The introduction emphasized the good works of the church — its ministry to the poor and sick — but the positivity got a little hard to take at this point:
Trinity has long had strong ties with the African roots of its faith. Parishioners are asked to respect what they call the Black Value System, to rededicate themselves to God, the black family, and the black community, reinforcing the motto that they are "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian."Nothing about the "Disavowal of the Pursuit of “Middleclassness'" that people find troubling. I'm suspicious. Let's look at the transcript of the interview and see if Moyers simply acted as Wright's PR agent or if he asked some hard, journalistic questions.
The first candidate for a hard question is "So, when Trinity Church says it is unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian, is it embracing a race-based theology?"
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 —Wright is going on about music, which no one who's worried about what is happening at Trinity Church is going to be upset about. Moyers doesn't press him with harder questions, but prompts him to keep running in this easy direction by saying "They were singin' the great Anglican hymns." Wright takes the encouragement. There's another long paragraph in the transcript about music, followed by a paragraph that generalizes to the level of "culture."
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.Moyers doesn't press him with any evidence that the church has a race-based ideology. He just makes a vague reference to the things outsiders have been saying: "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?" That question is framed in a way that makes it easy to say no: exclusively, totally... Were we not supposed to notice that? The church could be rabidly racial about Christianity 99% of the time and the answer to the question would still be no.
Wright must feel cozily comfortable sitting across the table from this puffball. Wright starts listing the non-black ethnic groups that attend the church, and Moyers moves on to the blandest question in the world, "What does the church service on Sunday morning mean in general to the black community?"
The second candidate for a hard question comes a little later. Moyers says:
Lots of controversy about black liberation theology. As I understand it, black liberation theology reads the [B]ible through the experience of people who have suffered, and who then are able to say to themselves that we read the [B]ible differently, because we have struggled, than those do who have not struggled. Is that a fair bumper sticker of liberation theology?Moyers doesn't just sit back and let Wright filibuster here. There's some back-and-forth, but let's examine it:
REVEREND WRIGHT: I think that's a fair bumper sticker. I think that the terms "liberation theology" or "black liberation theology" cause more problems and red flags for people who don't understand it.Moyers jumped right in to cue Wright to explain liberation theology in an easy way. Wright takes the cue and recounts the oppression of the Jews in the Biblical stories. Moyers prompts him to talk about the prophets who "hated the waywardness of Israel," who "were calling Israel out of love back to justice, not damning Israel." Here, Moyers is playing PR agent, setting up the opportunity for Wright to explain his anti-American statements. And the subject of liberation theology is left in the dust! We are given no substance about what liberation theology has meant in modern political movements and nothing to help us think about whether membership in Wright's church has something to do with extremist left-wing politics.
BILL MOYERS: When I hear the word "black liberation theology" being the interpretation of scripture from the oppressed, I think well, that's the Jewish story--
REVEREND WRIGHT: Exactly, exactly.
Wright hits the softball and says that the prophets "were saying that God was in fact, if you look at the damning, condemning, if you look at Deuteronomy, it talks about blessings and curses, how God doesn't bless everything." He goes on for a bit about the things "God doesn't bless" — which is to say, the things God damns — and Moyers finally breaks in with a question about Wright's notorious "God damn America." The PBS website transcribes the question this way:
One of the most controversial sermons that you preach is the sermon you preach that ended up being that sound bite about Goddamn America.So, Moyers has incorporated the the standard defense — it's just a sound bite — into what can be our third candidate for a hard question.
Moyers plays a long chunk of the sermon that ends "God damn America," and asks "What did you mean when you said that?"
Wright answers that governments can deviate from the will of God and says "you are made in the image of God, you're not made in the image of any particular government." What should follow is a statement about the degree of allegiance people owe to their country, but Wright jumps to an invocation of free speech: "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."
At this point, Moyers could follow up either with a question about the allegiance religious people owe to a country they think has deviated from the will of God or a question about how, while it's true that Americans have free speech, free speech includes criticizing the things people say. But Moyers observes, inanely: "Well, you can be almost crucified for saying what you've said here in this country." Moyers extends his heartfelt sympathy to Wright for the suffering — the suffering of Christ! — he's endured over mere words.
