The Wright Stuff

Even before Senator Barack Obama unequivocally denounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright as the loon he is, I was willing to take the senator’s word for the fact that his erstwhile pastor’s rantings about America, the Middle-East, the September 11 attacks, Louis Farrakhan, AIDS and white people do not reflect Mr. Obama’s own feelings.

What pained me then, though, and still does, is the tragic subtext of Pastorgate – that the sort of rank idiocy that was spewed from the pulpit at Chicago’s Trinity Church may not be unusual in churches that cater to African-Americans. Senator Obama’s statement, back when he still sought to preserve some of his pastor’s dignity, was telling. “I can no more disown [Wright],” he said, “than I can disown the black community.” Did he mean to in some way equate the two?

Well, Wright certainly did. On his talk-show vanity tour, he boasted that “This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It is an attack on the black church.” The same sentiment was expressed by Wright’s successor at the church, Reverend Otis Moss 3rd, who said: “You cannot caricature Rev. Wright. This is an attack on the collective black church.” The first assertion, although in a sense Mr. Moss may not have meant, is undoubtedly true; no caricature could convey Wright’s lunacy more vividly than the thing itself. As to the second, we can only hope it is not so.

That the Detroit NAACP – a branch of an organization traditionally empowered by mainstream civil rights advocates, including many religious men and women – saw fit to invite Wright to address its recent forum is not encouraging.

I spent my childhood in a racially mixed neighborhood; one of my best friends was a black boy a bit older than I. Junie and I would wrestle, play ball and ride our bikes on the rocky hills near where we lived in Baltimore. We had “kid to kid” conversations, too. He learned a lot about how religious Jews lived, and I learned things from him too. (Quite the critical thinker, he once knit his brow when we passed a local synagogue advertising the availability of High Holiday seats for purchase, and asked me incredulously, “You gotta PAY to PRAY?” It was a good point.)

Another black presence in my formative years was Lucille, our “cleaning lady.” She would come to my parents’ modest home once or twice a week and help my mother with ironing and housekeeping. We children, following our parents’ example, always treated Lucille with great respect, and, not to be cliché, she really was in many ways part of the family. My mother, may her memory be a blessing, would serve her lunch each day she came. And when Lucille grew older and unable to do any real work, my mother, mindful of our housekeeper’s financial neediness, made a point of continuing her “employment,” having her come over and wipe off a counter or two, so that she could be given her wages – and lunch, of course – as compensation, not charity.

Then there was Dhanna, the librarian in Providence, where my wife and I raised our children, who was so kind to them during their frequent visits to the public library, always smiling at them, helping them find what they were looking for and proudly placing the artwork they produced for her on her desk for all to see. And Desi, our own young daughters’ friend from those years, who became quite conversant with the laws of kashrut and Shabbat.

To be sure, I have had unpleasant encounters with blacks. Like in my youth, when a group of boys who had asked my classmates and me to join our baseball game, once at bat, decided to turn the Louisville Sluggers on us. Or the “Heil Hitler” that one teenager delighted in shouting at my father and me when we walked to the synagogue. Even today, I come across the occasional anti-Semite of color.

But more than the occasional pale-faced one too. There are good and bad people in every population. Mindful of the Talmudic imperative to judge “all men favorably” (Avot, 1:6), I have never measured any human being by any yardstick other than his own words or deeds. And my wife and I always sought – and I think successfully – to instill that attitude in our children.

Mere months ago, I would have imagined that preachers in black churches speak to their flocks about serving G-d and living moral lives, about humility, self-respect and love. And maybe most do. But the current presidential campaign’s sideshow of “Wright stuff” has been sadly educational. If even a minority of black church leaders are of the Trinity mold (both the word’s senses intended), feeding their congregants the sweet poison of suspicion and hatred, the dream of a truly color-blind society will have been set back a century – even if an African-American is elected to the very highest office in the land.

