Reverend Jeremiah Wright: Religious Freedom Versus State Religion, Ethics, Politics and Strategy

The sustained vituperative attack and the feeble apologetic defense of Reverend Wright’s brilliant, eloquent and substantive sermon in defense of human dignity speaks to the basic ethical, political and strategic issues of our epoch. For Reverend Wright was not merely ‘commenting’ on an ethical omission of our day but raising fundamental principles about the behavior of states, the role of individual conscience in the face of crimes against humanity and the need to give name and take action in the face of evil. The entire spectrum of politicians, the mass media and, in particular, the political parties and two (and a half) of the presidential candidates raise, by their hostile reaction and the substance of their criticism, vital issues of the relation between the State and Religion.

“They know what they say”, (to paraphrase and re-state Jesus Christ’s comments on his persecutors) applies with a vengeance to the barrage of mindless screeds which were intentionally launched against the Reverend’s brilliant analysis and dissection of the immoral means in pursuit of the great crimes of our epoch. Of course, the verbal assault of Reverend Wright was directed explicitly to discredit and disqualify Democratic Presidential candidate, Senator Barak Obama, a long time member of Wright’s United Church of Christ Chicago parish. Many were, and continue to be, vile accusations charging that his sermon was ‘incendiary’, ‘anti-American’, ‘racist’ and ‘politically extremist’. Phrases critical of US empire-building were dubbed the ‘God Damn America’ sermon. Moral condemnations of ‘war and money’ were decontextualized to accuse Reverend Wright of being ‘a man of hate’, ‘a hate monger’ and a ‘racist extremist’. The insults and verbal assassins came from both liberal and conservative politicians, writers, mass media pundits and commentators.

Barak Obama’s ‘defense’ of Wright was based on separating the benign and respected avuncular ‘person’ (or personality) of the Reverend from his brilliant, substantive, historical analysis, political diagnosis and profoundly ethical moral judgment. By defending the messenger but condemning the profound message, Obama ultimately sided with the political defenders and apologists of a brutal, militaristic, imperial order, thus enabling him to continue his electoral campaign.

Key Theoretical and Analytical Insights

Wright’s speech is informed by four profound theoretical and conceptual insights:

First, Wright’s central idea is that repeated large-scale, long-term offensive imperial wars and military actions lead to military reactions or counter-attacks on US property and lives, military and civilian, outside and inside the United States. Given the authoritarian political environment and the hostile mass media, Wright cites the utterances of a former US Ambassador and long-time member of the State Department Establishment, Edward Peck to corroborate his observation. Contrary to the pro-empire political scientists who predominate in the prestigious Ivy League universities, and ignore the historical framework of critical readings of empire building, Wright’s theoretical argument is grounded in a wealth of historical experiences, which he enumerates to reinforce his central point. His theoretical argument is woven around the 9/11 Muslim-Arab attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He cites the colonial and post-colonial savaging of the Middle East, including the military attacks and economic boycott of Iraq, the bombing of Sudan, the US support of state terrorist regimes and the Israeli destruction of Palestinian and Lebanese lives. Imperial action and anti-imperial re-action — Wright’s algebraic formulation refutes the Ivy League professors’ propagandistic arguments, which extrapolate the violence of the anti-imperial reaction from its preceding bloody imperial historical framework in order to present the subsequent imperialist action as a defensive response.

Wright’s theoretical-historical correction of the false premises of orthodox academics and mainstream politicians regarding the source of violence in the international system lays the groundwork for a detailed commentary and moral judgment of the principal conflicts of our time.

By bringing to the fore a succinct enumeration of the sequence of US violent military actions from the violent seizure of Indian lands to the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima, to the colonial wars in Africa to the invasion of Panama and the bombing of Grenada, Wright establishes the historical basis for his judgment that the driving force of US foreign policy is ‘militarism and money’. His critics, unable or unwilling to challenge his historical narrative, resort to ad hominem attacks, relying on labeling techniques, attributing to him a ‘strident’ style or ‘incendiary language’.

