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Jesus Be Black, Yo

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The Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright is wrong, although God knows not in any way that The Obnoxious American   alleges in his recent Blogcritics article. Wright is wrong—perhaps misguided is better—to intercede in the Democratic political battle (all those speeches and press conferences) at a time when his comments are hurting one of the candidates, his (one presumes) now former parishioner.

In that regard, the Reverend Wright should cease and desist—at least for the time being, only because his comments may very well upend Senator Obama's Presidential quest. But not because, as The Obnoxious American (hereafter, TOA) seems to argue that he's an apologist for Louis Farrakhan; or that he blames 9/11 on US foreign policy; or that, bizarrely, former President Carter's "recent trip to the Middle East to meet with various terrorist leaders confirms for many a long history of anti-Jewish sentiment." (Huh?); or that Wright doesn't even like being black.

TOA quotes, accurately, Wright as saying that 'Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy, he did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery and he didn't make me this color'. And in the next sentence says: "I guess that means that Wright doesn't like the color of his skin? I'm not going to touch that one, but the audience seemed to love it." If TOA is being sarcastic, then I am wrong.

But for what Jeremiah Wright is saying or trying to say, he needs to speak even louder. Because, while several of his propositions may be slightly overheated (he is a preacher, after all), he's telling the truth. That's right: he's telling the truth, speaking the gospel, as it were.

It's easy to take issue with what Rev. Wright said in the Q and A session after his appearance, but that overlooks his opening remarks, which were centered on theological issues, not directly political ones. To understand the totality of what Wright said on April 28 at the National Press Club, you also need to look at his comments leading to the question and answer session.

What Wright discussed initially was the historical marginalization of the black church in this country. His historical references were essentially accurate. The post-Civil War Black Codes were an effort still to control African Americans in this country, including how they worshipped. But these codes didn't work. African Americans, says Wright, have insisted on their right to worship in this country; they've always done so. But they've done so, essentially, separately.

And that's partly because we see God in the image that suits us—which is to say, ours. If you're white and a Christian (and one who spends any time at all thinking about these things—perhaps not a large number, actually) you think about Jesus, imagine him, as the Jesus we've all seen in pictures since we were kids in Sunday school: kindly looking, sad, bearded, handsome even. But not black. If you're African American in this country you likely see Jesus as black, or at least not white.

(Actually, if you're African American in this country I have no idea how you see Jesus: dark skinned, I'm guessing; but you clearly haven't grown up with many of those images to support you.)

Wright's point is also gender focused: "If I see God as male, if I see God as white male, if I see God as superior, as God over us and not Immanuel, which means 'God with us,' if I see God as mean, vengeful, authoritarian, sexist, or misogynist [sic], then I see humans through that lens." (Quotes taken from the Fox News transcript of Wright's speech and Q/A.)

Leaving aside for a moment the typical distinction between God and Jesus—that the former is harsh and vengeful and the latter loving and forgiving—what  in this statement   is not correct? If my deity happens to be, at bottom, a nasty sort, then wouldn't I adopt the same sort of world view, assuming I wanted to live as I believe God would want me to?

Certainly Islam, the religion that receives the most press today about some of its inhumane practices, illustrates this view perfectly. If I believe in Islam—which means surrender to God—and that God wanted me, as some Muslims clearly believe, to turn into a human bomb, then I'm likely going to strap one on and go willingly as human dynamite into the nearest market, so to meet sooner rather than later those virgins awaiting me in Allah's heaven.

Even if our view of God does not directly inform our life decisions, it certainly would influence how we think and feel. How could it not? I mean, at least if we purport to be religious and to worship actively.

Of course Wright is incendiary and harsh when he then concludes: [if I'm white] "and I order my society where I can worship God on Sunday morning wearing a black clergy robe and kill others on Sunday evening wearing a white Klan robe. I can have laws which favor whites over blacks in America or South Africa. I can construct a theology of apartheid in the Africana church and a theology of white supremacy in the North American or Germanic church."

But he's not wrong.

Religious belief can be dangerous to your wellbeing if you're outside the understood scope of that religion. And yet, what Wright was leading to is reconciliation, not its opposite. Being a Christian, or saying you are, is not sufficient, according to Wright: "To say 'I am a Christian' is not enough. Why? Because the Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride beneath the decks on that slave ship."

Reconciliation is what he's advocating: "Reconciliation does not mean that blacks become whites or whites become blacks and Hispanics become Asian or that Asians become Europeans. Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them. We retain who we are as persons of different cultures, while acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior to us. They are just different from us."

Aren't those the founding principles of this country?

Wright's theology, then, is about convergence, not separation—because the Black church, as he has it, has been separated from the white church, always. When he says that Sunday at 11:00am is the most segregated hour in America, who would legitimately argue this? Whites and African Americans don't mingle in their mainstream worship.

