In an effort to help Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., some people are not only defending Wright but portraying him as a “prophet.” The Reverend James Forbes, who recently retired as the longtime pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, said, “Some of us wish we had the nerve that Jeremiah had. We praise God that he’s saying it, so the rest of us don’t have to.” When asked if Wright ever crossed a line, Forbes answered this way: “I think if a person is a prophet and he’s not seen as ever crossing a line, then he has not told the truth as it ought to be told.”
The former minister and author Anthony B. Robinson said of Wright’s words:
Sounds like what the Bible calls a prophet. Biblical prophets weren’t crystal-ball gazers. They were … preachers who “regularly exposed the failures of a society in savage rhetoric.” Prophets afflict the comfortable while comforting the afflicted. And they use language and images that pretty much guarantee that they won’t get invited to cocktail parties.
We can add to this list the distinguished religious historian Martin Marty, a former professor, congregant, and friend of Jeremiah Wright. In “Prophet and Pastor,” published last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marty recounts what he admires in Wright and the work of his church. He admits, though, that we ought not gloss over the “abrasive edges” of Wright. Marty finds some of his comments “distracting and harmful” and the honoring of Minister Louis Farrakhan “abhorrent and indefensible.” Marty also writes this:
Now, for the hard business: the sermons, which have been mercilessly chipped into for wearying television clips. While Wright’s sermons were pastoral – my wife and I have always been awed to hear the Christian Gospel parsed for our personal lives – they were also prophetic. At the university, we used to remark, half lightheartedly, that this Jeremiah was trying to live up to his namesake, the seventh-century B.C. prophet.
Though Jeremiah of old did not “curse” his people of Israel, Wright, as a biblical scholar, could point out that the prophets Hosea and Micah did. But the Book of Jeremiah, written by numbers of authors, is so full of blasts and quasi curses – what biblical scholars call “imprecatory topoi” – that New England preachers invented a sermonic form called “the jeremiad,” a style revived in some Wrightian shouts.
Jeremiah, however, was the prophet of hope, and that note of hope is what attracts the multiclass membership at Trinity and significant television audiences. Both Jeremiahs gave the people work to do: to advance the missions of social justice and mercy that improve the lot of the suffering. For a sample, read Jeremiah 29, where the prophet’s letter to the exiles in Babylon exhorts them to settle down and “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” Or listen to many a Jeremiah Wright sermon . . . Those who were part of [Wright’s] ministry for years . . . are not going to turn their backs on their pastor and prophet.
“Prophet.” That’s quite an appellation to bestow on Wright. It’s worth considering, then, precisely what a prophet is. Far more than just a provocative exhorter, a prophet, for those of the Christian and Jewish faiths, is a person who proclaims divine revelation. He is an oracle of Yahweh, one who speaks for the Holy Ruler of History. Prophecy involves a human messenger communicating a divine message. It is a rare and special calling, one that should not be recklessly bandied about.
With that in mind, let’s quickly rehearse some of the comments by the former senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ. He refers to the United States as the “U.S. of K.K.K.” The attacks on September 11th is something America had coming; in Wright’s words (borrowed from Malcolm X) “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” Rather than bless America, Wright–insisting it is in the Bible–wants God to damn her. The government, he says, lied about having advance knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor and “lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” Israel is a “dirty word.” Wright also took to reprinting op-eds by supporters of Hamas in his “Pastor’s Page.” He praised Louis Farrakhan as a man of “honesty and integrity” and favored bestowing a lifetime achievement award on the Nation of Islam leader. And the list goes on from there.
For liberals and those on the Left to lift up Jeremiah Wright–a man whose words can be fairly judged to be anti-Israel and anti-American–and attempt to turn him into a prophet is a grave error. I have spoken out before regarding my concern for what politics can do to people of faith on both the left and the right, and how easy it is to subordinate the latter to the former. I don’t pretend that the above remarks are the sum total of Wright’s decades-long preaching or actions, and Marty’s account is worth reading. But to insist that a man who utters hateful and bitter words against his country is a prophet is (to be charitable) intellectually sloppy. “Afflicting the comfortable” is not enough to qualify one as a prophet. Do we really want to propose the idea that Wright’s vitriolic proclamations proceed from direct divine inspiration, that Wright speaks for God? That would be completely irresponsible.