In class today we had a discussion about social context and Jeremiah Wright's speech. The claim was made that the problem was that white America didn't understand the black prophetic tradition, and therefore completely misunderstood what Wright said. I think, however, was that, even if white America took Wright's views to be more extreme than they really are, that, for the most part, the problem was not misinterpretation, it was disagreement.
To emphasize the point, I'll examine both Wright's speech after 9/11 as well as another speech by Jerry Falwell. Here's what Jerry Falwell had to say about 9/11:
And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."
Here's what Jeremiah Wright had to say about 9/11 (see full sermon here):
Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontus Pilot – Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from east to west. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonised Kenya, Guana, 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 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 decent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese decent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African decent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them in 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!
The fact is, despite claims of misquoting and whatnot, these people do mean what they actually say. It is true that Falwell did not put the whole weight of 9/11 on gays and lesbians, and if you understand his theology it's based not on these specific social categories as much as them being indicative of a larger move away from God's foundation, and more towards the organizations and institutions than the individual people themselves. But so what? With or without the nuances, the basics are the same.
It is also true that Jeremiah Wright wants what is best for America - in the general sense of "america", and that there is a long tradition of black preachers going overboard in claims. But so what? With or without the nuances, the basics are the same.
What Jeremiah Wright was saying is that we shouldn't ask God to bless America, but we should ask God to damn America. He didn't say that we should watch out because that is what God is going to do (although he said that as well), he explicitly contrasted "God bless America" with "God damn America", saying that we should be asking God for America's destruction. Wright was saying that the system of America is fundamentally bad and needs replacing. Is that in line with the black prophetic tradition? Sure it is, precisely because that's what a majority of the black prophetic tradition think.
The reason why some people are outraged at Falwell but not Wright, or Wright but not Falwell, or perhaps at both or neither, is not because they misunderstand the cultures, but precisely because they understand them very well. Fundamentalist Christians tend to agree with Falwell and disagree with Wright. This is not cultural miscommunication, this is a straightforward disagreement.
The problems people had with Obama attending Wright's church are the same types of problems that other people would have if a candidate was a member of Jerry Falwell's Church - in fact, the same kind of issues were presented against Palin for her Church affiliation and membership - it just didn't matter as much because she was the VP candidate.
Anyway, it annoys me when people say that we just need to "understand" Wright better - no, that's not the problem. It's a disagreement. If you want to present your argument to persuade, that's great. But don't pretend that he's not a radical with fairly radical views - he is. I think people need to accept that most of America fundamentally disagrees with Wright's view of the world. To say it's a problem of "understanding" is to just dance around the real issues we need to be talking about, rather than address them directly.
For the record, I have some amount of agreement and disagreement with both statements.