And, of course, as elsewhere in the world, the general anti-American and anti-white ravings of black religious leaders like Wright and Farrakhan exhibit an undercurrent of anti-Israel sentiment – today’s “respectable” proxy for anti-Semitism. The latter famously sneered at Israel’s “dirty religion” (he meant Zionism, he later clarified helpfully). And the former, pairing Israel with South Africa, charged that both countries “worked on an ethnic bomb that killed Blacks and Arabs.”

I can’t imagine Junie or Dhanna or Desi sitting through such tripe. What anguishes me is that, for all I know, their children or grandchildren may be.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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12 Responses

  1. L Oberstein says:

    Over Pesach in a hotel I had the opportunity ( yetzer horah) to watch CNN and Fox news and saw Rev. Wright’s speeches. I was troubled by the cheers he received both at the NAACP and the Washington Press Club. He is a self absorbed show off. He clearly wants to be the center of attention.
    We Jews say that “one is jealous of everyone but his child and his student”. I think Wright wants the limelight and doesn’t like the attention Obama is getting. Other professional race baiters are also jealous of Obama and , in the beginning, manysaid that he wasn’t “black enough”.
    Obama will be dogged by the question of how he sat there for 20 years and even developed a close personal relationship with Wright and only denounced him now. If he can come up with a good answer to this question, he can get over it and still be nominated (almost certainly) and elected ( very possibly,maybe probably).

  2. Charles says:

    Rabbi Shafran, I am wondering if you have seen any of the controversial sermons in their entirety rather than just the snippets selected by Sen. Obama’s opponents.

    I ask this because I have, and if you see the whole sermons you get a very different impression. Some of what Rev. Wright says is still objectionable — I find it incredible that a man with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago actually believes the government invented AIDS as a weapon of genocide against minorities. But I would have to say that perhaps 90 percent or more of what he says in his sermons, I agree with. He is very erudite and in the 9/11 sermon, he makes quite clear his revulsion at the actions of the terrorists and his compassion for the victims.

    Secondly, I have heard sermons in synagogues that could lend themselves to similar manipulation if they were videotaped and edited. Perhaps we are fortunate that shabbat drashot are not taped. But their have been cases where snippets of shiurim have been circulated which looked quite repugnant, but in their context were much less so.

    Having said all this, I am convinced since the events of early this week that Rev. Wright does not want to see Sen. Obama elected. A charitable interpretation would be that he does not want to see his congregant forced to sully himself with the compromises that any president will have to make. A less charitable interpretation is that if Sen. Obama *is* elected, it undermines his ability to portray the United States as fundamentally racist. Regardless, it’s quite clear to me that Rev. Wright is intentionally sabotaging the Obama campaign at this point.

  3. CR says:

    >Even today, I come across the occasional anti-Semite of color.

    I don’t know about you but in my lifetime just about the only overt anti-semitism I have ever experienced has been from blacks. Usually laced with eliminationist, murderous sentiment.

    The problem of black antisemitism is not limited to a few kooks. Nor is it even limited to anti-semitism. There is pervasive and institutionalized introversion and xenophobia against anything not “black” throughout the entire community; the churches, civic and political organizations and educational institutions that has taken root over the past half-century. Clearly the ethnocentric and chauvanistic messages of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael have won out over the hopes and dreams of MLK Jr.

    As for my children, I have taught them to judge every individual fairly, regardless of how they look or talk. Whether a person is black, white, asian or hispanic should have no bearing whatsoever. That said, I can safely say I was cured of my innate liberalism a long time ago.

  4. Barry says:

    Just a small stylistic quibble with your language there. The phrase “one of my best friends was a black boy a bit older than I” should have been written simply as “my friend was a black boy a bit older than I” to avoid the Seinfeld-inspired implication of the former phrase that the speaker is a racist.

  5. Ori says:

    I’d be interested to read if other African-American pastors in “the Black church” (whatever that may mean – probably churches that have at least n% African-Americans) denounce Wright.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    This whole issue already existed in the early 1970’s. It began to develop as the “Black Power” social/political concept took hold in the late 1960’s. The asssociation of Wright and others like him with Farrakhan is natural, in view of their largely matching goals and ideas.

