Sunday, March 30, 2008

It's Sunday, so let's go to Church.

The event came and went to little fanfare, generating barely a ripple in the tide pool of what Rush Limbaugh derides as "our drive-by media." I'd like to take a stab at correcting that oversight here, because I consider it one of the more significant stories I've read in a while.

Last Friday a council of black church leaders called a press conference to address the inflammatory remarks by Rev. Wright, and Sen. Obama's response to same.* Far from condemning Wright or even amplifying on his remarks in a way that might have made them more palatable for America-at-large, the council threw its unequivocal support behind Wright's rancid sermons. Not only that—and here's the part that really makes one pause and reflect—the black clerics suggested that such rhetoric is commonplace in black churches; that there are Rev. Wrights spitting that kind of venom from pulpits all over America.

There was this typical comment from Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, director of the black church studies program at Brite Divinity School, where the conference took place. Addressing the largely white media in attendance, she said the controversy over Dr. Wright's sermons shows just how out-of-touch whites are with black religious life:

"It's news to you.... Now, for the very first time in history, mainline America, white America is finding out something about its black church."
Let me make sure I've got this straight: The fact that we now know there's a "tradition" of virulent racism at black churches...is supposed to justify it? For two centuries in the South—I think Dr. Floyd-Thomas may have heard something about this—there was also a tradition called slavery. Did that make it OK? What especially kills me about the way Floyd-Thomas couches her remarks ("it's news to you"**) is that she puts the onus on "mainline America," making white society's ignorance of black ecclesiastical racism sound like further evidence of America's racist attitude towards blacks. It's as if she were saying, "If you really cared about us, you'd already know just how bigoted we are! God damn you!"

Bottom line, I had hoped that the council of churches might contextualize Wright's remarks for me, and they did. The context was this: "Rev. Wright speaks for all of us. If not in the specifics of the language he used, then certainly in his outlook and his rage." There was nothing about healing; it was about sharing a collective sense of Victimization.

We haven't talked about Victimization in a while. It's not the flavor-of-the-month (or decade, really) in the SHAMscape as a whole, which is heavily into Empowerment. But it remains alive and unwell in the demagoguery of those who maintain control of their constituencies by stoking an abiding sense of oppression. Even if all whites, tomorrow, were to begin embracing other races with a fellowship that white America (in fairness) has seldom shown, I'm not sure it would matter. As long as this element remains in power in the so-called black community, healing cannot and will not occur. Demagogues like Al Sharpton and even Jesse Jackson will work overtime to ensure that black America continues to feel cheated and disenfranchised.

And there's something else, too: the implication that the church enjoys some special dispensation from the canons of brotherhood and good taste that apply elsewhere in American society. That concerns me as very little else has in recent years, because people go to church in a relaxed, welcoming, uncritical state of mind. No pun intended, but worshipers put a lot of faith in what they hear in church, which they interpret as pristine: the word of God. The idea that black preachers are sowing the seeds of another generation of racism—and justifying that enterprise as some properly divine mission—is just too much. How can church leaders not see the damage they do in defending and perpetuating the Rev. Wright mindset?

For more than 40 years now, or ever since I first began reading about race relations, I've heard the phrase "institutionalized racism." I just didn't expect to find it in houses of worship, and hear it defended in front of major media, in 2008.

* I know, I promised I'd move on. What can I say? Try to bear with me. It just keeps getting "better."
** And I heard the press conference: She said it with exactly that intonation.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Steve, darlin'. Your innocence is touching. You are right, it's always appalling to hear intolerance of any kind preached from the pulpit. But intolerance, bigotry and hatred have been the fodder of sermons from practically day one, and long before Christianity. "There is no God but OUR God," "Burn [stone, hang, drown, rape, imprison, shun...] those filthy heretics," "Grab your weapons and let's show those guys the error of their ways!" and so forth and so on have been the divisive norm, not the exception, and this has held true no matter how fractional the differences in belief between the warring sects. And so we humans continue to think of ourselves in terms of "us" and "them." Those who preach love, tolerance, and the brotherhood of man are the exceptions. It's almost enough to make you love folks like Eckhart Tolle and Joel Osteen, isn't it? At least they're not spewing venom.

