Reverend Wright: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

05/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy initially surfaced in March of this year, many members of the media, especially conservative radio talk show hosts, wanted to know why Rev. Wright would not appear publicly to explain his "incendiary" comments about the American government. Greta Van Sustern, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Curtis Sliwa were among those salivating with desperate pleas for an interview. In fact, Trinity United Church was inundated with media requests for interviews and public statements. Yet Rev. Wright chose to quietly remain out of the sight and reach of the media while allowing his name and image to be disparaged ad nauseum.

Interestingly, many of the questions sought to be answered about Rev. Wright are easily found in the full text of each and every sermon that was repeatedly looped out of context in thirty second sound bites. It appears listening to the entire sermon in order to understand Rev. Wright's perspective would be too much like the right thing to do. It also would have allowed the world to put a proper perspective on Rev. Wright and his seemingly controversial statements.

As soon as the Wright controversy appeared to have found its place in the annals of the media graveyard, it was resurrected and given new life by Republicans through a media blitz in North Carolina, which Keith Olberman of MSNBC described as "Willie Horton style television ads." This time, the attack was not just on Senator Obama but on any Democrat running for office in the upcoming North Carolina primary.

On April 25, 2008, Rev. Wright made what should be viewed as a profoundly courageous, unselfish decision to present himself to America and the world through an interview with Bill Moyers. In the Bill Moyers interview, we had a chance to see Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the man, the minister, the patriot, the philanthropist and the social activist. The world was given an opportunity to examine Rev. Wright and formulate their own independent opinion about this man who has now become a very controversial public figure. A man who made a conscientious decision to incorporate faith with issues of social injustice and inequalities within the African American community. A man whose ministry challenges his congregation and the surrounding community to elevate its consciousness by utilizing principles of faith to overcome despair in order to lead productive lives. A man who unashamedly speaks out against racism, apartheid and poverty. A man who views the fight for social justice and peace in America and throughout the world as an ongoing struggle.

Had Rev. Wright done the Bill Moyers interview and nothing more, the press would not have had much ammunition for criticisms. However, Rev. Wright went on to speak at a NAACP event and then to answer questions at a press conference sponsored by the National Press Club. Each appearance by Rev. Wright had its own character and tone, unraveling more of Rev. Wright's personality, while maintaining the underlying theme that different does not equate to deficient.

The backlash he is now receiving is reminiscent of the experiences of Jesus when condemning the actions of the Saducees and Pharisees. As in the days of Christ, agents of change and inspiration are often viewed as being radical and controversial. Thus the statement, "a prophet is without honor in his own home." This was true of Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Rev. Wright. It was Rev. Wright who explained how Martin Luther King, Jr. was vilified by many white and black leaders as having gone too far in his criticisms of the Vietnam war.

It is now Rev. Wright who is being damned for providing an explanation of why he believes the American government invented the HIV virus as a form of genocide. He explained that he didn't develop the theory but rather was relying upon the theories of two noted authors, one of whom hailed Rev. Wright as a man doing the will and work of God by exposing the truth.

Where is the real controversy in instructing your congregation to not equate your government or any other government with God because governments fail and governments lie? Doesn't history reveal the truth in this admonition? Have we not been lied to for the past eight years? Have we forgotten the weapons of mass destruction lie that led us into the Iraq war? Are we not now experiencing a massive failure of our government through the devastation of our economy?

As with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Wright is now criticized by both white and black Americans. Many black Americans are angry and believe he is sabotaging Senator Obama's candidacy. White Americans criticisms are the same as they have always been: he is a racist. The demonization of Rev. Wright is the very reason we do not have many strong black leaders in the African American community. Most black men and women can not withstand the pressures Rev. Wright has experienced over the past few months. Yet despite the overwhelming adversity, Rev. Wright presented himself with dignity and truth to himself, his culture and his ministry. He did not cower from his convictions in the face of criticisms by those who prefer to view him through the jaded eyes of prejudice.

It is highly likely that Rev. Wright's motivations are misunderstood. It is my sincere opinion that Rev. Wright presented himself to the world in order for us to look behind the façade of the image presented by the media to see a man of intelligence, dignity and conviction. His media appearances were most likely designed to diminish the impact of the Republican television ads in North Carolina. He probably genuinely believed that the world would view him in his unpretentious state, and, even if they disagreed with his perspectives, they would respect the logic underlying his views. We must remember that Rev. Wright is a direct descendant of the civil rights era. An era in which legalized segregation, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, lynching, "whites only" signs and judicial disparities were not a figment of Rev. Wright or black America's imagination. His critics conveniently omitted his references to redemption and reconciliation as part and parcel of his ministry and his message. A process which can only begin after America has officially apologized to African Americans for the atrocities of its past.

Speaking of criticisms, Senator Clinton has publicly stated that she would have left Rev. Wright's church had she been aware of his statements regarding the United States government. This, from a woman who couldn't leave a philandering husband who repeatedly and publicly humiliated her with extra marital affairs. Ironically, Rev. Wright was one of the clergy summoned to minister to President Clinton during the movement to impeach him because of the false statements he made about his affair with Monica Lewinski.

It was Bill Moyers who said "Americans don't want to acknowledge that a nation capable of greatness can also be capable of cruelty." This statement is reflective of the unequivocal expression of America's hypocrisy in its refusal to accept criticism in the face of the reality of its misdeeds, whether past or present. Americans should look at the life and ministry of Rev. Wright and ask whether he has earned the right, and the responsibility, to criticize the social and racial injustices in our society both nationally and internationally.

Rev. Wright was mistaken in his assessment that this controversy is an attack on the black church. This controversy is an attack on the only relevant figure in this equation, Senator Barack Obama, America's first viable African American contender for the office of president and his multi-racial, bipartisan appeal. Perhaps this was not the most convenient moment to present the world with the issue of race by someone as colorful as Rev. Wright, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. The question now becomes whether America will remain in denial or address its racial issues with a spirit of healing and reconciliation.

The African American community is in dire need of more men and women like Rev. Wright. Americans, black and white, would do well to concur with Michael Eric Dyson, noted author and radio host, who said the following of Rev. Wright in a 2001 column for The Chicago Sun-Times: "Wright's prophetic stance on social issues ... is more necessary now than ever. Huge segments of the church, including the Black church, have been seduced by the materialistic gospel of prosperity that obscures critical attention to the bread-and-butter issues that define the Black church's raison d'être: social justice, racial equality and spiritual vitality, themes Wright has relentlessly and fearlessly embraced. May he live long to preach the gospel and uplift our people."