Watching Bill Moyers’s interview with Jeremiah Wright last night on PBS, I wondered if the media would latch on to sound bites from this broadcast the way they did the snippets from those now-infamous sermons that established Wright as an anti-American nut job. Of course, without Wright we wouldn’t have gotten Barack Obama’s brilliant Philadelphia speech on race in America. Nor would we have received one more opportunity to cut through the crap and deal honestly with our nation’s deep racial divisions.
Still, I’m sure Obama would’ve preferred that we address these issues after—and not during—his historic run for president. And I’m sure Wright would’ve preferred that his words not be twisted out of context and used as a political weapon against his former parishioner.
So Wright sat down with Moyers to set the record straight. But will anyone notice? There were many moments from the interview that could go far in providing helpful insight into the man, like this one about an experience Wright had while working as a hospital technician who was on the medical crew that attended to President Lyndon Johnson after a major surgery in 1965:
BILL MOYERS: He served six years in the military: two as a marine, and four in the Navy as a cardiopulmonary technician. That’s where our paths crossed for the only time.
That’s Jeremiah Wright, behind the I.V. pole, monitoring President Lyndon Johnson’s heart as he was recovering from gall bladder surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. And right behind him is a very young me. I was the President’s Press Secretary.
REVEREND WRIGHT: As you know, the President had to be operated on and out of surgery by 9:00 when the stock market opened. And talking and wide awake. So, we scrubbed in, like, 3:00 in the morning.
When he awakened, unlike other patients, you did not move him to recovery. You didn’t move him to ICU. They kept him right there for security reasons. Secret Service all around, there was secret service in the whole operating suite and nobody else allowed in the operating suite except Secret Service.
So, after about an hour and a half, I went to get some coffee. And as I was coming back from the lounge where the coffee was, going back to monitor, I saw the guys talkin’ into their wristwatches and I was nodding, speaking to them. So, I turn to go into the room to check the pace. And secret service guys standing there grabbed me, knocked the coffee outta my hand, burned me with the hot coffee, twisted my arm up behind my neck and screams into his phone, “I got him.” And I was, “Got him?” And I’m screamin’ in pain. And my assistant comes running out of the booth. He sees me jacked up and he starts laughing. I said, “Joe, don’t laugh. Tell him who I am.” And he said, “He’s been here all morning.”
BILL MOYERS: Standing above the President.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Guy looked at me, pulled my mask up over face, “Oh, yeah.” And that was it.
Will the news media give nonstop airplay to Wright’s statements regarding the infamous “God—- America” snippet?
BILL MOYERS: One of the most controversial sermons that you preach is the sermon you preach that ended up being that sound bite about Goddamn America.
REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT: [Video clip] Where governments lie, God does not lie. Where governments change, God does not change. And I’m through now. But let me leave you with one more thing. Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from East to West. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonized Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British government failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme! [end clip]
BILL MOYERS: What did you mean when you said that?
REVEREND WRIGHT: When you start confusing God and government, your allegiances to government –a particular government and not to God, that you’re in serious trouble because governments fail people. And governments change. And governments lie. And those three points of the sermon. And that is the context in which I was illustrating how the governments biblically and the governments since biblical times, up to our time, changed, how they failed, and how they lie. And when we start talking about my government right or wrong, I don’t think that goes. That is consistent with what the will of God says or the word of God says that governments don’t say right or wrong. That governments that wanna kill innocents are not consistent with the will of God. And that you are made in the image of God, you’re not made in the image of any particular government. We have the freedom here in this country to talk about that publicly, whereas some other places, you’re dead if say the wrong thing about your government.