And a happy Sunday to you, too!

Steve Salerno said...

I understand that. And just the other day, I read an interesting article on Huffington Post recounting the intolerance of preachers on the conservative side of the spectrum--also people who are highly thought of by recent presidential candidates (and the incumbent). But what does it for me is the notion that a man of God would tell his flock that, instead of singing God Bless America, they're supposed to shout "God damn America!" And believe me--if you're a regular--you know that I'm not saying that out of a sense of religious outrage. The point is that anyone who can say, from the pulpit, "God damn America!"--or "God damn" anyone/anything--is telling us through that act that he's not really a man of God, but that he's merely masquerading as one in order to fulfill his true mission. He's exploiting God for secular purposes.

In Rev. Wright's case, one wonders what that true mission is.

Anonymous said...

You're right on target there, Steve ("exploiting God for secular purposes"). But I'd say that's what anyone does who exploits God's love for his own purposes. That's why the almost universal messages of love, tolerance, and respect for the Earth--our earthly Paradise (as Jesus said, "the Kingdom of God is at hand," i.e., it's here all around you, not something that's going to show up from afar)--preached by the great prophets in all ages and all religions have beeen turned into messages of intolerance, hate, and elitism as soon as they became codified into "religions." What a tragedy for us all! It's also why people like St. Francis and Mother Teresa, who understood and lived the original message, are so rare and so revered.

Elizabeth said...

This is an aside to last Anon's comment, with which, in general, I agree (and I apologize ahead for raining on our Sunday sermons, but I have to say this): Mother Teresa's example is more complicated (than as one who understood and lived the message of love, tolerance and respect). Her recently revealed letters show a darker, more tragic figure, who not only struggled with her faith, but appeared to not have it at all throughout most of her life. This (her lack of faith) is not a "bad thing," of course, but it sheds a different light on her life. When viewed through this lens, her actions and attributes take on a different meaning -- for example, her apparent coldness or lack of empathy, which some who knew her and her work observed in person, begins to make sense. Not to mention her work methods that eschewed medical treatment for the sick in the name of earning them "eternal salvation." It is clear from her own words that the woman devoted her life to god that does not exist and was too far gone into her own myth to admit her error; but was honest with herself enough to suffer for it.

There are several books and articles that uncover Mother Teresa's darker side -- and, not surprisingly, they have been reviled by the MT followers and worshipers. Which, again, is a typical attitude we see when our favorite guru is shown to have feet of clay. We have such a tremendous need for gurus and saints that we accord them superhuman qualities and literally fight to the death, if needed, to maintain these illusions (those knee-jerk reactions you are experiencing while reading my words are part of the same impulse, btw).

I said it before, but it bears repeating: saints, like gurus, should always be judged guilty before proven innocent.

P.S. A disclaimer: It's not that I'm against the universal message of love, tolerance and respect, not at all. But I am against the naivete and gullibility that flatten these concepts into easily digestible bits of blind faith, religious dogmas and moral exemplars who aren't.

Now let's go back to Rev. Wright and his apologists. (It's gonna be one of those Sundays, sigh.)

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz et al: Please trust me when I tell you how much I'd love to get off this topic. "I'm trying to quit." Honest. But I guess I just can't stop being amazed, anew each day, at how the mainstream media persist in covering race to a depth of, oh, maybe a few centimeters. They select out just a small number of "authorized" angles, and will not even go near the more sensitive aspects of the story...like, for example--and I'll say it plainly--whether there is now afoot in America a sense of black separatism that is more of a threat to true cultural harmony than the Black Panther Party (or, for that matter, the Aryan Nation) ever could be. If this stuff is being preached from the pulpit, with the full buy-in of people who oversee divinity schools...I am truly left (almost) speechless.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, I'm sorry for that last sentence of mine -- it led you astray. That is was merely a commentary on my own state of mind today, what with Mother Teresa and all.