Wright accepts the comforting: "That's true. That's true. But you can be crucified, you can be crucified publicly, you can be crucified by corporate-owned media." You know, you could be nailed to a cross or you could be lambasted in the media. The corporate-owned media. (Getting criticized on independent blogs may not quite equate with crucifixion. Maybe we bloggers correspond to mere flogging or piercing with thorns.)
Wright brings up Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Dr. King, of course, was vilified. And most of us forget that after he was assassinated, but the year before he was assassinated, April 4th, 1967 at the Riverside Church, he talked about racism, militarism and capitalism. He became vilified. He got ostracized not only by the majority of Americans in the press; he got vilified by his own community. They thought he had overstepped his bounds. He was no longer talking about civil rights and being able to sit down at lunch counters that he should not talk about things like the war in Vietnam.King entered the political fray, and people debated politics. Some people agreed with him and some didn't, but he was a powerful voice in important political debates. He wasn't above the debate, but part of it, and people argued with him. What is wrong with that?
Moyers notes: "Lyndon Johnson was furious at that," and lets Wright deliver a mini-sermon about King's efforts on behalf of the poor, which concludes: "That part of King is not talked about because we want to keep that away from the public eye, and the public memory, and it's been 40 years now." Talk about it then! It's a free country. What I'm seeing in that conclusion is a whiff of left-wing politics, but Moyers does nothing here to follow up about what lies beneath that statement or God damn America. Instead, Moyers shifts to the problem that Americans have with hearing their country criticized:
What is your notion of why so many Americans seem not to want to hear the full Monty...(The full Monty?)
... they don't want to seem to acknowledge that a nation capable of greatness is also capable of cruelty?Eh. Moyers signals that he's absolved Wright and wants to move on to the more fun topic of what's wrong with those terrible Americans who want to crucify him.
Wright says we're miseducated because "after every revolution, the winners of that revolution write down what the revolution was about so that their children can learn it, whether it's true or not." Americans believe a "myth" about our country, so he's seen as "desecrating what we hold sacred."
Wheeling out big words, Wright says Americans don't understand "etymology" — "condemn, D-E-M-N, D-A-M-N" — and they don't understand "hermeneutic" — "the window from which you're looking is your hermeneutic."
At this point, Wright is going back to the subject Moyers tried to show him the path out of. Wright says "I've been framed" — and he means that as an intellectual joke. You know your "hermeneutic" is your window frame, and you've looked him through it. You've "framed" him. He gets carried away here, and Moyers lets him go, probably because he thinks it's good for Wright to dazzle PBS viewers by talking like an intellectual. But it's a messy rant:
This whole thing has been framed through this window, there's another world out here that I'm not looking at or taking into account, it gives you a perspective that — that is-- that is informed by and limited by your hermeneutic. Dr. James Cone put it this way. The God of the people who riding on the decks of the slave ship is not the God of the people who are riding underneath the decks as slaves in chains. If the God you're praying to, "Bless our slavery" is not the God to whom these people are praying, saying, "God, get us out of slavery." And it's not like Notre Dame playing Michigan. You're saying flip a coin; hope God blesses the winning team, no. That the perception of God who allows slavery, who allows rape, who allows misogyny, who allows sodomy, who allows murder of a people, lynching, that's not the God of the people being lynched and sodomized and raped, and carried away into a foreign country. Same thing you find in Psalm 137. That those people who are carried away into slavery have a very different concept of what it means to be the people of God than the ones who carried them away.Moyers helps out by bringing back the easy old music theme:
And they say, "How can we sing the song of the Lord of a foreign land?"The fourth candidate for a hard question is implied by this statement: "That chapter [Psalm 137] ends up with some very brutal words. You used them in one of your sermons." Wright understands the question to call for an explanation of his post-9/11 speech. He speaks first of his pain over 9/11 and explains the thinking behind his sermon:
I had to preach. They came to church wanting to know where is God in this. And so, I had to show them using that Psalm 137, how the people who were carried away into slavery were very angry, very bitter, moved and in their anger from wanting revenge against the armies that had carried them away to slavery, to the babies. That Psalm ends up sayin' "Let's kill the baby-let's bash their heads against the stone." So, now you move from revolt and revulsion as to what has happened to you, to you want revenge. You move from anger with the military to taking it out on the innocents. You wanna kill babies. That's what's going on in Psalm 137. And that's exactly where we are. We want revenge. They wanted revenge. God doesn't wanna leave you there, however. God wants redemption. God wants wholeness. And that's the context, the biblical context I used to try to get people sitting again, in that sanctuary on that Sunday following 9/11, who wanted to know where is God in this? What is God saying? What is God saying? Because I want revenge.I think he's saying that the Psalm — God speaking? — is saying that people who have suffered want revenge and feel motivated to do terrible things. But he's really held himself open to a terrible interpretation — and calling it my "hermeneutic" isn't going to help. "What is God saying? What is God saying? Because I want revenge." What is Wright saying? That's going to sound to a lot of people as though he's saying 9/11 was God's revenge on America. He quotes the Psalm: "Blessed are they who dash your baby's brains against a rock." Well, now, it really sounds as though he's saying that God blesses the 9/11 hijackers! God damns America and God blesses the hijackers? Wright has not backed down. He's stepped up.
