Saturday, April 26, 2008

Moyers, Wright and Thoreau

April 26, 2008, 1:30 p.m.; May 1, 2008, 8:15 a.m.

Note: [May 1] This blog entry was written following the Bill Moyers interview, but before Reverend Wright's appearances before the NAACP and National Press Club. If those appearances, and his other statements, were intended to exact retribution from Senator Obama by weakening his chances to be nominated and elected, I think he succeeded. If they were -- reasonably and understandably -- merely intended to respond to his critics and regain his reputation, I think he failed. (As an Indiana voter was heard to say on NPR this morning, "I'm more interested in hearing about gas prices than the rantings of that 'jerk.'") Meanwhile, this morning's Register has a column well worth reading by those still interested in better understanding the Black church in South Chicago. Marc Hansen, "Pastors like Obama's abound, black Chicago native says," Des Moines Register, May 1, 2008.

[April 26] I write this blog entry well knowing that there will be some who will condemn me for it -- without either reading what I write, or knowing what Jeremiah Wright actually said on the occasions from which the out-of-context excerpts were lifted for less than honorable reasons. (Of course, there's always the distinct possibility those who do read through to the end, and are more familiar with Wright than I, will also condemn me for it!)

Having known and admired Bill Moyers for over 40 years, I watched the PBS broadcast of his interview of Pastor Wright last evening with open mind. Because my wife had another commitment at that time I ended up watching it a second time, from videotape, with her. "Bill Moyers' Interview with Reverend Jeremiah Wright," Bill Moyers Journal, April 26, 2006 (with links to both a video, and a transcript, of the program).

This morning, as I was still thinking about the interview, I was suddenly reminded of a story about Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau was not enthusiastic about supporting with taxes a government whose policies toward slavery and war he strongly opposed. As a result, he was jailed.

Emerson . . . criticized the imprisonment as pointless. According to some accounts, Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?” Emerson was “out there” because he believed it was shortsighted to protest an isolated evil; society required an entire rebirth of spirituality.

Emerson missed the point of Thoreau’s protest, which was not intended to reform society but was simply an act of conscience. If we do not distinguish right from wrong, Thoreau argued that we will eventually lose the capacity to make the distinction and become, instead, morally numb.
Wendy McElroy, "Henry David Thoreau and 'Civil Disobedience,'” Part 1, The Future of Freedom Foundation,posted July 25, 2005.

In short, with regard to who was inside the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and who was outside, the question is not “Barack, what are you doing in there?” The question is, "What are we doing out here?”

I've attended Jesse Jackson's "church" in South Chicago, and AME churches in Iowa City and elsewhere. I keep a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King on my office wall. As an FCC commissioner and since I've greatly admired the media reform work of the United Church of Christ through its Dr. Everett Parker and the church's Office of Communications. But I've never set foot in Pastor Wright's Trinity UCC in Chicago -- and I should have. I would be the first to concede how little I really know of the history and role of the Black church in America. I am as guilty as any white male of what has been described as the most segregated hour in America: 11:00 a.m. Sunday mornings.

With that out of the way, at the outset let's put those out-of-context video excerpts of Wright's from past years back in context.

(1) The use of "God damn" in the reproduced "God damn America" excerpt was, for starters, a Biblical reference not the colloquial, use of "God damn" as an all-purpose swear word. Consider this statement of Wright from the transcript of last night's interview:

[I]f you look at the damning, condemning, if you look at Deuteronomy, it talks about blessings and curses, how God doesn't bless everything. God does not bless gang-bangers. God does not bless dope dealers. God does not bless young thugs that hit old women upside the head and snatch their purse. God does not bless that. God does not bless the killing of babies. God does not bless the killing of enemies. And when you look at blessings and curses out of that Hebrew tradition from the book of Deuteronomy, that's what the prophets were saying, that God is not blessing this. God does not bless it -- bless us. And when we're calling them, the prophets call them to repentance and to come back to God. If my people who are called by my name, God says to Solomon, will humble themselves and pray, seek my faith and turn from their wicked ways. God says that wicked ways, not Jeremiah Wright, then will I hear from heaven.
I'll return to this in a moment.