Having said that, I see that this (Rev. Wright and vicinity) is an important topic for you. On this one, I'm in the listening mode. I thought that race relations in the US were black-and-white, but now I see they are black-and-blacker-and-white-and- whiter. And then some. I admit that I do not fully understand the issues involved (thus the listening mode). Carry on.

Anonymous said...

I hate to post anonymously on this one but given the subject matter and the nature of my comment I think it is best.

How do those who spew this hatred toward "white people" expect us "white people" to respond?

If we challenge it, that "proves" our racism.

If we take them at their word and express concern at being labeled the enemy, that also "proves" our racism.

If we ignore it, that "proves" our apathy toward them.

It seems there is no "proper" response a white person can have given the way the issues have been raised and responded to.

Any response just provides more "proof" of our guilt.

The situation may seem absurd, but only if we believe the intention of these people is to "bring us together."

But if their intention is to increase their own personal power at any cost, then it makes complete sense.

They have created a game in which "white people" cannot win and those who support these divisive messages cannot lose.

How any human being of any color or ethnicity can support this is beyond me.

But then, what else would you expect a "racist" white person to say.

G.T.

Anonymous said...

Okay, okay, I tried to just let it go, but I guess I can't shut up, either. Elizabeth, please bear with me--this isn't aimed at you, and I fully respect your feelings towards saints and gurus, since ultimately they *all* have feet of clay. I'm the anon. who was ranting on about St. Francis and Mother Teresa earlier.

One could point out that the Buddha, to name one example, abandoned his adoring wife and infant son, not to mention his responsibilities to his father and people to rule his kingdom. On the Christian side, St. Peter abandoned his wife and home (and probably quite a few kids, as well as, if memory serves, his elderly mother) to follow Jesus; St. Francis left his place as heir to his father's hard-earned fortune and mercantile empire, and broke his parents' hearts in the process. Mother Teresa has come in for a huge amount of criticism for not using her vast influence to change the status of the poor and low-caste in India. The ways and choices of the Amish have been incomprehensible to the larger society, and have become more and more so as we move farther away from agrarian norms.

Why, we might ask ourselves, did these people make the choices they did (and/or do)? Leaving the Buddha and his search (for now, anyway), as it had a different source and sought different ends, let me focus on the other examples. They lived as they did and made the choices they did in order to lead Christ-centered lives. Only in the context of that faith are their lives even comprehensible.

St. Peter was obviously an impulsive, hotheaded, passionate, wholly fallible human being. But despite his famous denial of Christ, he was the only disciple with the guts and love to follow Him to his sentencing, despite his fear, and was willing to die nailed upside-down to a cross for His sake. Did he suffer a few dark nights of the soul? You betcha. But he didn't let them stand between him and his faith.

St. Francis's erratic and eccentric behavior is also only comprehensible through the lens of faith. His dark side manifested itself in abuse of his poor, frail body--"Brother Ass"--in the name of faith. But he also was able to find joy, love, beauty and laughter in daily living, and has given us the "Prayer of St. Francis," one of the most beautiful of all prayers, and a better understanding and appreciation of even the smallest creatures as part of God's rich legacy, His gift to us.

Yes, Mother Teresa suffered doubt and darkness. Any thinking person would, if they devoted themselves to God; only a holy fool would not. But she understood the central message, the essence of Christ in a way her detractors do not. She was not trying to heal the poor and suffering around her, it was not, as she herself said, her role to be a social worker and fight for change within society. Her role was quite simple: to show the poorest of the poor, and eventually the richest of the rich, that they were loved. That was all: to share the love of Christ that transcends all.