It's likely that, despite their God being white to begin with, Caucasians are perhaps afraid of the intensity of the African American religious experience. And this separation has led not just to differences but to inequalities and misperceptions, according to Wright.

The whole point of Wright's opening comment was to declare the historical "apartness" of the black church in this country, deplore its treatment and yet glorify its grittiness. Then he's out to draw differences in us all, while not vilifying them—simply acknowledging them. Difference is not deficiency, and the goal should not be homogeneity but a respect for those differences.

Here is Wright's closing point:

"Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them. We retain who we are as persons of different cultures, while acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior to us. They are just different from us.

"We root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred, or prejudice.

"And we recognize for the first time in modern history in the West that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles, and different dance moves, that other is one of God’s children just as we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness, just as we are."

I quote heavily from the Reverend's remarks because that is what's missing in most of the analysis I read.

In this country we either can't handle the truth or we handle it differently in public than we do in private (which is more of less saying the same thing.) We won't acknowledge what's obvious because it scares us; it rattles to the point of instability and fear the little cages most of us spend our lives in. (Truth, I know, is a dangerous word, and I use it cautiously and with some hesitation.)

Leaving the truth aside for a moment let's get back to the blog in question. Reference is made to Wright's infamous sermon, post 9/11—now we're into the Q/A—in which he said that the attacks against the World Trade Centers represented "the chickens coming home to roost."

Asked about this at the National Press Club, whether he now disavows it. He said he was only quoting the Iraqi ambassador (he probably did soft-pedal here) and then proceeded to cite scripture—Matt: 7:12—to the effect that Jesus said do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You know, treat people the way you want to be treated. TOA has a problem with this response: "Not quite backing away from his post 9/11 sermon, is it?"

I'm not sure, but was he supposed to back away from what he said in an earlier sermon, the now infamous "God Damn America" talk? Did I miss something? Why back off—because it sounds unpatriotic? What, you can't be critical of your country, even at the deepest of levels, and be patriotic? We all love our children, but rebuke and sometimes punish them when they misbehave.

Would anyone disagree that we've perpetrated acts of terrorism (O.K., let's use "war" instead, if it makes us feel better—public vs. private truth again) against other countries? If we invade another country and if the result is death and mayhem and chaos and uncertainty and disorder (see: Iraq) wouldn't that be a kind of terrorism to the afflicted countrymen? They'd say so.

And of course, Iraq is not the only example. But here's the point: the United States has plenty of blood on its hands.

Why is it an outrage to admit the truth of that statement? Now, if we were right in all of our terrorist-like incursions, that didn't make them any less bloody, didn't make their victims and sufferers any less likely to hate us for it. And, obviously, we weren't always right. For better or worse, our actions overseas have caused hardship and misery to tens of thousands. Do we really believe that our actions will not have consequences in this country?

Regarding Wright's relationship with Louis Farrakhan, TOA's article says that, in his "meandering" response to a related question he tries to "parse" the difference between Zionism and Judaism. No he doesn't. And his response doesn't meander: "Where Louis said twenty years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, is a gutter religion, he was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter is being vilified for, and Bishop Tutu is being vilified for, and everybody wants to paint me as if I am anti Semitic because of what Louis Farrakhan said twenty years ago." (To wit: Palestinians should have a homeland.)

Frankly the response is not as cogent as it might be, but there's no support here for Farrakhan or anti-Semitism. TOA says, "There are multiple layers of offense associated with this comment alone." Really? Where? At bottom, Zionism is not so much religion as political movement, and at its most fervent it is counter-Palestine. But I don't see the multiple layers of offense. I see an honest response to what another incendiary figure, Farrakhan, got tangled up in years ago. But what does that have to do with Wright today?

TOA presents the common fallacy: "To say that Zionism is a "gutter religion" is to say that Judaism itself is a gutter religion." Really? How so? I don't truly know how Farrakhan distinguished, if he did, between fundamentally a political movement and the religion it defends, but I'm not sure it's germane to anything.

Again, TOA on Farrakhan: "Wright goes on to say, 'Louis and I don't agree on everything…' but then described Farrakhan as "one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century, that's what I think about him."

Well, Wright does get carried away here because Farrakhan is not one of the most influential voices bridging the last two centuries, but he is a presence whose influence, for good or ill, is significant in the African American/Muslim world. No one has to like him—lots of people don't—but don't disparage or refute his influence.

Farrakhan's voice, whatever it once was, is diminished today by time and the tide of events over the last few years. In a post 9/11 world, his ability to occupy the world stage has withered.

I think it is a major error  to conclude that Wright is impossibly misguided when he says that "politicians say what they say and do what they do based on the polls." They do, and Obama does too, especially regarding Wright, because of all those who are  religiously and politically myopic and miss his point. (Besides: does anyone think any politician is honest, especially when running for nomination?)