Wright’s reflections on black liberation theology and his church’s emphasis on being “unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian” were also helpful in bringing more clarity and context to the controversy:
REVEREND WRIGHT: What Carter G. Woodson calls the miseducation of the Negro. That Africa is ignorant, Africans are ignorant; there is no African history, there is no African music, there is no African culture, anything related to Africa is negative, therefore you are not African. Chinese come to the country, they’re still Chinese-American. We have Chinatown. Koreans come, they’re still Korean. They have Koreatown. Africans come, they’re colored. They’re Negro. They’re anything but Africa. In fact, we don’t even call them Ebbu, Ebibu, Fulani, Fanti, Ga, no, no, no — they’re all “Negro.” Portuguese, “Negro” Spanish. They’re all gettin’ lumped into black, but we’re not black, we are Negro with a capital N.
The shame of being a descendant of Africa, was a shame that had been pumped into the minds and hearts of Africans from the 1600s on, even aided and abetted by the benefit of those schools started by the missionaries, who simply carried their culture with them into the South and taught their cultures being synonymous with Christianity. So that to become a Christian, you had to let go of all vestiges of Africa and become European, become New Englanders and worship like New England, worship God properly and right. Well, that shame was a part of the shame that many Africans in the ’60s and the ’70s were feeling.
Dr Reuben Sheares is my predecessor — he was the interim pastor at Trinity — coined the phrase “unashamedly black,” where blacks coming outta the ’60s were no longer ashamed of being black people, nor did they have to apologize for being Christians. Because many persons in the African-American community were teasing us, Christians, of being a white man’s religion. And no, we’re not ashamed of Christianity. And we don’t have to apologize for who we are as African-Americans. So that, I think, is what [Martin] Marty was talking about.
BILL MOYERS: So, when Trinity Church says it is unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian, is it embracing a race-based theology?
REVEREND WRIGHT: No, it is not. It is embracing Christianity without giving up Africanity. A lotta the missionaries were going to other countries assuming that our culture is superior, that you have no culture. And to be a Christian, you must be like us. Right now, you can go to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and see Christians in 140-degree weather. They have to have on a tie. Because that’s what it means to be a Christian. Well, it’s that kind of assuming that our culture, “We have the only sacred music. You must sing our music. You must use a pipe organ. You cannot use your instrument.” It’s that kind of assumption that in the field of missions, people say, “You know what? We’re doing this wrong. We need to take Christ and leave culture at home. We need to learn the culture of people into which we’re moving, and preach the methods of Jesus Christ using the culture that we are a part of.” Well, the same thing happened with Christians in this country when they said, “You know what? Because those same missionaries who went south, they didn’t let us sing gospel music.” That was not sacred–
BILL MOYERS: They were singin’ the great Anglican hymns.
REVEREND WRIGHT: Correct, correct. And make sure you use correct diction. Well, the– Africans in the late– African-Americans in the late ’60s started saying, “You know, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
… God has diverse culture, God has -and we’re proud of who we are because that’s the statement the congregation was making, not a race-based theology.
BILL MOYERS: So, God is not, contrary to some of the rumors that have been circulated about Trinity, God is not exclusively or totally identified with just the black community?
REVEREND WRIGHT: Of course not. God– I think Jesus said to Nicodemus, “God should love the world,” not just the black community– that we have our church is what some would call multicultural. We not only have Hispanic members, we not only have members… We have members from Cuba. We have members from Puerto Rico. We have members from Belize. We have members from all of the Caribbean islands. We have members from South Africa, from West Africa, and we have white members.
The Wright of this interview is nothing like the one-dimensional caricature cooked up by the relentless airing of those raging snippets. Here, he’s a real human being. I don’t expect those who gleefully castigated Wright—and Obama—last month to have their minds changed much by this interview. But it’s hard to believe that anyone who comes to it honestly, with an open mind, can walk away still convinced that Wright is an evil, unpatriotic monster. What’s more, I sort of like the idea that the man who could be our next president sharpened his intellectual senses by listening to, debating with, and being stretched by a preacher and thinker like Jeremiah Wright. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything he’s said, but his perspective is needed if we’re ever going to get to the root of a lot of what ails America and its churches.