Illustration by Mr. Fish
Barack Obama's politically expedient decision to betray and abandon his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, exposed his cowardice and moral bankruptcy. In that moment, playing the part of Judas, he surrendered the last shreds of his integrity. He became nothing more than a pawn of power, or as Cornel West says, "a black mascot for Wall Street." Obama, once the glitter of power fades, will have to grapple with the fact that he was a traitor not only to his pastor, the man who married him and Michelle, who baptized his children and who kept him spiritually and morally grounded, but to himself. Wright retains what is most precious in life and what Obama has squandered -- his soul.
The health of a nation is measured by how it treats its prophets. When these prophets are ignored and reviled; when they become figures of ridicule, when they are labeled by the chattering classes and power elite as fools, then there is no check left on moral decay and the degeneration of the state. Wright, who spent 36 years at the Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side, since the 2008 presidential campaign has endured slander and calumny and weathered character assassination, misinterpretation and abuse, and yet he doggedly continues Sunday after Sunday to thunder the word of God from pulpits across the country.
I grew up as a Christian. My father was a pastor. I graduated from a seminary. I can distinguish a Christian pastor from the slick imposters and charlatans, from T.D. Jakes to Joel Osteen. Wright preaches the radical and unsettling message of the Christian Gospel. He calls us to live the moral life. He knows that the measure of our lives as individuals and as a nation is reflected in how we treat our most vulnerable. And he knows on whose side he stands. Obama, who like Judas took his 30 pieces of silver and betrayed someone who loved him, withers into moral insignificance in Wright's presence.
Obama, although his subservience to the war machine and Wall Street mocks the fundamental values of Dr. Martin Luther King, will preside Oct. 16 over the dedication of the King memorial on the Mall in Washington. He will lend himself to the venal cabal of the corporate and political elites who have hijacked King's image. These political and corporate figures -- many of whom donated significant sums to build the $120 million memorial (General Motors, which gave $10 million, uses the memorial in a commercial for its vehicles) -- seek to silence King's demand for economic justice and an end to racism and militarism. King's vision is grotesquely deformed in Obama's hands. To hear the voice of King we will have to turn from the choreographed and corporate-sponsored dedication ceremony to heed the words of a handful of men and women who are as reviled by the power brokers as King was in his own life, and yet who battle to keep the flame of King's message alive.
"I think it's a wonderful thing that the country would recognize someone as important as Dr. King," Wright said when I reached him by phone in Chicago, "and recognize him in a way that raises his likeness in the Mall along with the presidents. He's not a president like Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. But to have him ranked among them in terms of this nation paying attention to the importance of his work, that's a good thing."
"I read Maya Angelou's piece about the way the quote was put on the monument," Wright said in referring to the editing of a quote by King on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue. The inscription quote reads: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." But these are not King's words. They are paraphrased from a sermon he gave in which he said: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter." Angelou said the mangled inscription made King sound "arrogant."
"I read the explanation as to why we couldn't include the whole quote," said Wright, who helped raise $200,000 for the monument. "Kids a hundred years from now, like our pastor who was born three years after King was killed, they're going to see that and will not get the context. They will not hear the whole speech, and that will be their take-away, which is not a good thing. My bigger problems, however, have to do with all the emphasis on '63 and 'I Have a Dream.' They have swept under the rug the radical justice message that King ended his career repeating over and over and over again, starting with the media coverage of the April 4, 1967, 'A Time to Break Silence' message at the Riverside Church [in New York City]. King had a huge emphasis on capitalism, militarism and racism, the three-headed giant. There is no mention of that, no mention of that King, and absolutely no mention of the importance of his work with the poor. After all, he's at the garbage collectors strike in Memphis, Tenn., when he is assassinated. The whole emphasis on the poor sent him to Memphis. But that gets swept away. It bothers me that we think more about a monument than a movement. He had a movement trying to address poverty. It was for jobs, not I Have a Dream, not Black and White Together, but that gets lost."
"You look at old guys like me that were alive during that time," Wright said. "I'm saying 'wait a minute, you're missing something, you're missing something,' and my grandson -- well, my youngest one is 11, he'll not know that King. I'll tell him, but what's going to happen in terms of the curriculum? What's going to happen in terms of the schools? What's going to happen in terms of the millions of visitors who go to Washington, D.C.? They will miss that King entirely. We have an idealistic portrait. I think that does violence to what the man stood for and what he was trying to do."
More ominously, Wright warns, the sanitizing of King has been accompanied by the primacy of a selfish, hedonistic and violent culture which has turned away from values, including self-sacrifice, that make possible harmony and the common good. This selfishness and narcissism, Wright argues, is a form of blasphemy.
"We got so focused in on being No. 1, on being the superpower," he said. "When the Cold War ends we reign supreme. Empire, corporate interest and business interests take over. We got so focused on that and the media hype, media of course being owned by the corporations, that the founding principles, the core principles that I feel should have been our guiding principles, in terms of becoming what King called 'the beloved community,' and becoming what Howard Thurman called 'the search for common ground,' got completely lost. We substituted the prayer of Jesus with the prayer of Jabez. Increase my territory. Enlarge my territory. If you notice, Jesus taught us to pray, and I speak as a Christian minister -- I realize that the country is not all Christian -- but just in terms of the principles that I believe cut across interfaith lines and boundaries is in the prayer. The model prayer the Lord taught us as the Lord's disciples has no first person singular pronoun. It's 'our,' 'we,' 'us.' That got lost."
"We became a 'me'-focused, kind of dog-eat-dog, Ayn Rand, social Darwinist, survival of the fittest, be strong, and with no care, no concern, no compassion for those that are not born above the scratch line," Wright said. "And no concern to make the communities in which they live and the world in which we live a community which really cares about all of God's children, regardless of their colors and regardless of their faith."
Wright has become something of an expert on the commercial media since he was psychologically lynched by them. The media, selecting clips to tar him, have plastered him with derogatory labels and shut his voice out of the national discourse. He has, like all of our greatest intellectual and moral dissidents, from Ralph Nader to Noam Chomsky, been rendered a pariah.
"The media became interested in profits, in selling air time, in selling newspapers, in selling magazines, in selling 'if it bleeds it leads,' whatever will get us a larger market share of the audience, of the viewing audience, of the listening audience," Wright went on. "That became the focus, rather than sharing factual news with Americans, and the world, in terms of what's really going on. That's no longer important. What's important is profit."
"Once that media-spun narrative is out there, from that point on all you hear is critiques of the narrative, deconstruction of the narrative, debates concerning the narrative, affirmations of the narrative, attacks on the narrative, with nobody talking about substance, because we don't even know what substance is," Wright said.
Wright insists that the church, especially the liberal church that allied itself with the civil rights movement, is alive, although ignored and unheeded as a voice within the larger society.
"The average church in America has 200 members," he said. "But they
get no news coverage. The news covers the mega-churches, Rick Warren,
T.D. Jakes. We're talking big churches, large memberships. But the men
and women who are in the trenches, who have not 'bowed to Baal,' the
7,000 more that God told Elijah that God had, are ignored. They're still
there. They're still doing it. They are not, perhaps -- and this is spoken
from a 70-year-old, and I would say 50 years of that as an adult
looking back -- as numerous as they were back in the '60s. They are fewer
and less vocal in number, but they remain. The problem is that the media
is not going to put out what guys like your dad and my dad were doing
and saying Sunday after Sunday, not just in worship but throughout the
week as they tried to make ministry meaningful after the benediction.