Race and Social Justice in America Part 4

The most hideous distortion applied to the kerygma – the message of Jesus Christ – has been the rationalization, in the Weberian sense, it has undergone as it spread in power and influence in Western culture. It is this rationalization of Christianity that fueled the doctrinal debates of the early Church and provided the fury of the Reformation. It is this rationalization that has caused the Christian antithesis to what is referred to as magic and the Protestant antithesis to ritual, especially its reforms of the meaning and significance of the Eucharist. Yet, Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, is full of magic and ritual. [I will be developing this idea in greater depth in the Heresiology series this summer].

The so-called primitive cultures and religions, like the ones of the African slaves brought to America, are steeped in magic and ritual. Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity still retain much of the ritual, but Roman catholicism, at least, is violently opposed to anything that smacks of magic. Yet, what is transubstantiation, the Cargolic doctirne of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, if not magic? What is the Apostolic Succession if not the transference of magical power from one adept to another?

In the Old Testament there are many stories of either God directly or indirectly through the Prophets calling down diving wraoth and punishment on sirmers, whether those sinners were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the whole human race at the time of the Flood, the Hebrews during the Exodus because they built and worshipped a golden calf while Moses was on Mt. Sinai, or the people of Israel in the two books of Kings that resulted in them being led into captivity in Babylon. There is a word that denotes calling down diving punishment in any religious/magical tradition. That word is curse. To damn something, in its original and most powerful meaning, is to curse it.

The opposite of a curse, if you remember your Scrpture, is to bless it. Read the book of Job, the story of a very devout man, who has been blessed by God all his life, and then, in a bet with the Evil One, God curses Job to test his faith. That story makes very clear what to bless and to curse mean.

As I said in the last installement, the African-American slaves identified very closely with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. And the African-American slaves were looking for their own Moses, their own prophet or prophets, to lead them out pf bondage. They considered Nat Turner, for example, to be such a prophet. Although it is not made very clear in the accounts of Turner’s life that I read, there are hints, like the visions, that Turner was believed to have access to the supernatural – to perform magic. That is what magic really is – the pwoer to access and influence the supernatural. and the ancient Hebrew prophets, like Moses, had that ability. What is turning your staff into a snake if not magic? What are the plagues in Egypt if not magic? The Christian fundamentalist sophistry that it cannot be magic if it comes from God is pure bull manure. If you do some real research on the various magical traditions, you will discover that in every tradition the magician/priest has to call upon his deity, whoever that may be, in order to perform magic. That is what Moses did and that is what Jesus did when he performed his miracles.

So, to either curse of bless is to call upon one’s deity and that is magic. The African-American slaves understood that. They had not yet been rationalized by Western civilization. And, to a certain extent, African-American Christinaity still retains that understanding, more so than white American Christianity. That is why the prophetic preaching tradition is still strong in African-American churches. To a very large degree, that prophetic preaching carried over into the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, which makes sense, since most of its leaders were African-American preachers. If you read Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, delivered shortly before his assasination, it has some amazing parallels to Moses’ farewell near the end of the book of Exodus. There’s that analogy to the Hebrews’ escape from bondage again!

Prior to the time of King David and the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem, the Hebrews carried the Ark of the Covenant with them everywhere, especially into battle. It was the function of the High Priest or of the prophets to accompany the ark and call upon Jehovah to bless the Hebrew army while cursing the enemy. much in the same fashion as the bards – a class of Druid – did for the ancient European barbarians.

Which brings us finally to the sermons of reverend Jeremiah Wright. Reverned Wright is a participant in that prophetic preaching tradition that has been one of the hallmarks of African-American Christianity. Depending on the militancy of the preacher, there may or may not be much cursing in the sermons. From reading Reverned Wright’s biography, it is apparent the man is quite militant in a Christian sense. I seriously doubt he advocates armed struggle as a means of gaining equality, but he certainly is not above blessing and cursing, in the ancient sense of those words.

Also, Reverend Wright is much more critical of social justice – the lack thereof – in this country than Barack Obama is, at least publicly. As Reverend Wright said in a recent interview, he is a preacher and Obama is a politican – two different worlds, two different rhetorics. We cannot apply the same criteria to Reverend Wright’s public statements, especially those in a sermon, as we do the comments made by any politician campaigning for office. A preacher in his pulpit has rhetorical freedoms that a politician does not.

Also, a preacher in his pulpit has the moral authority to curse or bless as he sees fit. In these modern times, very few clergy exercise that perogative, but that does not mean it does not exist. A preacher in his pulpit, especially one as steeped in the prophetic tradition as Reverend Wright, has the moral obligation to condemn sin and sinners. The white Christian fundamentalists do it all the time. Why is Reverend Wright different? Because he is black? Probably/ Because he cursed this country? More than likely.

Reverend Wright condemned this coutry for its racial inequality. He sees the problems of race in this country from a very different perspective than the white fundamentalists. Even after thousands of years, the Jewish faith still celebrates the Exodus and condemns anti-Semtism. The African-Americans are on ly 150 years from bondage and they are nowhere near as equal in American society as Jews are.

Since the time of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, the song and the phtase “God Bless America” has become extremely popular, especially among political and religiouas conservatives, the very people most resistant to firther civil rights reforms, either because they do not see the social injustice or because of their own racism – you be the judge. The use of “God Bless America” has become so commonplace in American political circles as to become trite – but not to Reverned Wright. You see, he, perhaps more than the people who use the phrase, understands the magical/spiritual power of that phrase. And Reverend Wright, as the prophet of an oppressed – at least in his eyes – people, has the moral obligation, put on him by his God, to speak up.

As we have seen in earlier posts, there is still much social injustice in American society that is based on race. Reverend Wright, as a prophet of the people who are the target of that social injustice, finds the asking of God’s blessing for the country that perpetrates that social inustice highly objectionable and he felt called to speak out against this constant blessing of a society of sinners. In the prophetic tradition, if you go back and read your Bible, the prophets cursed the perpetrators of injustice, especially those who felt themselves blessed by God, or who asked for God’s blessing even as they committed their iniquities. Think about Jesus and his condemnations of the Pharisees.

So, what Reverned Wright was doing in his sermons and ptjer public remarks was the same sort of thing that Jesus did in his remarks, both public and private, condemning the “nest of vipers” and the “hypocrites” of first century Israel. Jesus saw himself as a member of the prophetic tradition of Israel, just as Revered Wright does. His “God damn America” sermon needs to be understood in that context. While perhaps not appropriate for a politician, a point we will discuss in my followup article to this series, his remarks are appropriate and even mandated for him as a [reacher in the prophetic tradition. Rather than condemning Reverend Wright for his remarks, we need to take a good hard look at the social injustice that sparked those remarks, and at the moral hypocrisy behind the use of “God bless America.”

Prior Articles in This Series:

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Happy 35th, ‘God Bless America’

A Fiery Theology Under Fire

BILL MOYERS JOURNAL | Rev. Jeremiah Wright | PBS

Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon


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