(2) Now let's deal with "America's chickens have come home to roost." As you'll see, for starters, these were not even his words; he was beginning with Psalm 137 and ending by quoting (or more likely paraphrasing) a white, American ambassador. (For more about Ambassador Edward Peck's views see Sam Stein, "Meet The (White) Man Who Inspired Wright's Controversial Sermon," The Huffington Post, March 21, 2008 2:00 p.m., with links to more.)

Here again, from last night's interview, the words of Pastor Wright:

I had to show them [in his first sermon following 9/11] using that Psalm 137, how the people who were carried away into slavery were very angry, very bitter, moved and in their anger from wanting revenge against the armies that had carried them away to slavery, to the babies. That Psalm ends up sayin' "Let's kill the babies - let's bash their heads against the stone." So, now you move from revolt and revulsion as to what has happened to you, to you want revenge. You move from anger with the military to taking it out on the innocents. You wanna kill babies. That's what's going on in Psalm 137. . . .

[What follows from here is within the video and transcript of the interview, but is from a video of Wright's sermon following 9/11]

The people of faith have moved from the hatred of armed enemies, these soldiers who captured the king, those soldiers who slaughtered his son and put his eyes out, the soldiers who sacked the city, burned the towns, burned the temples, burned the towers, and moved from the hatred for armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents, the babies, the babies. "Blessed are they who dash your baby's brains against a rock." And that, my beloved, is a dangerous place to be. Yet, that is where the people of faith are in 551 BC and that is where far too many people of faith are in 2001 AD. We have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. We want revenge. We want paybacks and we don't care who gets hurt in the process.

I heard Ambassador Peck on an interview yesterday. Did anybody else see him or hear him? He was on Fox News. This is a white man and he was upsetting the Fox news commentators to no end. He pointed out -- You see him John? -- a white man -- he pointed out -- an Ambassador! -- he pointed out that what Malcolm X said when he got silenced by Elijah Mohammad was in fact true.

America's chickens are coming home to roost! We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism! We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Gadafi's home and killed his child. "Blessed are they who bash your children's head against a rock!" We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to pay back for the attack on our embassy. Killed hundreds of hard-working people; mothers and fathers who left home to go that day, not knowing that they would never get back home. 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! Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school, civilians -- not soldiers -- people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant? Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yards! America's chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.
A white Ambassador said that y'all, not a Black militant. Not a Reverend who preaches about racism. An Ambassador whose eyes are wide open, and who's trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised.
The fact is that the history of America, indeed much if not most of what many would consider its "progress," is strewn with the speeches and writings of those who showed their love of the country through their efforts to make it even better.

We have also benefited from time to time from our cheerleaders and Dr. Feelgoods. But they've never been very effective in either diagnosing or curing our ills.

From Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present (1980) ( and here) -- with thousands of other examples before and since -- we are deeply indebted to those who have shown their patriotism with a revelation of the greatest truths about our past and present condition, and proposals for our future -- rather than limiting it to the wearing of a flag lapel pin.

Pastor Jeremiah Wright is, in my present judgment, a part of that tradition.

Would I phrase it precisely as he does? Of course not. Do I believe everything he believes? No. He no more needs my defense than I am obliged to provide it.

But I do now believe, as I formerly only suspected, that the efforts of Senator Obama's opponents, and what Pastor Wright calls the "corporate media," to brand these out-of-context excerpts into the cerebral cortices of 300 million Americans was a deliberate, unfair, unpatriotic and mean-spirited act.

And now, to close, here are some excerpts from Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," circulated throughout the America of 1849. As you read them think about the extent to which Thoreau's themes resonate with today's Libertarians, or Republican tax-cutters, as well as progressives -- and the sermons of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, when listened to in their entirety.

How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also. [7] . . .

Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave . . .. I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless. . . .

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. . . .

A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. . . .

Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform. . . .

But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and
excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
[16] . . .

I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name, — if ten honest men only, — aye, if one honest man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever. . . .

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her but against her, — the only house in a slave-state in which a free man can abide with honor. . . . A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war
and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. . . .

Confucius said, — “If a State is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a State is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subjects of shame.” . . .

The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a
limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the

Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all
its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. . . .
Henry David Thoreau, "On Civil Disobedience" (1849), The Picket Line. And you might want to read Martin E. Marty, "Prophet and Pastor; To his former professor, congregant, and friend, Jeremiah Wright has been both," The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 11, 2008 (Marty is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School).

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