Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.

I see that there is some continuing furor about remarks said by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., the pastor for Barack Obama. (What does that mean that there is a "furor?" The word gives my imagination images of people red-faced and shouting.)

The minister said "God damn America" for its historical treatment of minorities.

That use of the phrase "God damn" may be a poor word choice, but the sentiment isn't all that wrong. Why, it's the same sentiment that Abraham Lincoln wondered about in his Second Inaugural Address.

...The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." ...

Abraham Lincoln was suggesting that perhaps we deserved our War Against the Rebellion of the Southern Slaveholders, a war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, and involved hundreds of thousands of casualties (my Hadley ancestors fought for the Union and lost brothers, uncles, sons, and friends in the war). "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." This sentiment that Providence was delivering to us something that indicated we were guilty, and both sides would suffer—should suffer, seems to have occurred to Lincoln shortly after visiting the still-bloodied fields of Antietam. That was a battle, fought on a single day, in which 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. All the death and much of the physical injury we've experienced in five years of war in Iraq was experienced in a matter of minutes in the Bloody Cornfield and the Sunken Road on that horrible September 17th.

If Abraham Lincoln could suggest to us during the last weeks of his life that perhaps we deserved a terrible and awful punishment for the injustice of slavery, I wonder if it is so bad for Rev. Wright to wish for God's terrible wrath ("God Damn America") to revisit us for our arrogance and all the mistreatment of minorities and non-Americans that has continued since 1865.

I think a poem by Kipling is worth considering here.

...Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet.
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law -
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And, guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

I think another bit of bitter art that Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermon recalls to my mind is that Thanksgiving Prayer that William S. Burroughs recorded in 1986. Here's an excerpt:

...Thanks for a continent to despoil
and poison.

Thanks for Indians to provide a
modicum of challenge and

Thanks for vast herds of bison to
kill and skin leaving the
carcasses to rot.

Thanks for bounties on wolves
and coyotes.

Thanks for the American dream,
To vulgarize and to falsify until
the bare lies shine through.

Thanks for the KKK....

I think the point here is that sometimes people look at our history and our culture and the negative tendencies we Americans have, and they despair. That anger and bitterness can be a righteous anger that motivates action for progress and improvement. It can also be something people wallow in to no avail and for no benefit. I think it sounds as if Rev. Wright and Obama have harnessed the indignation at our nation's failures to motivate them toward helping us improve our culture and our country.

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