Isaiah 30:8-11 (New Living Translation)
“Now go and write down these words. Write them in a book. They will stand until the end of time as a witness that these people are stubborn rebels who refuse to pay attention to the Lord’s instructions. They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. Get off your narrow path. Stop telling us about your ‘Holy One of Israel.’”
I’ve been steering clear of the goings on in the political arena for over a month, but events have overtaken me and I once again feel the stirring in my soul. As we Evangelicals put it, I feel the “unction.”
In the early days of his failed presidential campaign Mike Huckabee spoke to a gathering of Evangelicals, noting that he’d come to them as one speaking the language of Zion as a mother tongue, not as one who’d recently learned clever Christian catch phases so that he could benefit politically. As his campaign lurched between the giddiness of success to the inevitable defeat he became a center of media attention, often misunderstood, sometimes mocked, occasionally disdained. When it was all over the media never could fully understand what the point was. They failed to see that the real point of Mike Huckabee wasn’t about him. What his campaign revealed was that there really is a significant Evangelical culture or sub-culture, or perhaps even a counter-culture in this country, that there is real value in being a smooth stone or a widow’s mite.
I think the media must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when John McCain went over the top and secured the Republican Party’s nomination. The talk of Zion, smooth stones, and widow’s mites was past. It was time to settle in to politics as usual.
For a time things went according to the script. On the heels of Hillary’s tears in New Hampshire, we were treated to the endless math lessons and delegate counts. There was little talk of the issues, and that was alright. After all, that’s what political campaigns and the news business are all about: the shallow and meaningless. I think it was Will Rogers who once asked, “If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?” That was the operative doctrine in Rogers’ day, and it’s even truer today.
Then, Jeremiah Wright burst upon the scene. For the media, it was a godsend, a ratings bonanza. His sermons, or selected snippets of them, became fuel for the media wildfires. I’m not sure where they first appeared. I think it might have been on FOX. But once it all got started the talking heads from networks and cable outlets began to douse the flames with gasoline. It seemed to subside for a while, but the dying embers have been re-kindled in the past few days. Reverend Wright has decided to speak out and the flames are once again leaping across the airwaves.
I didn’t look too deeply into what Jeremiah Wright had said when this controversy began. Like most Americans I was furious. It was clear from the snippets that this man was unpatriotic, un-Christian, angry and bitter, a distorter of the truth, a megalomaniac. I didn’t need any more evidence; I’d seen enough. He was a guilty man and richly deserved the scorn being heaped upon him. I think my frame of mind back then was that if Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, or Joe Scarborough had given me the rope, I’d have hung the man.
But, when the controversy was re-ignited I decided to drop the rope and listen as carefully as possible to everything Jeremiah Wright had to say. Once I did, something in me changed. I didn’t become an apologist for him. I didn’t miraculously find myself nodding my head in agreement with everything he said. In fact, I still disagreed with a lot of his assertions and accusations. But, once I began to peer through the lens he was offering I began to see some of the things at the heart of his message. Once I saw my way past my personal distaste for the messenger I began to understand the context he said he was framing his remarks in.
Just what is that context?
It is, first and foremost, the tradition of the Biblical prophets. One of the things that becomes evident from Holy Writ is that God is the champion of the oppressed, the widow, the poor, the alien, the orphan, the grief stricken, the weary, the hungry, the thirsty, the captive, the blind, the lame, the infirm, the sinner desperately seeking absolution. It’s a rich tradition. It becomes clear early on when Moses, at God’s bidding, stands before pharaoh and proclaims the word of the Lord on behalf of a nation within a nation that is living in bondage. “Let my people go,” he declares. The tradition is powerfully evident when the prophet Nathan confronts Israel’s greatest king, David, when the king commits adultery and has an innocent man murdered in a vain attempt to hide his sin. The tradition carries through the nation’s history, from Isaiah to Ezekiel, from Amos to Micah to Joel. When Israel turned away from her mandate to be a “light to the nations,” the prophets spoke forcefully to the sins of commission and omission being committed. They spoke, as Jeremiah Wright said, the truth to power. They chastised the people for neglecting the poor and needy, for turning away from the widow in need, and profaning holy things. They warned the nation that God was going to use Israel’s enemies as an instrument of justice against them for the sins they refused to turn away from. They rebuked the princes and leaders who enriched themselves while tearing at the poor like a wolf tearing at its prey. They held nothing back. And, what was their reward for speaking the “word of the Lord?” For Moses it was exile and conflict, followed by years of leading an unbelieving nation through the wilderness. For Jeremiah it meant being thrown into a cold, dark well and later being placed in stocks. According the Jewish tradition Isaiah’s reward was being sawn in two. The Old Testament prophet’s lot for telling the truth was universal – scorn, ridicule, abandonment, isolation, and punishment.
