The speech

I’ve been soaking up the commentary on Obama’s great speech yesterday. The one I found most resonant was a brief comment from Henry Farrell on Crooked Timber. I captures Obama’s ability to appeal to the better angels of our nature:

I’ve lived in the US for the last four years as a permanent resident, and been quite happy here. Hearing Obama speak made me feel for the first time that I genuinely want to become a citizen of this country and a part of the larger project that he talked about, regardless of specific disagreements I might have. You hear a lot of guff in politicians’ speeches about how great America is; Obama seemed to me to be challenging America to be great, which is a very different and much riskier thing, as well as something I find much more compelling and attractive.

Before the speech, I found historian Ralph Luker’s attempt to put Jeremiah Wright’s sermons in historical and rhetorical context more relevant and valuable than any of the thousands of words in other places. It reads even better after Obama’s speech:

The Almighty God himself is not the only, not the, not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, “I love you, Israel.” He’s also the God that stands up before the nations and said: “Be still and know that I’m God, (Yeah) that if you don’t obey me I will break the backbone of your power, (Yeah) and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.” (That’s right)

Those words from a jeremiad sound like something by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. He’s much quoted this weekend as having said: “God damn America.” But the first quotation comes – not from Wright, but from Martin Luther King’s first address to the Montgomery Improvement Association on 5 December 1955. Both African American preachers understand prophetic biblical preaching far better than those who feign shock at and condemn Jeremiah Wright’s words.

Critics of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright never cared that for 36 years he labored to build a community of redemption on Chicago’s Southside. They didn’t notice that his congregation had become the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ, a denomination rooted in the traditions of Puritan New England. They wouldn’t care that it claimed to be “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” Wright’s words become significant for them only as a means of damaging Wright’s most prominent parishioner, Barack Obama.

But Wright’s and Obama’s critics are too far removed from biblical study to recognize that Jeremiah Wright is following in the footpath of the biblical prophet, Jeremiah, whose oracles read the sufferings of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as punishment for their failure to live up to their covenant with God. To be in covenant with God, to be “under God,” is to be blessed by the divine when we are faithful. But woe betide us when we have failed “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”

Jeremiah Wright would take his first name very seriously. After all, he’s the son of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Sr., who was for 62 years the pastor of Philadelphia’s Grace Baptist Church. From 1959 to 1961, young Wright attended the Afro-Baptists’ Virginia Union University in Richmond. There, he would have known Vernon Johns, who had recently left the pulpit of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and had been appearing to preach regularly at Virginia Union for thirty years. An anonymous source claims that

The first time I heard of a sermon preached about “G-d Damn America” it was given by Vernon Johns, the preacher at Ebineezer Baptist church just before MLK was hired as their preacher, this was back in the ’60s. I suppose old Vernon had every right to preach that sermon back then.

I wish I had a copy of Vernon Johns’s “G-d Damn America” sermon. It sounds like him and it would help to flesh out what we know about Vernon Johns.

The prophet, Jeremiah, Vernon Johns, and Jeremiah Wright often spoke truth to power in ways that would be awkward for public relations specialists. Wright’s 36 years at Trinity United Church of Christ has been a far more stable career than Vernon Johns ever had. Johns was driven out of every pulpit he ever held and, twice, subsequently rehired into them. But Jeremiah had to resign from the Spiritual Advisory committee of King Josiah. A prophet never sits at ease in Zion.

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