Second, Wright provides a socio-psychological framework for understanding contemporary elite-manipulated and motivated mass violent sentiment in the aftermath of 9/11 and the initial general embrace of a military response.

Wright sets out a three-stage sequence of socio-psychological ‘feelings’: (1) reverence for the sites attacked and sorrow for the victims, (2) revenge against a general ‘other’ (to be designated by the imperial rulers), (3) hatred and war against enemies and unarmed innocents alike. Drawing on historical analogies with the biblical account (Psalm 137, all nine verses) of the Israelite reverence of the Temple (of Jerusalem), its destruction (by Chaldeans) and their subsequent return and revenge (slaughter and eviction of all non-Israelite inhabitants), Wright draws a parallel with the US reverence for ‘money’, symbolized by the World Trade Center, and ‘military’ (the Pentagon); their thirst for ‘revenge’ rooted in the ‘feelings’ of pain, sorrow, anger, outrage, destruction and senseless carnage’ this leads, he reasons, to hatred and demands to attack and punish ‘someone’ (‘pay back’). In our time this means killing armed adversaries and unarmed civilians — Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers and civilians. Wright brilliantly elucidates the emotional and political link between ‘worship’ (over losses) and ‘war’, presumably to restore the ‘revered sites’ of money (financial credibility) and military power (imperial credibility).

Wright’s socio-psychological framework allows us to understand the way in which the Bush Administration blended mass objects of veneration (loss of human lives) with the sacred sites of the elite (Wall Street and the Pentagon) into a powerful engine of war. Interestingly, Wright’s citation of the biblical account of Israeli indiscriminate revenge (‘happy is he who dashes their infants against the rocks’ Psalm 137) parallels the policies and practices pursued by the contemporary American Israelite policy makers in the Pentagon who pursued policies of total destruction and dismemberment of Iraq. Though Wright does not specifically refer to this parallelism, it springs to mind when he refers to the current injustices, and his specific mention of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians as part of the global injustices.

Third, Reverend Wright links his ‘practical’ historical and theoretical analysis to a set of moral judgments and policy prescriptions. The wars of the last 500 years have economic and racial dimensions (‘riches and color’) pitting rich white elites against poor people of color. Imperial violence begets oppressed violence; state terror based on superior arms begets individuals willing to sacrifice their lives in terrorist responses. Confronted with these historical and social conditions, he counsels the American people (not just his black parishioners) to engage in ‘self-reflection’. By emphasizing and giving priority to ‘self’ reflection he wants to undermine the effort of the political elites to focus mass attention on the asserted faults of ‘other people’, the target of military assaults. Wright emphasizes the need to create primary (family) and secondary (community) solidarity and affection (love) as opposed to bonding with the war-making elite. By emphasizing reflection, Wright is openly rejecting blind adhesion to the elite and belief in their lies for war.

From the Socratic logic of critical self-reflection (‘know yourself’) and solidarity, Wright envisions a time for ‘social transformation’. Armed with a social awareness of the historical and present record of elite-driven imperial wars, Wright postulates the need for fundamental structural changes, “…in the way we have been doing things as a society, a country, as an arrogant superpower. We cannot keep messing other countries”. In other words Wright links changes in inner individual spiritual and social consciousness with collective social and political action directed at a fundamental transformation of the social structure and economic and political system, which make us an ‘arrogant superpower’.

In his own words, Wright wants to convince the American people to transform imperial military wars into internal political wars against racist and class injustices. He proposes a fundamental redistribution of wealth through reallocation of the public budget. Citing the “$1.3 trillion dollar tax gift to the rich”, he counters with a policy proposal to fund universal health care and the reconstruction of the educational system to serve the poor.

