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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Can Anyone Listen to Jeremiah Wright?

I was listening to a reading of Acts 6:8-7:8, the story of the arrest of Stephen. It struck me that certain elements of this story are echoed in the recent public ridicule of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I am not saying it is an allegory with one-to-one correspondence of events. Certainly Wright has not been arrested, and he has not been executed. I'm not one to apply the term "crucifixion" to any kind of attack on a preacher--that is poor biblical interpretation, the wrong way to apply the identification of the disciple with Jesus.

Yet it still strikes me that there are similarities in the stories.

First, it was a concerted effort to discredit him. They took the opportunity to attack him by instigating people to distort what he had said. By doing this, they stirred up the people and various leaders to challenge him for claims that he did not make. I have for some time considered that the "high priests" of the religion of American consumer culture are the news anchors. They are the public face of the production of culture, of the propaganda machine of the military-industrial-entertainment complex. In the preaching of Jeremiah Wright, they saw an opportunity to stir people up. They knew they had a commodity that would sell, so they strategically used their resources to make the attack.

Second, they distorted his message. They said he spoke blasphemy against Moses and God. The attack on Jeremiah Wright, with modern technological sophistication, used video clips to make Wright's preaching into something it was not. No more nefarious example is the clip from a sermon in which he contrasted the blessing and the curse which God spoke through the prophets. It is a biblical message. It is applicable to all earthly principalities, thrones, dominions, and authorities that depart from the divinely ordered path. But they claim Wright is too harsh on America, that he is spouting hate toward America.

Third, they accused him of attacking the national icons, God, the law, and the house of worship. Wright's words of judgment on the U. S. imperial habits of violence and exploitation were taken as offense toward the god of national exceptionalism. The U. S., as the chosen people of god, is supposed by many chauvinists to be the true bearer of god's purposes in the world. Even many of those who would balk at such a claim, would still hold the U. S., its flag, its president, and its mythology of goodness in high esteem and despise those who would criticize their nation. These people do not understand biblical faith, so they refuse to accept that Wright was proclaiming a biblical message. Instead, they distort it to be an attack on all that is good about America.

Fourth, as Stephen begins to answer the charges, he goes back in history to talk about key events of the past in which God's work has been evident. But they don't like his account of history. Wright's critics say that he is still angry about events hundreds of years in the past. They say he should leave the past in the past and look at the present. They cry that the evils of the past are not our fault and irrelevant to today. But Wright insists that in looking at the past we understand the present better. Slavery has been outlawed, but its legacy remains. Saying it's over does not make that legacy disappear automatically.

Fifth, the story Stephen tells begins by talking about Abraham sojourning away from his home to a land where he has no possession. Then he goes on to talk about a people who become enslaved and mistreated for centuries. And he reminds them that God promised judgment on the nation who enslaved them. Now it is not the same story as that of Africans kidnapped, transported, and enslaved on a continent expropriated by Europeans. But there are similarities, and the recognition of God's judgment on a nation is very clear.

If there were to be an honest, listening conversation about the value of Jeremiah Wright's message to the contemporary U. S. society, then reflection on the Stephen story might offer a few insights into how an outspoken prophet from a minority group can be manipulated and ostracized.

1 comment:

haitianministries said...

Thanks for sharing this, Mike! My wife and I are finishing up Justo González's devotional _Three Months With the Spirit_. The account of Stephen is but one of many texts in the book of Acts with important political lessons for us today. Good stuff!

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