    Liberal media have been totally unwilling to challenge the lunacies of the radical “Black Church” and the “Nation of Islam” in recent years, either because they saw no problem or because they feared accusations of racism if they brought it to light. Recently, after our Democratic Congresswoman, Julia Carson, died, her family invited Farrakhan to Indianapolis to speak at her funeral. Our daily paper, the Indianapolis Star, did not see fit then to question this at all.

    We’re only seeing some critical coverage now because Hillary Clinton’s campaign reached a point of desperation, and the liberal media can’t ignore information fed in by her operatives.

  7. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Readers should be careful not to confuse Black Church with black churches. Wright’s church is a part of the UCC, a liberal Protestant denomination that is very old and very hostile to Israel. Black churches that lean towards the theological right are a very different story. Some huge black megachurches, like the Crenshaw Christian Center here in Los Angeles, are open and unabashed supporters of Israel. Their pastors and members are reliable partners in demonstrating America’s support for her Middle East ally.

  8. LOberstein says:

    I came across this interview with Jackie Mason on the Jewish Forward Wed Site… His views on Obama are shared by many others, who might say it in a different way but the thoughts are widely shared “And nothing is incurring his principled wrath right now as much as the campaign of United States presidential hopeful Barack Obama. “The truth of the matter is he is the most incompetent character probably of all time, and he’s also one of the great liars of all time,” Mason contends. “Everything about him is a fake and a fraud, and he knows how to embellish everything he says to make him sound profound.”

    To Mason, Obama’s ascendancy has simply been the result of white liberal guilt. “White people are so guilt-ridden that they feel they have to protect him from any criticism,” he says. “Everybody is desperate to see him become president because they’re frightened of being called a racist.”

  9. Reb Yid says:

    The editorial in this week’s Forward nicely captures the hypocrisy of some Jews who are actively engaged in bashing Wright and, by association, Obama:

  10. One Christian's perspective says:

    “I’d be interested to read if other African-American pastors in “the Black church” (whatever that may mean – probably churches that have at least n% African-Americans) denounce Wright.”

    Comment by Ori

    Recently, a pastor friend of Rev. Wright was interviewed on Hannity and Colmes. While he recognized Rev. Wright’s talents to do good, he also condemned his preaching of Black Liberation Theology which is mostly Marxist and NOT at all biblical and NEVER Christian. I find it very upsetting that Rev. Wright has led so many down a path that leads away from the Gospel message. G-d can and very often does bring good out of bad as evil is brought into the light. Rather than condemn a flock that has not been fed the message of love – love the L-RD your G-d, love your neighbor as yourself, we can only pray that G-d will speak to their hearts and open their eyes.

  11. Ori says:

    Thank you, One Christian. I was not condemning the flock, but wondering about other pastors.

    When people do something evil in the name of a group to which I belong (Baruch Goldstein comes to mind), I believe I ought to denounce them lest I acquiesce in the evil act. Looking at the number of Jews who denounce Israel, for example, I’d say that’s common behavior for us.

    Similarly, when people fly planes into our buildings in the name of Islam, I expect Muslim leaders to denounce them in no uncertain terms. When a pastor considers himself a leader of “the black church” (I didn’t realize Christianity came in racial varieties) and makes crazy claims, I’d expect other African American pastors to say “hey, this isn’t us”. I’m glad to read this is happening.

  12. Zach Leiner says:

    Regarding Reb Yid’s comment #9

    The problem with the editorial is that specifics are conspicuously absent. The topic sentence

    “Jewish activists seem to be the second most vehement group (in denouncing Obama)”

    This is a generalization (and possibly an inflammatory one) within an article lacking footnotes, anecdotes or anything resembling evidence.

    Maybe what they declare is true, but it’s far from my interest to comb through the internet ad infinitum looking for this evidence. That’s the job of a journalist looking for a “scoop” but the Forward’s scoop on that topic is an empty one.

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