By Allan Aubrey Boesak
Former president Barack Obama has a new book out, and it is guaranteed to be another best seller. In that book, he, as he has done before, devoted a page or two to retired preacher Dr Jeremiah A Wright. Someone sent me the pages from that book where president Obama discusses Dr Jeremiah Wright. Jeremiah Wright is my friend. Barack Obama is still riding a high wave of popularity, certainly among the circles of the established, moneyed political aristocracy. He is, we are told, “the second most popular Democrat and the most famous.” Netflix makes documentaries about him and his wife Michelle. He is at the top of the most select speaking circuits raking in enormous fees.
But more than that: his political power and influence are far from diminished. This past US election cycle, he played it smart, coming out sparsely, but making it count every time. He came out to help rig the Democratic primary, cleverly helping to manoeuvre Bernie Sanders out of the game to usher in the establishment’s anointed, Joe Biden. Next, he sabotaged the strike action of the NBA thereby neatly achieving three things simultaneously: helping the white ownership save face, securing their profits, and undermining the efforts towards solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Third, he came out to campaign for Joe Biden in Michigan where Democratic chances were dicey. In Flint, of all places, where he pulled that shameless stunt of pretending to drink the poisoned water just when publicity about that crisis was reaching boiling point. Then, he assured the terrified parents of terrified and threatened children, most of them Black, that their water was safe. Nothing has changed, the unspeakable damage to those children continues to this day, the criminal governor Rick Snyder got away scot-free, just like Obama let the Bush era torturers go untouched, their foul deeds unaccounted for, unrepented, and unpunished. Every time the goal was the same: to secure the status quo, to make sure nothing changes for the poor, struggling masses crying out for justice, dignity, fundamental, systemic change and hopeful life. And it all went the way he wanted it. That is how powerful this man still is. For this, the establishment and the media glorified him.
But Obama might be basking in the warmth of a toxic sun. The younger, wide-awake generation who are now politically far more aware than Obama was when he was their age, are no longer taken in by the suave, cool politician. More and more, they are seeing him the way our own Steve Biko described Christianity in the hands of white missionaries and the Black “pacifier preachers”: “the most effective instrument in the subjugation of our people” to empire. In the critical eye of the younger generation, the Obama charm has worn off, and that must worry him no end. Their judgment of Barack Obama will eventually be much harsher than mine (in Dare We Speak of Hope? Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics), or that of British political analyst and social critic Tariq Ali [The Obama Syndrome – Surrender at Home, War Abroad]. Princeton University’s Professor Keeanga Yamattha Taylor, in her fascinating From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation is already showing the way.
Meanwhile though, Jeremiah Wright has retired, he has had a stroke that has a debilitating effect on him. The brilliant mind has not been impaired, but his speech is slower, he takes longer to formulate his words, he is in a wheel chair. “The devil has attacked the right side of my brain,” Jeremiah Wright himself says, with his irrepressible sense of humor, “but God kept me in my right mind.” He has had to severely cut down his speaking and preaching engagements; his days of crisscrossing the country as that admired, fiery, incredibly popular pastor-preacher-prophet are seriously curtailed. Yet every time he speaks, the power pulsating through his words is palpable, penetrating, and persuasive. They listen to him, young and old, rapt and completely taken, for his power is more than in his rhythmic movements as he used to turn words into music, his unquenchable sense of humour, his soaring voice as he proclaims the Word. These are not all gone, but subdued. What has remained is that razor-sharp mind, the sterling analyses, the kairotic discernment between right and wrong, the unshakable integrity, the unerring focus on what and who matters most: the poor and oppressed, the marginalized and excluded, the destitute and the dispossessed, the wronged, the despised, the targeted, and the crucified.
Through the internet and the Zoom era, his audiences have grown, and have become even more diverse. Here in South Africa those who have heard him speak years ago, now eagerly fill empty, COVID lock-down Sunday mornings with his sermons, searched out on the internet. And they remain stunned and inspired as they realize how relevant this man’s preaching is. The promise to the prophet Ezekiel holds: “They,” [the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the arrogant and the cast aside] “shall know that there is a prophet of God among them.” And at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, in the Jeremiah Wright School for Prophets, they are making sure the traditions of the prophetic church as embodied in and personified by this extraordinary man, are nourished and nurtured, and transmitted from one generation to the other.
Every time I see and hear him on Skype or in a Zoom discussion, the title of his own book of sermons comes back to me as I marvel at the resilience of this man: “What keeps you so strong?” Except, those who know him also know the answer. And that brings me back to president Obama’s book, and the question I have about this book.
Not so much the “Why.” Riding a wave of popularity just after an election in which you have made some powerful, successful moves; securing one’s legacy as one perceives it; impacting the direction of the ongoing public discourse where one’s chosen philosophy, neo-liberal capitalism, the politics of American exceptionalism and imperial elitism, is under attack from without and severe strain from within, are all very good reasons. And the money (a cool $65 million in advance) is not to be sneezed at either.
