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Wednesday, March 26, 2008 01:40 am

The prophet Jeremiah

Like Huckabee, we should cut Obama’s preacher some slack

Untitled Document We won’t know who wins this year’s presidential election till November, of course, but I can declare one winner already: Mike Huckabee’s defense of Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s pastor on television last week was a class act. Of course Huckabee could politically afford to do it, because he’s withdrawn from the race for the Republican presidential nomination. But he brought a moment of clarity and grace to the coverage of an increasingly ugly, divisive campaign season.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, Huckabee pointedly declined to condemn the Rev. Jeremiah Wright for sermons that many whites found racist and unpatriotic. He compared Wright’s sound bites, as aired on YouTube, to out-of-context quotes from the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, another ministerial firebrand, and he spoke with authority because he’s a Southern Baptist preacher as well as a politician. Huckabee knows about sermons in a way most of us do not.
So, in a real sense, Huckabee was ministering to the MSNBC audience. “Sermons, after all, are rarely written word-for-word by pastors like Rev. Wright, who are delivering them extemporaneously, and caught up in the emotion of the moment,” he said. “There are things that sometimes get said, that if you put them on paper and looked at them in print, you’d say, ‘Well, I didn’t mean to say it quite like that.’ ”
Program host Joe Scarborough broke in, reciting some of Wright’s statements and asking, “What’s the impact on voters in Arkansas? Swing voters.”
“[I’m] not defending his statements,” Huckabee replied. So far it was typical point-counterpoint political television. Then he lifted the moment out of the ordinary. “And one other thing I think we’ve got to remember,” he added. “As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say, ‘That’s a terrible statement,’ I grew up in a very segregated South, and I think that you have to cut some slack.”
I grew up in the South, too. I remember what it was like when black kids couldn’t go to high school in my county and the White Citizens Council burned crosses in people’s yards. So when I watched Huckabee on YouTube, I wanted to clap my hands and shout back at the computer, “Amen, preach, brother!”
“I’m going to be probably the only conservative in America who’s going to say something like this,” Huckabee continued, “but I’m just telling you: We’ve got to cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told, ‘You have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant — and you can’t sit out there with everyone else. There’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Here’s where you sit on the bus.’ ”
In other parts of the country where people haven’t had to think through racial issues like we have down home, maybe Wright’s sound bites sounded racist. I don’t know. I can’t sit in judgment on others.
But I did notice that the people who know Wright best say the media frenzy painted a false picture of his ministry at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Theologian Martin Marty, who is white, flatly told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that Wright and his church are “not anti-white” and added, “I don’t know anybody who’s white who walks out of there not feeling affirmed.”
Marty, an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School who has written more than 50 books on church history, added, “The big thing for Wright is hope. You hear ‘hope, hope, hope.’ Lots of ordinary people are there, and they’re there not to blast the whites. They’re there to get hope.”
I’m not a divinity-school professor, so I’ll leave it to others to parse the language of the black church. Historically it grew out of slavery and oppression, and it has fulfilled a unique role in the black community that I don’t have the expertise or the heritage to interpret. But I know that it honors the legacy of Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah who spoke truth to those in power and called on them to repent. So do many white churches.
Even Wright’s most controversial sound bites are intended to be prophetic. Here’s a 17-second jeremiad that got 34,900 hits on YouTube: “The government gives them [black youth] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”
Many found that unpatriotic, and I did, too, at first — but as Dwight Hopkins, a member of the congregation and University of Chicago Divinity School professor explains, it is based on “theological wordplay.” To damn is to condemn, he said, and Wright speaks of “a sacred condemnation by God to a wayward nation.” It was prophetic: Wright was calling on America to repent. Here, by way of comparison, is what Jeremiah said to the rulers of Jerusalem. “Thus saith the Lord: Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: And do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place; if ye will not hear these words, I swear by myself, saith the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation . . . And many nations shall pass by this city, and they shall say every man to his neighbour, Wherefore hath the Lord done thus unto this great city? Then they shall answer, Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshipped other gods, and served them.”
Try putting that in a 17-second sound bite. 

Peter Ellertsen teaches journalism in Springfield. He was 13 when the Tennessee National Guard was called out to integrate the county high school in Clinton, Tenn.
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