Leon Wieseltier: The False Prophesy Of Jeremiah Wright





I was tired of hearing Jeremiah Wright, so I started reading him. This did not improve matters. In his books I found mainly (in the words of one of his admirers) "Africentric Christian manhood," a panic about the situation of the African American male raised into a truculent paranoid theology. There are many expressions of love in Wright's preaching, but only for his own, which is not love's strongest test. In 1991, he inaugurated a series of sermons honoring Martin Luther King Jr., with a sermon called "Full of the Holy Spirit"- -the next one in the series was "The Audacity to Hope"--in which there appears this flourish: "Don't let anybody trick you into thinking Minister Louis Farrakhan is your enemy. He ain't the enemy. Any African man who can clean folks up, get them off of dope, get them in school, get them reading instead of rapping, get them building each other up, is not the enemy. ... Some folks are tricky. They will try to make you choose between Malcolm and Martin. Don't you let them. ... And they are not going to make me choose between Minister Jackson and Minister Farrakhan. When Jesse is right, he's my friend; when Louis is right, he is my friend. When Jesse is wrong, he is still my friend; when Louis is wrong, he is still my friend. You don't give up a friendship because you have a disagreement. That ain't no friend!" Except for the tenderness toward Farrakhan, this is reminiscent of Barack Obama's legendary Philadelphia speech: everybody is somewhat right; loyalties are unshaken by philosophies; differences are distractions in an hour of crisis. I do not doubt that the life prospects of African Americans in the inner cities constitute an hour--no, an era--of crisis, an American disgrace. I see why hopeless people are tempted by the social benefits of fascism, but I do not see why they succumb to the temptation, because nothing will determine their way through life more than what they believe, and Farrakhan's beliefs doom them to isolation and despair.

Is pride everything? What has race to do with truth? Is it really so hard to choose Martin over Malcolm? Anyway, Wright's tribute to Farrakhan's service to black literacy is vitiated by an extraordinary riff in another sermon in the series, called "Faith in a Foreign Land," in which he denounces the usurpation of African traditions by "Babylonian," or Western, traditions in the education of "exiles," or African Americans: "These exiles became schooled in Babylonian literature, from Beowulf to Virginia Wolfe [sic], and their heritage was wickedly wiped away from the tissues of their memory banks. They became skilled in Babylonian philosophy from Descartes to Meister Eckhart, from Immanuel Kant to Jean Paul Sartre, from existentialism to nihilism, from the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx to the wissenschaftlichkeit [sic] of Martin Heidegger. " This whole passage is a little sic. To mock Shakespeare, in a black church in Chicago, as "Babylonian Shakespearean literature"--that is nihilism. To exclude young African Americans from the mental ambition represented by such books is to defeat them. I first heard the preaching of Jeremiah Wright in 1989. The sermon was called "Premature Autopsies," it was written by Stanley Crouch, and it appeared on a powerful record by Wynton Marsalis called The Majesty of the Blues. In that sermon Wright lauded "the slow, painful development demanded of serious study." They were sterling words, but they were not the reverend's own....


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