That's the problem with the truth in this country: to our glory, most of us know it, and to our shame we often refuse to acknowledge it.

TOA also observes: "We've heard him [Wright] use this 'words are meaningless' tactic before. But those of us who have watched Obama's speeches with a critical eye already know this." I don't know, exactly, what this means. I'm pretty sure it means TOA isn't voting for Obama—but is there an accusation in there that Obama is pretty much always disingenuous? Well, no less than the average politician, as Wright would have it; but no more, by a mile, than any of the other candidates.

And you can easily argue that every time Obama approaches the truth (e.g., the "bitterness" leads to guns and religion comment) he is so totally misunderstood because, in a rare act, a politician is trying to be honest with us, or as honest as he can.

But we—here it comes, quoting Jack—can't handle the truth.

Obama is trying to tell more of it than anyone else. Plus, he's black—well, black enough—and put those two together and you have a nexus of misunderstanding, misgivings and, sometimes, mistakes that obscures most of what Obama says.

Before any one of us pontificates on these seeming miscues, before we declare ourselves unabashed (meaning, usually, unthinking) patriots, let's try to get closer to the truth. If we can't do that, let's get closer to the facts.

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About Stephen Foster

  • Ruvy

    I read this article in its entirety, Stephen.

    First of all, if you view G-d as merely a man, however superior His powers might be, you’ve bought into the Greek worship of idols. The title of your article and your assumptions within it detail clearly one reason why Christianity is abhorrent to most Jews.

    G-d is not a mere man to be assigned a skin color. The Creator of the universe is beyond the imagination of all men, and for a mere man to look directly into the face of G-d is to invite death. The appropriate term in English is ineffable. If you don’t know what it means, find an unabridged dictionary (preferably a ten kilo tome you have to work to lift) and look it up.

    Second of all, while most of your article deals with the experience of black Americans, something I can comment on only minimally, the last page deals with Zionism and Judaism. As a Jew living in liberated Samaria, I know quite a bit about both.

    I suggest that fools like Louis Farrakhan and Jeremiah Wright know nothing about either Judaism or Zionism.

    Judaism is a nationality and a religion, based on three Covenants with G-d.

    1. The descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob are granted the right to live in the Land of Israel in perpetuity, to worship there and carry out the commandments of G-d there.

    2. The Children of Israel are granted a Torah, a guide to holiness, that they are to follow and guard scrupulously; this Torah is our guide to being holy in a holy Land, and we are charged with being as holy as the Land we are granted.

    3. The Children of Israel, chosen to guard this guide have the task of teaching mankind (when it is ready to be taught) the Seven Laws of Noah, universal laws of civilization.

    In ancient days, our people were governed by a Sanhedrin, a court of 71 judges, an institution that was established in the days of wandering the desert before the conquest of the Land under yehoshu’a (Joshua) ben nun.

    A little under two thousand years ago, the last sovereign Jewish entity in this country (until the present State) was destroyed by the Roman savages after a rebellion against pagan rule. The city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground, along with the Temple of hordos (Herod), thousands died, thousands more were taken as slaves and a six hundred year genocide was started against the Jewish people in this Land.

    The remnant of the Sanhedrin snuck out to the city of Yavne to try and figure out what to do to save our people.

    The only weapons they had were words.

    So they constructed a liturgy of prayer to remind every Jew of what had been lost to the Roman savages in tens of generations of exile that were to come.

    Central to this liturgy is the ‘amidá, a standing prayer recited silently three times daily.

    From its text:

    Let the great trumpet of liberation be sounded, let the banner be raised for the gathering of our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth. Blessèd are You the Eternal, Who collects together the outcasts of His people, Israel.
    And Jerusalem, Your city, in mercy return and dwell therein as You have said. Rebuild her speedily, in our days, and the throne of David repair within her. Blessèd are You the Eternal, Who builds Jerusalem.

    There is more, of course, a great deal more, all recited standing at attention, but the point is to remind every Jew, every Child of Israel who recites the ‘amidá who he or she really is and where his or her ultimate loyalty must lie.

    The difference between a believing Jew and a non-believing Jew is how seriously he takes what he says to G-d three times daily; and what he does to make those prayers a reality.

    It is from this ‘amidá that Zionism gets its concepts. But Zionism is a mere movement of secular Jews to establish a state. Having established that State, Zionism accomplished its purpose, and as events have shown over the last twenty years, has lost its way. Zionism, as a movement, is basically over.

    The next step in the evolution of the Jewish nation is to turn this country into a truly G-d centered country, instead of the pathetic imitation of the pagan west it is now.

    Neither Louis Farrakhan nor Jeremiah Wright have any understanding of this: most American Jews like the “Obnoxious American” (who is not obnoxious at all) don’t understand this either.

    But pay attention to what I write. Your elections are pretty much your affair, but at least you now have a real concept of who and what the Children of Israel are.