I feel that those three--St.Peter, St. Francis, and St.--I mean, Mother--Teresa, exemplify an understanding of the true message of Christ, and that they lived it in love and despair and darkness until they died. And yet it shone in them, shone very bright, to all of us, flawed and fallible ourselves, who would not dream of presenting ourselves for crucifixion, upside-down or otherwise, or leaving our comfortable lives and enduring the stigmata, or even looking at the face of, much less washing and loving the body and heart of, someone lying in the gutter, stinking and covered with sores.

"Take up your cross and follow Me." They did, unlike the many who used Jesus's message to promote themselves, gain power, repress, kill, and an entire litany of other atrocities besides. That's why I respect them and consider them my spiritual heroes. They actually heard what Jesus was saying and, despite their own fully acknowledged deficiencies, strove to live according to His intent.

No, I haven't forgotten the Amish: Every one of their oddities can be explained, not through a social analysis, but through the lens of faith. As anyone who studies them knows, individual Amish are as flawed as the rest of us, and they'd be the first to say so. But unlike most of us, the Amish shape their daily lives, their rejection of modernity, and their insistence on the centrality of the family and community on their desire to keep faith at the center of their lives, to live according to the precepts of Christ. Only in the context of this faith do they, and Mother Teresa, and St. Francis, and St. Peter become comprehensible. It is a choice, and a sacrifice, that most of us cannot make, whatever our faith.

mikecane2008 said...

>>>The idea that black preachers are sowing the seeds of another generation of racism—and justifying that enterprise as some properly divine mission—is just too much.

I've known about this since the 1980s. Really, where have you been? There is also virulent hatred of Jews (who are "fake" Jews).

You could have gotten an excellent dose of this out in the open in NYC on talk radio in the 1980s, with Bob Grant on WABC battling the black station owned by Percy Sutton (said station has since switched to Carribean music, I think; Bob Grant was recently brought out returement again at WABC -- no longer owned by Disney, though -- but he's so decrepit only people as half-dead as he is listen now).

Hello, Steve, meet world:

The World You Don’t See

What, you think the crazed guy on my blog's masthead is hyperbolic?

Elizabeth said...

Anon, thanks for your passionate and interesting response. (I fully expected it, thus my comment about knee-jerk reactions:) -- no disrespect, mind you.) I'm actually smiling all the way here reading your post -- it sounds like something I would write (or wrote, not that long ago). You know, I was a deeply (and I mean *deeply*) Catholic child and young woman once, hoping to become a nun (yes) and spending untold hours on prayer and self-perfection (the latter with woeful results, obviously). Alas, life beckoned. And I'm not saying it glibly, btw.

I don't want to dispute your perspective -- I understand and appreciate it too much, I think. I still adore saints, but from a safe distance nowadays. Because I've lost trust in prophets who worship God and grand ideals while forsaking the ones dearest and closest to them, the real, singular human beings. I have no longer any respect for the enlightened souls who preach love and compassion while nursing subconscious contempt for others and/or stomping on you in their rush to the nearest podium or mirror -- or their social project. The abstract love of humanity has no meaning to me if not realized in individual relationships, no matter how noble the motives behind it (and I will always question those).

You ask, "Why (...) did these people make the choices they did (and/or do)?"

This is a question that has been on my mind for the past, oh, 40 years, LOL. And I think answers would vary in individual cases, but one commonality is the saints' inability to engage in a common, mortal-sort of love, with all the warts, guts and pain involved. The abstract love of God/humanity/whatever ideals they choose is a much safer, and often much more glamorous option, satisfying their narcissistic needs.

That's not to say that there is no value in the way of life exemplified by the saints; yes, they do bring a certain kind of light into our reality, except that there is no warmth in it, at least not for me.

ourfriendben said...

Oh no, Mike, and here I thought that was you! I'm so disillusioned now...

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:27pm

I'm sorry but I can't keep it in either.

With reference to Mother Theresa, I don't understand how you can think that her understanding of Christ's true message " All you need is love" a la Beatles is correct. To me its really simple, if you love someone, you help them to the best of your ability with whatever they need - never mind what your job title happens to be.

Tell it like it is - its all ego. She had a well developed martyr complex and expected the people she was looking after to join her in her martyrdom.

I don't really know much about the Amish, but I did watch a documentary about the Jehova's Witness Religion last week and I have to say that I think the time has come when we are going to have to make a distinction between quirky beliefs and pure insanity.

I just pray every day that I never lose my mind enough to believe someone's absolute nonsense.

Londoner

Anonymous said...

I think that what seriously compromised the civil rights movement was that its leaders allowed street corner jive artists and thugs to infiltrate their ranks and pose as 'leaders.'

And when liberals from outside of the black community came in to assist the civil rights movement, little was done to warn these newcomers:

'There are people whom we have seen for years, who hustled and ran con games on street corners. They are opportunists and can smell a new and exploitable trend or visitor from a mile away.

'Some of them have learned to dress up in suits and dresses and are calling themselves civil rights leaders. But watch out. They are the ones who will run guilt trips on you and play the race card. They will guilt trip you into forgetting that civil rights is all about character.

'Dont let them into your home, dont let them near your wallet, dont let them guilt trip you, and dont let them get into your pants.'

If only the early leaders of the civil rights movement had kept their own ranks free from jive artists and and had warned outsiders on how to identify these people and ignore them, things would have gone much better.

And..I am sorry to say some of these thug/jive artists figure out that the preaching ministry is an excellent place to run cons.

Becoming a guilt tripper is no cure for whatever harm one has incurred by being in an oppressed group---it just passes the harm along, with added refinements.

Elizabeth said...

Well said, Londoner: "To me it's really simple, if you love someone, you help them to the best of your ability with whatever they need - never mind what your job title happens to be."

Since we are already in the "bear-with-me" mood here, thanks to the All Saints sub-thread (which is all Steve's doing, remember -- he's the one who said "let's go to Church" ;), I have a link for the MT/St. Francis Anon. It is Rilke's poem titled "The Olive Garden," which shows Christ's disillusioned despair on the night before his crucifixion. It is a great poem -- one of my favorites and one I have in mind whenever I think about MT.

To continue loose-associating, I'd mention that one of the most talented and prominent translators of Rilke's poetry in the US is Stephen Mitchell, who happens to be married to Byron Katie (discovering it was a personal disappointment to me, btw).

Which goes to show (perhaps) that all roads lead back to SHAM.

Below is the link (this is not Mitchell's translation):

http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/Randall-Jarrell/2995

Elizabeth said...

Of kettles and pots (with a shout out to CMC!):
http://www.townhall.com/Columnists/FrankPastore/2008/03/31/questions_that_bother_oprah_and_todays_new_age_thinkers

The Crack Emcee said...

Several things:

1) Christopher Hitchens has already proved there was nothing holy about Mother Theresa - she merely allowed people to starve to death in their own filth.

2) To the very-first anonymous: Christopher Hitchens wrote a book, called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, where he clearly outlines every fallacy associated with the scam of religion and spirituality - including the crap Oprah's selling. I consider NewAge much more hurtful, and insidious, than "Rev." Wright's nonsense which - as we can all see - is being neutralized as we speak. What's stopping Oprah, Eckhart Tolle and Joel Osteen? Nothing. They have the support of practically everyone.

3) Racism is a trap, laid to ensnare anyone of the excluded race, and "Rev." Wright - and Barack Obama and these other "preachers" - have set one out for "whitey".

4) To MikeCane2008 (and the anonymous right before my comments): your posts reminded me of Roger L. Simon's recent poem where he said:

"Barack, I gave hundreds to the Black Panthers for their children’s breakfast program when I was 25 and a young screenwriter in Echo Park, Los Angeles, even though I knew Huey was crazy and was worried my money might have been going for guns, even though I had my own children in the house when the Panthers came over, their jackets bulging.