The pattern continued in the New Testament as well. John the Baptist trudged up and down the Jordan River, crying out about the coming of a new kingdom. “The axe is laid to the root,” he said. “Let them man with two coats give one to the poor.” The religious leaders of the day followed him with great interest. He spoke a stinging “word of the Lord” to them. “You snakes, you vipers. Who warned you to flee the wrath that’s coming?” He railed against King Herod, only to be beheaded for exposing the king’s sin. Jesus himself came in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist. He began his public ministry by declaring that he’d come to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had said hundreds of years before – “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” He held out wonderful promises to all in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, in that same sermon he challenged those listening to see the world, and themselves, in a new light. “You have heard it said” was followed by “But I say unto you.” He equated murder with anger, adultery with a lustful eye. He said that a man who called his brother a fool was every bit as much in danger of the fires of hell as the man who committed murder. He spoke of turning the other cheek rather than exacting an eye for and eye or a tooth for a tooth. He called those following him to love their enemies and to bless those who persecuted them. The poor heard and embraced his message. The powerful very rarely did. In fact, the air almost always crackled with tension when Jesus and the religious authorities of His day interacted. They tried to trap him with clever questions only to be revealed as the fools they were when Jesus answered their questions with a question in return. His words to them weren’t soothing at all. In fact, He called them children of their father the devil. He overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple and said that the religious authorities had turned what should have been a house of prayer for all people into a den of thieves. When they’d had enough, the ecclesiastical leaders plotted to kill him, and succeeded. In order to kill the message and stabilize the nation, they reasoned, it was necessary to crucify the messenger.
And, so the history and the lot of prophets have proceeded unbroken throughout history. From the Old to the New Testaments, then the Church fathers to Luther and Wesley, from Wilberforce to the abolitionists, from Azusa Street to America’s storefront churches, from Dietrich Bonheoffer to Martin Luther King, the tradition has held. The prophets who came before us spoke forcefully to the evils of their times and paid a heavy price for being messengers of God’s truth
There’s another thread to this context. It's culture. Reverend Wright’s message has been greatly informed by his experience as an African-American. That’s the lens through which he sees the world. It’s a picture painted in part by the history of oppression and slavery his forbearers endured in this country. The pallet of his experience includes Jim Crow and lynching. It includes being segregated in the civilian sphere while being expected to die for all on the field of battle. While I try to look at that experience objectively, Reverend Wright looks through that experience subjectively. While I see it from a distance, it is close and personal for him. For those listening outside of that context it’s difficult to weave through the rhetoric to the message intended. As I listen I feel myself wanting to respond – “Haven’t things improved?” “Isn’t America a better place now for African-Americans than it was a generation ago?” “Why should I feel guilty about things I’ve never done?” But, as I read the words of the Sermon on the Mount or the prophets I realize that I must examine my own heart and ask the difficult questions. What is the lens through which I see the world? How do my feelings as an Irish-American toward the injustice of the British to my ancestors from ages past fit into my scheme of things? Why does the history of the potato famine play such a prominent role in my thinking? After all, I’ve never gone hungry a day in my life. Why is the diaspora that brought the Irish to this country so important to me? Why is it so embedded in my soul? When I ask these questions I begin to understand. While we all, African-American and Anglo-Saxon American, have a common history, we also bring the things long since woven into our genes by personal experience and history. We are who we are by the grace of God and each of us has an important story to contribute to the well being and advancement of the whole community.
Most often in life the rewards we receive come through great difficulty and trial, when we’re provoked into action. This, it seems to me, is the role of the prophet in our midst. It is his/her lot in life to say the things we’d rather not hear, to expose the darkness clinging to the unseen crevices of our hearts. This past Sunday I listened to a sermon that brought me to tears. Jannie Stubbs, our co-pastor, spoke about grace, comparing it to the impossible demands of the Old Testament law and oral tradition. She spoke of how we create self-righteous, legalistic dividing lines between ourselves and those we don’t approve of. The dividing lines may be between left and right, between the ugliness of someone else’s sin and our “righteousness,” or between those we disagree with and ourselves. Once we create these dividing lines we have the uncanny ability to create the highest wall we possibly can between us. It’s a wall of separation that reads “I’m good and you’re bad. I’m saved and you’re lost.” As I listened I found myself wanting to shout, “Stop! In the name of God, stop!” But, the more I listened the more the words pierced. I found myself recalling he words of the Sermon on the Mount, about the equality at the bar of God’s justice between the man who murders and the man who calls his brother a fool. I tried to find comfort in the fact that I hadn’t committed any great sins, but then the words of the Book of Common Prayer from my Episcopal roots came to mind – “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have left those things undone which we ought to have done and there is no health in us.” I realized that for every sin of commission I could find in someone else, I could in turn find a sin of omission in me.
What does this have to do with Jeremiah Wright? One of the things he spoke about yesterday was the possibility of reconciliation. While it might be easy to dismiss him as a hate filled fanatic, it’s not so easy to dismiss the reconciliation offered by the prophets and Jesus. While it’s true the message they brought was one seemingly laden with doom, it’s also true that they brought a message filled with hope. “Come let us reason together,” Isaiah said. Ezekiel railed against the sins of Israel, but he also saw the possibility of a valley of dry bones coming to life. Joel spoke of the devastation of the canker worm, but also saw the promise of a time when God would send His people corn, wine, and oil, and a time when God would “no more make you a reproach among the heathen.”
You see, it is the role of the prophet is to provoke and be provocative, of living and speaking in the tension between judgment and reconciliation. It’s a message whose context is, if we can hear it, love and grace.
In the end, the message I think we’ve had great difficulty hearing in all the media sound bytes these days is that message of reconciliation. As I said earlier, I’m not an apologist for Jeremiah Wright, but I do think the message hidden from us in the media’s rush for ratings and profits is that reconciliation is possible. This is the message from heaven, that God was/is in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself and wants us to reconcile ourselves to one another. At a time when the dividing lines and walls have been so skillfully drawn and erected and the airwaves are crackling with hate it’s almost impossible to hear. I think it’s understandable. The business of reconciliation is difficult. If it weren’t so, there would have been no reason for Jesus to die on the cross to open the door to grace and absolution to all of us.
I believe, then, that the task before us in the wake of Jeremiah Wright is to open that door and begin the long process of reconciliation and healing in our time.