Reverend Wright, in speaking to the American people, not only condemns human catastrophes inflicted on working people at home and abroad by the ‘arrogant superpower’ empire-builders, but points to the great historical opportunities for changes. His is not a message of other worldly spiritual salvation; it is a call to action here and now. His is not a superficial critique of individual misbehavior or ‘failed policies’ (as his former parishioner, Obama would have it) but a deep structural analysis of systemic failure which demands a ‘social transformation, which goes to the root of the present day policies of imperial wars and state and individual terrorism.

Conclusion

The reason for the repeated vicious personal attacks on Reverend Wright by the mass media and the political leaders and academic apologists for empire building is abundantly clear — to prevent a powerful, reasonable, logical and relevant analysis from influencing the American public or even exercising any influence on the Presidential campaign.

Equally important the political and media attacks on Reverend Wright are meant to destroy freedom of conscience, the separation of Church and State. What the critics want, is a religion and religious figures at the service of the state, which blesses war planners, honors war criminals, arouses mass hatred of state-designated target peoples. The ‘arrogant superpower’ honors the ministers, priests and rabbis who follow state policy spewing hatred against Arabs and Muslims. Nothing more and nothing less, Reverend Wright is standing in word and deed for the freedom and autonomy of individuals and institutions against the voracious spread of totalitarian state power.

Clearly the irrational vituperative, sustained attack on Reverend Wright is more than a reactionary political electoral ploy in a racist electoral campaign; it is a fundamental attack on our democratic freedoms and the autonomy of our religious institutions.

James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books). Petras’ most recent books are The Politics of Empire: The Us, Israel and the Middle East (2014) and The Arab Revolt and the Imperialist Counterattack. He can be reached at: jpetras@binghamton.edu. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

32 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Rich Griffin said on April 20th, 2008 at 6:19am #

    I want a world free from religion, so I’m not a big fan of “Rev.” Wright. I wish he had said some of the things that you wrongly perceive him to have said in his tirades. I wish even more that Barack Obama believed many of the things you say in your article (with the exception of the pro-religion nonsense that keeps getting us human beings into so much trouble). This man is hardly a “hero” and hardly a deep thinker – he’s more of a reactionary bigot simpleton who clings to religion for solace and is deluded.

  2. evie said on April 20th, 2008 at 7:04am #

    James,
    Of course Wright is correct in his assessment of arrogant, greedy, vile, lying, racist white folks who have murdered for centuries to build “empire.” However, I don’t completely blame white America for the major problems in our community (family breakdown, 70% illegitimacy, little respect for education, criminality, baggy pants, bling bling).

    And Wright hasn’t done too shabby with the religious empire he built – as he retires to the newly constructed 10,000 square foot $1.6 million dollar mansion in Tinley Park. Part of the retirement package from his church.

    I don’t believe the sound bytes around Rev. Wright have anything to do with destroying freedom of conscience or the separation of Church and State. It’s campaigning politicking as usual; already a fading episode in Race to the Whites House.

  3. Don Hawkins said on April 20th, 2008 at 10:50am #

    The reason for the repeated vicious personal attacks on Reverend Wright by the mass media and the political leaders and academic apologists for empire building is abundantly clear — to prevent a powerful, reasonable, logical and relevant analysis from influencing the American public or even exercising any influence on the Presidential campaign.

    Just maybe you give to much credit to the media or policy makers. The media is all about ratings, money. Policy makers it’s the money. Bright is not what I would call these people. To me it’s just talking heads who enjoy getting on TV. Every now and then someone will tell the truth and are cut off in mid sentence. I don’t think there is a plan, yet. I agree we need a powerful, reasonable, logical and relevant plan and fast.

  4. rosemarie jackowski said on April 20th, 2008 at 12:59pm #

    James, Thanks for this article. It is one of the best I have seen on the topic.

  5. Josh Miles said on April 20th, 2008 at 2:41pm #

    Let’s see how many right-wing hallmarks “evie” put in his/her response:

    1. Racial stereotypes? Check
    2. Straw-man argument? Check
    3. Attacking the messenger rather than the message? Check

  6. Hue Longer said on April 20th, 2008 at 5:37pm #

    No man owns the truth and one shouldn’t tie it to anyone. Please just look at what the asshole in a mansion said, Evie…and why it’s being taken apart and flushed with the baby.

  7. dan e said on April 20th, 2008 at 6:51pm #

    This “evie” turns out to be a real trip:) Haha, laffs on me, I was taking her serious until this jewel:) “Baggy pants” are a major social problem?

    It’s really interesting how so many Closet Racists start posting on this particular site. At first what they post usually sounds more or less reasonable & somewhat intelligent, but sooner or later somebody gets their goat. Whereupon they get a lil testy & let the cat out of the bag, as “evie” does w/her/his litany of racist stereotypes, blaming the victims in terms that evoke a sermon by Rev Hagee.

    But I’d have hoped for more from the pen of “Rich Griffin”. It happens that I myself have a hard time with all the Christinanity, to the pt that I missed the significance of Rev W. making these statements at the time he did, right when Obamania was gathering momentum.

    Not that what he said was anything that hadn’t been said a thousand times by others. But it was the context in which he said it, not what he said but how he said it. How he recast a basic anti Imperialist message in the language of the Black Conventional Wisdom, making it sound like everyday common sense?

    It’s not very important whether we Wyt Phokes like Rev W and/or his Sermons. What IS important is the discussions now taking place among Black people, between those with a stake in Obamania and the phony politics of the CBC/”progressive democrats” (sic) and those who realize Rev W’s description of reality is much closer to their own experience and knowledge than anything Obummer ever said.

    The payoff will come after Obie’s been in the Wyt Peeples Haus bout a yr & half, & it starts to become clear he ain’t gonna do shit for any Racial Minorities in Amerikkka, period end of report. That’s when the Sisters gonna start payen attn what Cynthia & Colia Clark been tryna tell em. Rev W cd play a constructive role as a “finger pting at the moon”, the role of Luna being took in this instance by the movement for a third Radical Reconstruction.

    Reconstructively yrs,

    Dan:)

  8. evie said on April 20th, 2008 at 7:18pm #

    I’m not sure which race you guys think I’m racist against since I’m black, my hubby white, our children biracial.

    Wright, as all religious figures with one hand on a myth and the other in a collection plate, plays to the crowd – Chicago’s inner city blacks. I grew up poor, black, in a segregated South and I never heard such preaching. I did, however, years later, hear such at BP meetings and from NOI brothers.

    And, don’t worry about my “killing the messenger” – JPetras and I had a pleasant email exchange this a.m. and he’s just fine. :)

  9. hp said on April 20th, 2008 at 9:09pm #

    Evie, not to be a sexist or anything, but I’ve always found high yellow very attractive..Of course, that’s just me.

  10. Josh Miles said on April 20th, 2008 at 9:22pm #

    Evie, I was referring to your comments about Wright, not Petras. Rather than addressing Wright’s remarks, you chose to attack him for living in a mansion. This is what people who have no real arguments often resort to.

  11. evie said on April 20th, 2008 at 9:48pm #

    Thanks hp. :)

    Josh – I didn’t attack Wright b/c he’s monied – but b/c I find it the height of hypocrisy for Wright to amass his wealth by condemning rich white men to poor black parishners, and then he retires to the rich white man’s ‘hood in Tinley Park. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear. Sorry.

  12. Hue Longer said on April 20th, 2008 at 10:31pm #

    and the message should be viewed through that? Where does what he said end up? What if later someone else of more desirable morals or back ground said the same thing? Would it all of a sudden be true?

  13. evie said on April 20th, 2008 at 10:57pm #

    Hue,
    What exactly is Wright saying? That our nation’s and/or black America’s problems are all the fault of rich white men? Well, that let’s 299,000,000 of us off the hook for anything.

    I guess we’s won’t never git any power.

  14. Hue Longer said on April 20th, 2008 at 11:15pm #

    lol…quit it

    I still run into people who have no idea what MLK was saying because history bastardised and cleansed his message…That’s really what I see this thing about but instead of doing that, they’re calling it racist….either way, the message is important and I don’t care if Charlie Manson or Dick Cheney are the ones saying it

    So now we at least are back to the message…If so many were upset by it, it’s proof that it needs to be said for its own reward

  15. evie said on April 21st, 2008 at 4:46am #

    I think some public windbag pundits ragged on the Wright b/c it was “sensational” and upped ratings for about a week. Most people know Wright’s message is the way a lot of Americans feel. The white Joe Blows I know here in the heartland weren’t upset – just surprised that a preacher would use the words “god” and damn” side by side, without words in between.

    MLK said much the same thing but w/o all the gimmick and gripe of Jeremiah. King a leader, Wright just another televangelist type.

  16. Luisa said on April 21st, 2008 at 1:12pm #

    I think what people fail to realize is: only in this country do you have the freedom of speech! Now, I’m a foreigner, living here for 20 years, raised in this society and culture, while raised in my parent’s home with their countries cultures. Same principles: different because this society is different. I had a long, exhausting conversation with a friend/associate of mine who was extremely upset with Rev. Wright’s remarks and it even more drove her to NOT want to vote for Obama. I personally found nothing wrong with the message or the messenger… maybe because of my thick skin (being exposed to foreign discrimination in this country to also having two “biracial” children (that’s how America wants to LABEL them), that even his tone did not affect me. He did speak truth, no lies. Maybe she didn’t hear his message because while she considers herself “non-racist” which by all means she could be, maybe it’s because she can not “relate” to that experience. Of course you’re teased when you’re a kid, but can you compare it to what a minority child would endure? Not even just today but lets say 40-50 years? Of course not and no one is looking for a pity party but simple understanding!! When you can understand why something is said as it is and understands the logistics and facts, then there is shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes growing up here and one fact that many will disagree with me is, America breeds racism! From every corner with its stereotypes and the media is used to ensure it continues… When you get down to the basics, I think we can all agree on the fundamentals and making a mountain out of a mole hill will not lift up the human race to the next level. Peace!

  17. TS Draegeth said on April 21st, 2008 at 2:42pm #

    I don’t find it hypocrisy when someone who disagrees with the structure of our society manages to live better than the mean, even much better. We are all subject to the (un?)spoken threat of the avaricious society: labor by the strictures, or be starved to death. Impoverishing ourself to avoid being accused of treason only kills off those of more humane dispositions. Even those with mansions may lack the power to do much (and sermons to large congregations are much more than most of us do accomplish). If we begin savaging our ideological kin for perceived similarities to the greater powerbrokers, our ideology itself is harmed.

  18. evie said on April 21st, 2008 at 7:46pm #

    As a life-long practicing heathen I find no ideological kin with the crazy uncle that even Obama threw under the bus. I think religion divides more than it unites, even if some of the rhetoric is truth.

    At least Wright has lived up to one of TUCC’s tenets : Disavowal of the Pursuit of “Middleclassness” – nothing middle class about gated millionaires in Tinley Park – let us pray that his parishners get there with him.

  19. Josh Miles said on April 22nd, 2008 at 5:45am #

    Evie, where did Jeremiah Wright say that rich white men were the sole cause of the all the societal ills in this country? He didn’t. This is a strawman put forth by the talking heads that dominate what passes for journalism and commentary in this country, and you’re more than happy to accept it.

    Hue and TS made good points concerning your charge of hypocrisy. You’ve yet to address them.

    As an atheist myself, I happen to agree with you on religion, but the fact that Wright is a religious leader does not invalidate what he’s saying.

  20. Josh Miles said on April 22nd, 2008 at 5:46am #

    Ack! That first sentence should read “the sole cause of all the societal ills in this country.”

  21. Max Shields said on April 22nd, 2008 at 5:53am #

    If, in fact (and as seems all to plausible), Rev. Wright leads a life of luxury, that has much more profound coloring of his diatribes.

    The line between speaking the truth and co-opting it can be found by following the money. Motives when they are greased undermine the statements however they occasion to be true.

  22. evie said on April 22nd, 2008 at 6:17am #

    Josh
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tMvS5Ny2E4&feature=related

    “rich white folk run everything” s/l blaming rich white folks to me.

  23. evie said on April 22nd, 2008 at 6:19am #

    I do like Paris’ Sonic Jihad.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-ov6fhpGYA

  24. evie said on April 22nd, 2008 at 6:42am #

    Have you heard more than a few sound bytes from Honorable Manning? He’s quite a character and not fond of Obama.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Op5or_vkcc&feature=related

    Manning also says black people have no honor.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7diAnTSn9o&feature=related

  25. Josh Miles said on April 22nd, 2008 at 6:57am #

    Evie,

    In the video you posted, Wright says the country is run by rich white men, which is something quite different from something to the effect of “rich white men and rich white men ONLY are to blame for all of society’s problems.”

  26. evie said on April 22nd, 2008 at 7:07am #

    So, what are the causes of our “social problems”? I suppose we would first have to define the problems.

    How about: Poverty, illiteracy, low wages, immorality, drugs, prison industry, apathy, pointless consumerism?

    The difference between Rev. Wright and Hon. Manning is Wright points a finger at white men and Manning says look in the mirror.

  27. TS Draegeth said on April 22nd, 2008 at 11:20am #

    If you put three chickens in a tiny cage, they will fight to the death. Two of the chickens will survive, and one will die. I believe they have studied this and found it is a near mathematical certainty. In a situation of inadequate resources, struggling beings will abandon forms of morality more suited to better climes.

    Nonetheless, I would not blame the terrified, trapped chickens fighting for their lives to have enough space to survive. I would blame the evil creatures that put them in the cages.

    Similarly, when subgroups of humans are packed into ghettos, starved and shot and beaten and harassed and enticed and denied, I do not judge their behavior as critically as I would for people in different situations.

    This is also why I perceive a difference between, say, an Iriquois who killed a settler, and a settler who killed an Iriquois. They both may have been in error, but the situations merit different analysis.

  28. evie said on April 22nd, 2008 at 3:48pm #

    TS
    We are not chickens locked in a cage. Hamsters will eat their young if the cage is too crowded, but we are not hamsters. Spiders will eat their mates while copulating but we are not spiders. Michael Vick could train his dogs to fight to the death too but we are not dogs.

    Although bigotry and ignorance are alive and well, there is also more opportunity for blacks today than ever before in America’s history. The problems – lack of education, extreme poverty, crime, drugs, fatherless children – are often self-inflicted.

    Long before “progressives” labeled blacks as victims and in need of handouts (funds usually controlled and administered by whites), black men and women developed capital, created banks, businesses, owned property worth millions, and established schools and colleges. Of course, sometimes white folks would burn the town down but we built them …

    You might try the documentaryWhat Black Men Think. If it is to be it’s up to me. No one can say what is from us but us.

  29. Hue Longer said on April 22nd, 2008 at 4:03pm #

    Isn’t there an old Bill Cosby thread to pull up at this point?

  30. evie said on April 22nd, 2008 at 4:14pm #

    Ah shucks boss, is I bein’ an uppity negro?

  31. Hue Longer said on April 22nd, 2008 at 10:58pm #

    Personal responsibility never seems to be a two way street. I of course admire anyone who can swim through the created shit flood and survive—My problem is that when reaching the other side, some of these folks mock or blame the ones who are drowning instead of the ones laughing as they blow the dam.

  32. Marty White said on May 7th, 2008 at 1:41pm #

    “and those who realize Rev W’s description of reality is much closer to their own experience and knowledge than anything Obummer ever said.”

    I couldn’t believe my ears when Wright was talking. I thought he was brilliant! The first thing I’ve heard on the news in a long time that sounded real and made sense! I hope Obama DID learn something from him! Where can I read more about it???