Barack, I made excuses for the Black Power Movement even though I knew it was turning racist.

Barack, I didn’t do it for this."


5) Barack is part of Oprah's circle. "It's all connected" as NewAgers like to say.

Jeremy Smalling said...

I myself am convinced about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to admonish one another. But I have written to you rather boldly in some respects to remind you, because of the grace given to me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast in what pertains to God. For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to lead the Gentiles to obedience by word and deed, by the powers of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have finished preaching the gospel of Christ. Thus I aspire to proclaim the gospel not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on another’s foundation, but as it is written: “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand”.

For as I see it, God has exhibited us apostles as the last of all, like people sentenced to death, since we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike. We are fools on Christ’s account, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clad and roughly treated, we wander about homeless and we toil, working with our own hands. When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we respond gently. We have become like the world’s rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment.

In communion with the saints and angels of heaven we pray that the love and mercy of God through Christ Jesus descend upon you by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

mikecane2008 said...

I don't know if my reply got through. Some sort of OpenID problem.

>>>Oh no, Mike, and here I thought that was you! I'm so disillusioned now...

Only in spirit.

I've since updated my About page with the background about that image.

Bart Stewart said...

Obama denounced the offensive comments of Jeremiah Wright, and what more exactly is he supposed to do? They were not his words. Do Republicans apologize every time Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter say something idiotic? Is every sermon delivered at Bob Jones University scanned for absurdity, or hate, prior to the Republican candidates making their quadrennial pilgrimage there? Some statements of the ranting Wright were not even controversial. He said Hillary Clinton does not know what it is to have taxi cabs pass her by because she is black. He said America is run by rich white people. Well? Any debate on those two points? Clearly, the enraged tone of his voice generated as much of a visceral response as the content of some of those jeremiads.

Some of what he said was thoroughly hateful and stupid, but out of a thirty year preaching career Fox News could only rustle up these few minutes of bile? And they were edited for maximum impact. The God-Bless-God-Damn America bit followed a long list of racist outrages that this country has allowed. That litany was clipped, making it seem like he was enraged about nothing. Obama said that the video clips show only a few temper tantrums from an aging preacher, and Wright's average sermon was not offensive or vituperative. Wright's video display was repulsive, but it is a stretch to act like Obama himself delivered those sermons, and that is what the opponents of this man are trying to do. It is going to work brilliantly – on people who were never going to vote for Obama in the first place. I don't think it is going to work very well otherwise, because Obama's message has always been the polar opposite of what we heard from Jeremiah Wright’s most famous few minutes.

Steve Salerno said...

Bart, you make some fair points. But I caution you against sliding into a version of the Sean Hannity Defense here--which is that every time someone on the Right gets caught with his pants down (often as not literally these days), Hannity's "counterargument" is to point out something equally stupid done by someone on the Left. Two wrongs don't make a right. Or a left. Right?

Further, Obama may have denounced the statements, but the fact is, he worshiped at the church for years. He regarded the man as his "spiritual adviser." I find that troublesome, especially in light of something else that has begun to worry me about Obama since this whole thing developed. I've now read both of his books. The tone of the first book, which he wrote long before he had (overt) presidential ambitions, is decidedly more "angry-black-man" (albeit on a highly thoughtful level) than the tone of the second book, which is "why can't we all get along?" You have to wonder if the congenial, temperate Barack Obama is a pose he developed for the purpose of making himself politically acceptable to "white America." Finally, I remain disturbed by the fact that he continues to define himself as "black," and that he pointedly resists the label "multiracial," even though his white mother is the one who raised him. To me, Bart, all of that speaks a fair amount of subcutaneous racial animosity.

And remember--again--I say this as someone who's leaning towards voting for him, if he gets the Dem nod in August.