The manufactured outrage over Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s comments shows the extent to which capitalist Christianity has taken over in America. In this version, Christianity is presented as some kind of self-help program, a lifestyle choice, that is designed to make you feel good about yourself. In this approach, you just have to say some slogan about accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior, and bingo! you have automatically become a Good Person, guaranteed a place in heaven. This version of Christianity does not deal exclusively with heaven, though. It is also believed that god wants you to be rich and prosperous, so one has it nice both here and in the hereafter. Being poor or sick or otherwise troubled is seen as a sign that you are somehow unworthy or have failed god in some way.
The clergy who endorse this capitalist Christianity ignore the prophetic tradition of preachers, going all the way back to the Old Testament. The true meaning of ‘prophet’ in the Bible is not someone who primarily foretells the future, as is popularly thought, but someone who reveals the truth. Preachers in this tradition saw their role as to shine a harsh light on injustice and on their own people’s evil actions, and demand that they repent and change their behavior or god would punish them severely. Read any of those Old Testament prophets’ thundering denunciations of Israel and you will see that Wright’s damning of America after listing all its crimes fall squarely within that tradition. Take the prophet Amos, for example:
This is what the LORD says:
“For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
. . .
Now then, I will crush you
as a cart crushes when loaded with grain.” (Amos 2:6,7,13)
This kind of message (that oppressing the poor and otherwise swerving from the path of justice is guaranteed to bring down god’s wrath) is rarely heard today in the megachurches of the dominant classes, the world of comfortable capitalist Christianity. Such a message is aimed squarely at those with a smug sense of their own virtue and would make people uncomfortable. The people hearing it may not come back and give generously to the church or may find a new church that preaches a more soothing message. That would be bad because in capitalist Christianity, increasing your market share of well-to-do believers is everything.
But this prophetic message finds great resonance in the churches of oppressed people throughout the world because they know exactly what it means to be exploited like the people championed by Amos. They wait for the day when god will punish those who have oppressed them. Liberation theology finds a warmer reception in the developing world than in the developed.
The boundaries of this great divide between the churches of capitalist Christianity and prophetic Christianity largely overlaps with the boundaries between white and black churches and this is why white people are surprised when the curtain that separates the two is occasionally raised.
Chris Britt, editorial cartoonist of the Springfield Journal Register captures the acute disconnect between the way that white people and black people view the racial situation in America.
As Obama said in his speech:
For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.
People who as a group have not experienced a long history of cruel oppression may not fully appreciate the depth of anger and bitterness that echoes down generation after generation as personal stories of atrocities are passed on, getting slightly more diffuse each time but never quite going away. I know this from my own experience, even though I do not think that I am normally an angry or bitter person. Even though the British left Sri Lanka before I was born, there are times when I feel anger and bitterness against the British for the deep divisions they deliberately created in their colonies that have later resulted in ethnic wars. I would find it laughable if anyone said to me that the British possessed an Essential Goodness and that their colonial occupation was benign. There are also times when I feel deep anger and resentment against my country of birth Sri Lanka for the way that the Tamil minority has been treated, and still continues to be treated by the majority community.
It is easy for the members of the community that caused the injustices to say that we should let bygones be bygones, but those emotional scars run deep and cannot be removed by mere words. This anger is normally kept under control but given the right triggers, can bubble to the surface.
When Wright listed the harmful actions that the US has taken against other people, especially in the Middle East, and said that the attacks of 9/11 were the consequence of such acts, he was merely articulating the ‘blowback’ political analysis of people like Chalmers Johnson, an analysis which is widely accepted by serious policy analysts as the correct motivation for the attacks of 9/11, except that Wright was framing that political analysis in the context of religious punishment for sins. (See Justin Raimondo for a good analysis of the political content of Wright’s sermons.)
When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that the events of 9/11 were god’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality and abortion, they were making a similar point to Wright, but with a different target. The significant difference is that Falwell and Robertson were laying the blame at powerless individuals (like gays and those receiving and providing abortions) as causes of that crime and hence got off lightly. Wright, unlike Falwell and Robertson, was challenging the very myth of America’s Essential Goodness and aiming his criticisms straight at the actions of the military-business-political-media complex that rules America. That is why he has been vilified in ways that Falwell and Robertson were not.
Wright is not the first black preacher to say such things and will not be the last. When Wright said right after the events of 9/11, “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 the black South Africans, and now we are indignant. Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yard. America’s chickens are coming home to roost”, and when he also said “We bombed Cambodia, Iraq, and Nicaragua, killing women and children while trying to get public opinion turned against Castro and Ghadhafi . . . We put [Nelson] Mandela in prison and supported apartheid the whole 27 years he was there”, he was following up on similar analyses made by Martin Luther King, Jr. (another preacher in the prophetic tradition) in the context of the Vietnam war, suggesting that god would rain down punishment on America for its political sins.
King said in a sermon in 1968:
God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.
But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me.” He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, “Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I’m God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” And that can happen to America.
King was murdered just two months after delivering that sermon.
Of course, where preachers like Wright and King and Falwell and Robertson, followers of capitalist Christianity and prophetic Christianity alike, all make a mistake is in thinking that they all know what god wants and what god does, even if they are each saying things that contradict the others.
God is not going to solve the problem of deep racial divisions in America, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, or anywhere else in the world, because god does not exist. That is our responsibility.
Obama’s speech provides a small window of opportunity to start that process. We have to open that window wider and walk through it.
POST SCRIPT: The little girl is all grown up
Some readers may have seen the ‘telephone at 3:00 am’ ad that Hillary Clinton made that suggested that Obama did not have the experience to handle crises. It turns out that the images of sleeping children used in that ad were from stock footage filmed eight years ago.
Ironically, one the children in that ad is now eighteen and is campaigning for Obama. She has made a new ad that you can see below: