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Monday, 09 February 2015 22:53

Rev. Jeremiah Wright show at Southern will go on despite right-wing bullying

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JeremiahWright-compressedby Albert Samuels

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, will deliver an address on February 19, 2015 in Baton Rouge on the campus of Southern University in observance of Black History Month.


 The event is sponsored by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of History and PICO.  Rev. Wright became a household name in 2008 when controversial remarks from some of his past sermons shined a bright spotlight on him and his most famous parishioner – then- Senator Barack Obama, who was on the path to winning the Democratic nomination for President. Conservative politicians and media pundits eviscerated Wright for what they consider hateful, racist, and anti-American remarks and openly questioned how then-Senator (and now President) Obama could have faithfully attended a church for twenty years led by someone like Jeremiah Wright.

            Specifically,  his critics cite comments that appear to attribute the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to “blowback” from American aggression and his so-called “God damn America” sermon  (among others) as examples of why Rev. Wright is a despicable figure who should not be given legitimacy.  The controversy surrounding Wright’s comments forced Candidate Obama to directly address race (a subject he had purposely tried to avoid up to this point) in a speech in Philadelphia on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary. Eventually, Obama terminated his membership from Trinity United Church of Christ. However, the right never forgave Rev. Wright; rather, many of them have continued (to this day) to use Obama’s association with Wright as proof that the president is dangerous and not to be trusted: he isn’t sufficiently patriotic (or even anti-American), a socialist, a Kenyan, and probably secretly Muslim.

Given this background, it is not surprising that almost immediately from the moment that Rev. Wright’s appearance was announced on the university’s website, a chorus of criticism from the likely suspects has rained down on Southern for providing a venue for the preacher. Jeff Crouere calls “Obama’s Minister of Hate.” Quin Hillyer suggests that those who were outraged by the prayer rally that Governor Jindal held at LSU should be equally outraged by Rev. Wright speaking at Southern: further, liberals who condemn Jindal for aligning himself with the American Family Association (a group labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group for its anti-gay positions) but do not similarly condemn Southern’s invitation to Jeremiah Wright are nothing but hypocrites. The Louisiana Hayride went as far as to say that Southern University, by giving a platform to Rev. Wright, is making the case for its own drastic budget cut in these fiscally austere times.

Let me be clear: the show will go on. The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of History, and PICO have absolutely no plans to disinvite Jeremiah Wright in the face of criticism from those who we, quite frankly, do not think mean us well in the first place. With all due respect, the shrillness of the criticisms mentioned above reveal less about Jeremiah Wright than they do about the deeply delusional, anti-intellectual, mean-spirited cesspool of ideological dribble from which they spring.

Let’s start with the savagely unfair attacks on Rev. Wright. Fox News and the right wing media establishment (in partnership with the so-called “mainstream” media) have taken excerpts in isolation out of Wright’s sermons to portray him as an extreme, hateful, anti-American bigot. The so-called “God damn America” sermon was actually in the context of a longer address condemning racism – a sin which, last I checked, the Bible also condemns. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28). Wright’s detractors would prefer to harp on Wright’s reference to “chickens coming home to roost” (because their purpose is to show that he believes America deserved to be attacked on 9/11) instead of the list of substantive crimes against humanity that America itself is guilty of (i.e. continental theft from the native Americans and mass genocide against this continent’s indigenous peoples, kidnapping Africans and enslaving them, lynching [a form of state-sponsored terror], etc.). Wright’s conservative critics epitomize the all-too familiar brand of unreflective, knee-jerk patriotism that degenerates into idolatry when they eviscerate anyone who dares point out America’s flaws.  Such a person is branded disloyal, radical, or dangerous. (By the way, Rev. Wright is a veteran who put himself in harm's way to defend this country: meanwhile, the critics represented here have been relentless shock troops for the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, leaders who conveniently avoided the war of their generation; however, once they found themselves comfortably in positions of power, they not only did not hesitate to send other people's sons off to ill-conceived and unnecessary wars, but have had the unmitigated gall to ruthlessly question the patriotism of those who dare challenge them.)  It never occurs to these souls that love for America is precisely what motivates some social prophets to take this nation to task - indeed, this type of social criticism exemplifies the highest form of patriotism. Instead, their creed is  to destroy the messenger and their message can then be safely ignored.  “American exceptionalism” in this form inheres within it the very type of self- righteousness that is so often condemned throughout the Scriptures.

The "over the top" reaction by these right wing stalwarts to Rev. Wright's appearance serves as a testimony to the morally bankrupt, Picadilly piety that too often exemplifies the social vision of the religious right. In their telling, God is only outraged by abortion, same-sex marriage, the drug culture, and all manner of sexual misbehavior. But apparently God has nothing to say about racism. He doesn't care about injustice in our court system, how we're trashing the environment in the reckless pursuit of profit, or about greedy corporations denying their workers decent wages or benefits despite soaring profits. And he certainly doesn't give one hoot about leaders who lie our nation into an unnecessary war, (killing hundreds of thousands of people needlessly in the process), then torture those we take prisoner in the name of national security in direct violation of international treaties that we agreed to and our own laws.  These voices conveniently forget morality defined as ending social injustice and lifting the yokes of oppression (Isa. 58) when they stand for things like denying people health insurance that they are legally entitled to simply because they have a political disagreement with our president. It is written: "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hos. 6:6). Social conservatives act as if God is the God of the Republican party only; their moral critiques of American society just coincidentally happen to agree with conservative political ideology. Ironically, when politically conservative preachers claim that God is going to punish America for abortion, legalizing same-sex marriage, or some other pet conservative cause, their patriotism is never questioned. But let some pastor tell the truth about the still pervasive nature of racial discrimination in America and that speaker is accused of spewing hatred and discord. Social conservatives cannot claim to speak for God when they critique the state of our nation's morality unless they are willing to proclaim "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27).

            Moreover, where does this crowd get off thinking that they can lecture us on whom it is appropriate to invite to a university?  Southern University is a proud historically black university that has been providing educational opportunity to those who otherwise would not have had the chance to earn a higher education since 1880. Given that these attacks come from voices who have heretofore shown little, if any interest in or understanding of, the mission of our university and those for whom it serves, we find it difficult to take their words seriously. Quite frankly, we do not need advice from the likes of Jeff Crouere, Quin Hillyer, and our friends with the Louisiana Hayride as to whom is appropriate to invite for Black History Month.  Crouere even had the nerve to suggest alternative speakers we could have invited (the likes of Dr. Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas), who just happen to emanate from that microscopic universe of African Americans who happen to agree with him politically. Rev. Wright is a genuine theologian, scholar, and author. He is an exponent of black liberation theology which is both a genuine subfield within systematic theology and one that has specific relevance and resonance for the audience that we anticipate for our event. Having served as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ for 36 years, Wright has overseen the spectacular growth of the congregation by marrying concern for the personal salvation of individual believers with advocacy for social justice. In other words, Wright’s ministry has demonstrated in words and in deeds a genuine concern for the very constituencies that Southern University especially exists to serve; consequently, we will not be talked down to or bullied by people who openly (as the Louisiana Hayride does) question our very right to exist as an institution.

Additionally, the criticisms of Crouere, Hillyer, and the Hayride reveal that they either do not understand and/or do not respect what universities are for. Universities exist precisely to stimulate free thought. We are not simply glorified vocational institutions whose only function is to serve as conduits for “workforce development” or “economic development” narrowly defined. The original purpose of tax-supported education, as conceived by Thomas Jefferson, is to equip the populace with the knowledge and skills necessary to exercise effective citizenship.  He wrote, “the tax which will be paid for this purpose [tax supported education] is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” In order for that to take place, it requires an environment where the free exchange of ideas can take place. This is absolutely vital in order for students to develop the critical thinking skills that we expect from those who have been educated in our colleges and universities.  It is not about only exposing students to people or ideas that we agree with; the aim is to challenge young people to think critically so that they can make their own judgments and assume their rightful places as those who will be entrusted to carry forward our form of government for the next generation. By supposing that they somehow have the right to decide who Southern University students should be exposed to, they show little respect for the cardinal principle of academic freedom that is one of the central reasons that universities exist in the first place.

                More insidious is the suggestion by our friends at The Louisiana Hayride that Southern University may be making the case for its own budget cut by welcoming Jeremiah Wright. To show that this is a pattern, the Hayride only a few days earlier suggested the same about LSU because Bob Mann, a professor in the Manship School, criticized Bobby Jindal. This twisted brand of psychobabble is par for the course for the Hayride who have been the enthusiastic cheerleaders for the Jindal Wrecking Crew that has ravaged the very social fiber of this state for the last seven years. For them, the institutions of state government (as well as the media) exist only to further their ambitions, push their message, and line their pockets; they do not have a legitimate function independent of the governor's own narrow self-interest and political aspirations. Anyone (or any institution) having the audacity to call the governor on the carpet opens themselves to swift and petty retribution. The Jindalistas do not acknowledge the legitimacy of any disagreement with their ideas: rather, their opponents invariably are motivated by the desire to protect their self-interests rather than the overall good of the state. How ironic it is that Louisiana's part time governor was grand standing in Europe about Islam's "problem with tolerance" (and making a fool of himself in the process I might add) while the few remaining allies he has left in the state are trying to squash dissent at home.

                   Finally, Crouere wants to know if any taxpayer dollars are being used for this event by the university, suggesting that, if that were the case, it would warrant an investigation. First of all, the university is not putting up a dime to finance this event (Wright's expenses are being paid for through private sources).  Not that that matters, however. I would suggest that he worry about the $5 to $7 billion a year that our  governor and the Legislature are giving away in tax exemptions while they have been gutting higher education, slashing and burning public health, and crippling other essential services.  Stated another way, Louisiana’s leaders are telling its citizens that we do not have money for the things that they need while they are literally selling off to state to corporations. That's where the true moral outrage lies - not with a Black History Program with a speaker that he happens not to like. . We will not be cowed by those who are neither qualified, intellectually or morally, to advise us nor have a track record of demonstrating genuine interest in our welfare.  The show will go on.


Albert Samuels

Dr. Albert Samuels, Ph.D.m rofessor and Chair, Department of Political Science and Geography at Southern University

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