Can Moyers probe? Help us out here, Bill. The obvious question is: Are you saying that God blesses the hijackers, that they were righteous in God's eyes? At this point, we get a long segment from the sermon. It's not a "sound bite." It goes on and on, and it's awful. His words are terrible, and the cheering from the congregation is sickening.
You preached that sermon on the Sunday after 9-11 -- almost 7 years ago. When people saw the sound bites from it this year, they were upset because you seemed to be blaming America. Did you somehow fail to communicate?Well, I just listened to it — not merely with sound bites — and I'm upset, and I certainly think Wright was blaming America. Did you somehow fail to communicate? A tougher way to put it would be: It sounds to me like you were blaming America; did you somehow not mean what you said?
The persons who have heard the entire sermon understand the communication perfectly. What is not the failure to communicate is when something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public.Oh, spare me. The "sound bite" defense outrages me after listening to the long clip. This is eely wriggling off the hook. Own up to what you said!
That's not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they wanna do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a "wack-a-doodle."Oh, this is the sound bite from the interview that was making the rounds the day before the show aired! Amazing!
It's to paint me as something. Something's wrong with me. There's nothing wrong with this country. There's -its policies. We're perfect. We-our hands are free. Our hands have no blood on them. That's not a failure to communicate. The message that is being communicated by the sound bites is exactly what those pushing those sound bites want to communicate.Spare me. He blamed America for 9/11. It's right there in the long version!
Moyers lobs him another softball: "What do you think they wanted to communicate?"
I think they wanted to communicate that I am- unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ.That's what it looked like on the clip I just watched. It didn't take any mysterious, corporate "they." You said it! Moyers lets him go on, saying the "sound bite" was "unfair... unjust... untrue" and attributing "very devious reasons" to the media. Moyers musters a probe: "Such as?"
To put an element of fear and hatred and to stir up the anxiety of American who still don't know the African-American church, know nothing about the prophetic theology of the African-American experience, who know nothing about the black church, who don't even know how we got a black church.What would a good journalist ask at this point? I'd ask: Why are you saying they would do that? What are the "devious reasons"? You're saying the media who reported what you said, who showed a clip of you speaking, wanted to foment racism in this country?
But no, puffball Bill, asks Wright to tell us about the feelings of his wounded congregation: "What can you tell me about what's happened at the church since this controversy broke?" Wright informs us that they are "very upset." They should be upset to see themselves cheering and nodding at Wright's vicious words.
Our members know that this is what the media is doing. And our members know they're only doing it because of the political campaign.It's funny how Wright attacks Americans for our lack of self-criticism, when he and, by his report, his congregation are utterly devoid of self-criticism. Blame the media. Blame corporations. Do you ever do anything wrong?
Moyers invites him to talk about death threats. There have been death threats. Of course, those are wrong, but Moyers is missing the opportunity to push Wright about the things that he is not owning up to. Wheel in the faceless bad people to distract us.
And here's the next question, which is most emphatically not a tough journalistic question: "Did you ever imagine that you would come to personify the black anger that so many whites fear?"
