said ‘God damn America.’ … Sounds like what the Bible calls a prophet.”
The Dallas Morning News (March 29) reported, “More than two dozen well-known black preachers and scholars, in Dallas for a long-planned conference, offered unequivocal support Friday for one of their number who was not there. … Several of the scholars and preachers spoke at a news conference. They said that Dr. Wright’s sermons fit into a long-standing black tradition of prophetic preaching.”
Warren Bolton, associate editor of Columbia’s (S.C.) The State (March 26), compared the Rev. Wright with Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, wrote in the Austin Weekly News (March 26): “It is providential that this has come in the midst of Holy Week 2008, a season when we commemorate the crucifixion of Christ and the vindication of God for faithfulness to prophetic speech.”
The Dallas Morning News (March 19) quoted the Rev. Tyrone Gordon, pastor at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church in Dallas, as saying: “One thing I said to the church on this past Sunday is that a lot of us are taking it personally because it is an attack on the whole black prophetic experience.”
Now, what are some of the comments that are so widely deemed “prophetic?”
“We’ve bombed Hiroshima, we’ve bombed Nagasaki, we’ve 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 into our own front yards.”
“America’s chickens are coming home to roost. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.”
“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, not ‘God Bless America,’ ‘God Damn America.'”
“The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied.”
As morally disturbing as the Rev. Wright’s comments are, and as troubling as is the fact that the man favored to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president of the United States chose to stay in the reverend’s church for 20 years, there is something even more disturbing in the widespread labeling of these comments as “prophetic.”
It is one thing to have a broken moral compass as do the Rev. Wright and those many Americans of all colors who also see America as a force for evil; who also believe immoral American behavior caused the slaughter of 9/11; who similarly regard America as morally equivalent to its terrorist enemies; and who see Israel as the moral equivalent of those who seek to exterminate the Jewish state. But to distort the biblical prophets’ values to mean the opposite of what they actually mean is arguably an even greater sin.
The essence of the real prophets was not that they said things that disturbed people; the moral essence of the prophets was their moral clarity. They knew the difference between good and evil. “Woe unto those who call good ‘evil’ and call evil ‘good,'” said the Prophet Isaiah.
Those who cannot see the monumental moral gulf between America and the unspeakably evil jihadists America is fighting in Iraq and elsewhere are not prophets. Those who think Americans got what they deserved on 9/11 are not prophets. Those who think the Russian people were better off under Communism are not prophets. Those who think America developed AIDS and infected people of color with it are not prophets. Those who think America is more worthy of damnation than of blessing are not prophets. They are fools.