OK, I finally got around to watching one of those longer clips of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — specifically, one that contains the "God Damn America" part. I’ve been told many times that I just needed to get the context to understand that what he said shouldn’t be understood in the stark way that I have understood it.
The Rev. Joe Darby, in his op-ed piece on today’s page, suggested the same point:
… America is still focused on a few ten-second sound bites from Rev. Wright’s 30- or 40-minute sermons
Anyway, I watched this six-minute, 48-second clip — and it doesn’t change a thing. "God Damn America" still means "God Damn America." There’s no part in which he says, suggests or even hints that he didn’t really mean it, or that he thought America was in danger of damnation, and he wanted to save it. No, if anything, it’s clearer that he meant what he said.
But I think some of the well-meaning folks trying to explain all this to me are actually misunderstanding me. Start with the assumption that I somehow lack information. Aside from the above quote suggesting I need the context of the remark, the Rev. Darby also says:
Dr. Wright’s critics also need to learn more about the historically black church and its clergy…
I surely don’t claim to be an expert on the black church, especially in the presence of Joe Darby, who lives it. But no one has told me anything about the black church, in the course of "explaining" Mr. Wright to me, that I did not know. Sure, maybe something is lost in translation, but so far I’ve seen no indication that that’s what is at work this time.
But what Mr. Wright said is clear. The six-minutes-plus of context that went before "God Damn America" was exactly what I would have guessed went before it. Essentially, it was a review of history, mixed with a small dollop of political partisanship (the comparison of not-so-bad presidencies with the current one). Short version: The government has upheld oppression of black people during the course of American history.
Folks, I’m an American history major, and I’ve lived in this country for most of 54 years. What part of the rather sketchy overview in that sermon do you think I didn’t know already? If I’d been sermonizing, I could have added a lot to it — including the fact that the blood offering of the Civil War, as horrific as it was, seems to have been an inevitable sacrifice to expiate the sin of slavery. And I would have said the evil didn’t end there, nor could it, there being original sin in the world, and no one of us since Jesus Christ born free of it.
But I wouldn’t have said "God Damn America." Not in a million years. For me, the point of bringing up evil is to try to overcome it — as I believe two people Mr. Darby mentions (King and Bonhoeffer) were trying to do.
Sorry, but I can’t accept that the Rev. Wright was saying "things that challenge America to rise above its sins of prejudice and greed." No, if he’d said America was in danger of damnation, or headed straight thataway, rather as Jesus said to the Pharisees in the example cited by my colleague Warren Bolton this week, that might have been seen as a challenge, perhaps even a well-intentioned warning. (Personally, although he had more right, being God, than anyone else to do so, I don’t remember Jesus ever damning anything more sentient than a fig tree.)
But Mr. Wright didn’t call on us to do anything. Instead, he called on God to damn America.
One last point — Mr. Darby seems to assume, as have other writers, that those who say things like what I just said are against Obama. Well, I’m not. But just because I like a guy, I’m not going to sugarcoat a problem. As I said, Obama gave a brilliant speech, but he did not succeed in separating himself from what the Rev. Wright had said. He couldn’t. If he had disowned him at this point, it would have been crass opportunism, and beneath him.
So this guy I like — Obama — has a problem, one he can’t get rid of. Just as another guy I like, John McCain, is way old — nothing he can do about that, either.
I would suggest that if anyone out there supports a candidate and thinks that candidate is perfect, he should look a little harder. Nobody meeting that description has come along in two millennia. Thus endeth my sermon for today.