No. I did not. I have been preaching as I've been preaching since I was ordained 41 years ago.But the sermon we just saw was full of anger. The fact that you've been preaching for a long time is no assurance that you are not angry and bent on stirring up anger in the people who look to you for inspiration. Moyers blandly and lamely implies that "many whites" are racists and have wrongly fixated on Wright as the personification of the things they irrationally fear. Again the faceless bad people are a convenient distraction. Why can't we talk about the actual sermons and what they mean?
Rather insanely, Moyers goes back to the music theme: "I think of how important music is to your church at times like this, that's intentional isn't it?" Wright proceeds to lecture about music. The word "suicide" appears in the lecture and Moyers perks up: "What is it you said about suicide?" Singing the blues is soothing to black people, Wright says, and Moyers uses this as a cue to give Wright yet another chance to tell Americans how much we've hurt him: "So what blues are you singing right now?" He says "what man meant for evil, God meant for good," and Moyers leads him into a mini-sermon about finding the good in a bad situation. Wright thinks that it was good that Obama had to give that "very powerful speech" about race.
The mention of Obama gives Moyers a chance to ask what might be a hard question — it would be the fifth candidate: "In the 20 years that you've been your pastor, have you ever heard him repeat any of your controversial statements as his opinion?"
No. No. No. Absolutely not. I don't talk to him about politics. And so here at a political event, he goes out as a politician and says what he has to say as a politician. I continue to be a pastor who speaks to the people of god about the things of God.Moyers follows up: "in that speech at Philadelphia, had to say" — had to say! — "some hard things about you. How, how did it go down with you when you heard Barack Obama say those things?"
Wright picks up Moyers's "had to say" cue:
He's a politician, I'm a pastor. We speak to two different audiences. And he says what he has to say as a politician. I say what I have to say as a pastor. Those are two different worlds. I do what I do. He does what politicians doIn the sixth candidate for a hard question, Moyers asks Wright about his "long complicated" relationship with Louis Farrakhan. Wright praises Farrakhan for helping people "change their lives for the better." "People listen" when Farrakhan speaks, he says.
Moyers has no follow-up question. He goes on to: "What does it say to you that millions Americans, according to polls, still think Barack Obama is a Muslim?" Answer: "corporate media and miseducation or misinformation or disinformation." And the final question is about how "[o]ur denomination, the United Church of Christ has called for a sacred conversation on race in America." This is a warm, fuzzy question. Wright rambles through an answer and we reach the end of the show.
Do you think Moyers asked hard questions? He started to six times, by my count, but I think it's quite clear that he was there to support Wright and give him a comfy setting and words of encouragement and sympathy.
ADDED: Protein Wisdom has some extended analysis. I especially appreciate this:
If Moyers had any journalistic integrity he might have gone beyond a bumper-sticker understanding of Black Liberation Theology and asked about the underlying Marxist frame work of liberation theologies in general....AND: Excellent commentary from vbspurs:
... Wright’s characterization [of himself as acting in the religious sphere while Obama acts as a politician] is essentially false, given that Black Liberation Theology – and liberation theology generally – is at its core a religious casting of Leftist political activism, and that this is precisely what appealed to Obama about Wright and TUCC.
It was astoundingly condenscending, and very off-putting to see a man who feels he's been railroaded, when it is merely his own words which did him in....
No, Reverend. You're going to have to understand what you said is wrong, and moreover, you've caused a lot of damage to your acolyte, Senator Obama.
When minority leaders are caught with their pants down, they ask that the topic of race be "at last" explored.
This is their way of saying that what their words would be more fully understood if people (namely, the white "power structure") understood their struggle and tears better.
Sorry. Not only have we been exploring this topic in earnest for 40 years now, but this isn't going to be another time when all you do to justify your hateful words is to cry racism.
AND: Cjsmith defends God and Psalm 137, and to that I say that I'm not trying to say what the Psalm really means, only what it sounds like Wright is saying. I do think Smith underplays the line "Blessed are they who dash your baby's brains against a rock." Even if the speaker is not God — and I don't assume it is — to say something is "blessed" is to say that God blesses it. So I think it is an expression of the belief that God is well pleased when those who have reason to feel vengeful take their revenge even on an innocent baby.