Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Marty on Wright

The Chronicle carries a striking tribute from one of the leading contemporary scholars of religion, Martin Marty.

Through the decades, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. has called me teacher, reminding me of the years when he earned a master's degree in theology and ministry at the University of Chicago — and friend. My wife and I and our guests have worshiped at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where he recently completed a 36-year ministry.

Images of Wright's strident sermons, and his anger at the treatment of black people in the United States, appear constantly on the Internet and cable television, part of the latest controversy in our political-campaign season. His critics call Wright anti-American. Critics of his critics charge that the clips we hear and see have been taken out of context. But it is not the context of particular sermons that the public needs, as that of Trinity church, and, above all, its pastor.
Now, for the hard business: the sermons, which have been mercilessly chipped into for wearying television clips. While Wright's sermons were pastoral — my wife and I have always been awed to hear the Christian Gospel parsed for our personal lives — they were also prophetic. At the university, we used to remark, half lightheartedly, that this Jeremiah was trying to live up to his namesake, the seventh-century B.C. prophet. Though Jeremiah of old did not "curse" his people of Israel, Wright, as a biblical scholar, could point out that the prophets Hosea and Micah did. But the Book of Jeremiah, written by numbers of authors, is so full of blasts and quasi curses — what biblical scholars call "imprecatory topoi" — that New England preachers invented a sermonic form called "the jeremiad," a style revived in some Wrightian shouts.

In the end, however, Jeremiah was the prophet of hope, and that note of hope is what attracts the multiclass membership at Trinity and significant television audiences. Both Jeremiahs gave the people work to do: to advance the missions of social justice and mercy that improve the lot of the suffering. For a sample, read Jeremiah 29, where the prophet's letter to the exiles in Babylon exhorts them to settle down and "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile." Or listen to many a Jeremiah Wright sermon.

One may properly ask whether or how Jeremiah Wright — or anyone else — experiences a prophetic call. Back when American radicals wanted to be called prophets, I heard Saul Bellow say (and, I think, later saw it in writing): "Being a prophet is nice work if you can get it, but sooner or later you have to mention God." Wright mentioned God sooner. [...]

It would be unfair to Wright to gloss over his abrasive — to say the least — edges, so, in the "Nobody's Perfect" column, I'll register some criticisms. To me, Trinity's honoring of Minister Louis Farrakhan was abhorrent and indefensible, and Wright's fantasies about the U.S. government's role in spreading AIDS distracting and harmful. He, himself, is also aware of the now-standard charge by some African-American clergy who say he is a victim of cultural lag, overinfluenced by the terrible racial situation when he was formed.

Having said that, and reserving the right to offer more criticisms, I've been too impressed by the way Wright preaches the Christian Gospel to break with him. Those who were part of his ministry for years — school superintendents, nurses, legislators, teachers, laborers, the unemployed, the previously shunned and shamed, the anxious — are not going to turn their backs on their pastor and prophet.