But my “Why?” is a different one. Why would this powerful, famous, rich, influential man, need to not just spend time in the book on Jeremiah Wright, but attack him the way he did? Why, knowing full well that since that scandalous 2008 betrayal of Jeremiah Wright, Wright himself has tried to defend himself against an incredible media tsunami, but has hardly ever said a harsh word against Obama himself. Meanwhile the Obama’s, first Barack, then Michele in her book, and now Obama again, have not stopped their attacks. While they have gained everything from turning their backs on him (most famous Democrat!), Dr Wright himself has lost so much, even though his wealth clearly lies in other things. Barack Obama can write best sellers without even once mentioning Jeremiah Wright’s name. But he doesn’t. That name continues to bother him. Why? I keep on wondering.
So what is the former president saying? His comments come in layers. He begins with a typically Obamaesque, cool, casual compliment to Wright’s scholarly abilities, but immediately withdrawn as he segues into something else. ”In the middle of a scholarly application of the Book of Matthew or Luke, he might insert a scathing critique of America’s drug war, American militarism, capitalist greed, or the intractability of American racism, rants that were usually grounded in fact but bereft of context.” So Wright’s critique of America’s politics and policies are “inserted” into the Gospel message, not logically drawn from the Gospel, as any preacher worth her salt must do. And it is a “rant,” no longer a sermon, therefore not to be taken seriously at all as exegesis of Scripture and a proper analysis of American politics. It is a “rant,” alien to the Gospel as if Jesus was not dead serious in his own “scathing” critique of empire and the Jerusalem elites and their politics in say, Matt 23. But the problem is that Jeremiah Wright, in his critique on American empire, was as offensive as Jesus was to the empire of his day. And since Obama cannot get at Jesus, he attacks Jeremiah Wright.
These “rants,” Obama grudgingly admits, “were usually grounded in fact.” So Wright was not making things up. But then immediately, “but bereft of context. Often they sounded dated.” Really? Critique of America’s never-ending wars, which Obama took from three to seven, “dated?” American white supremacy, always present, never acknowledged, never repented for, never asked forgiveness for, having renewed itself in a million new ways in education, health care, housing, opportunities, in racialized incarceration politics, in new lynchings of black bodies crucified in the streets of America almost on a daily basis, with the Black Lives Matter movement beginning under his watch – “dated”? The never ending wars, the ongoing racism, the continuing war on the poor, the shattering socio-economic inequalities, the devastations caused by America’s imperialist politics, all now mercilessly exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19. From the Black, crucified bodies on the streets of America to the bodies of the children droned to death in Yemen – it’s all there still, Mr Obama: the living, pulsating, death-dealing context.
“Often,” Obama goes on to say, “what he said was just wrong.” So what Jeremiah Wright said about American exceptionalism, about America’s lies that gave the world the War on Terror and the illegal invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; of America’s obliteration of Libya, its deplorable policies regarding Venezuela, and its despicable alliance with Saudi Arabia in the onslaught against Yemen and the resultant humanitarian crisis all in search of regime change and profits – all of that was “just wrong” and “out of context”? And in this judgment Obama does not offer a shred of evidence or counter-argument. He clearly thinks he does not have to. But why not? The answer, says the prophet Micah of the powerful, is “because it is in their power … and they demand that one should not preach these things.”
But arrogant power does not stop at flatly denying the truth. They have to go further, smothering it with haughty mockery, choking it with presidential ridicule, leaving it no room to breathe. Jeremiah’s sermons, speaking truth to power, Obama goes on to say, are not just wrong, “they are edging close to conspiracy theories one heard on late-night stations or in the barbershop down the street.” And then, in the equivalent of Amos being struck in the face and chased back “to the South,” the place away from the sophisticated spaces of the powerful and the privileged, where his rantings and ravings can be heard only by the unwashed masses, Obama writes with stinging sarcasm: “It was as if this erudite, middle-aged, light-skinned Black man were straining for street cred, trying to ‘keep it real’.” I won’t give in to the temptation to say what I think of one who never was in the struggle making snide remarks about the “street creds” of one who is an icon of our struggle.
The chuckled condescension, the disrespectful mockery, is not enough, however. And this time it is not just the pastor. It is also his flock. “Or maybe he just recognized – both within himself and his congregation – the periodic need to let loose, to release pent-up anger from a lifetime of struggle in the face of chronic racism – reason and logic be damned.” So in one fell swoop, in a denigration pronounced from the throne of Pharaoh, all the Black struggle for freedom, dignity and life, all the suffering and pain, all the sacrifices and blood, all the glorious resilience because of a faith always under siege, always threatened, but never conquered, is diminished, trivialized, and delegitimized. Then, just as we are beginning to think this is too much, Obama makes it worse. He throws Jeremiah a crumb from the table, thinking it proves his generosity of heart. Still, he says, “the good outweighs his flaws …”
At one level, one might be tempted to write all this off as the petulant prattle of the idle powerful. But I think we should consider something else, and it brings me back to my question: why would this powerful, popular ex-president, this undisputed darling of the establishment, need to include those pages in his book? I think it has something to do with this:
In 2008, Jeremiah Wright was the senior minister at Trinity United UCC, and Barack Obama’s pastor. Jeremiah Wright is a theologian, a musicologist, a political analyst, an activist for human rights, civil rights, and the rights of LGBTQI persons. But above all, and before all these, he is a preacher. In my view, he is the embodiment of prophetic clarity, prophetic truthfulness, and prophetic faithfulness. Like Martin Luther King Jr., he stands firmly in the tradition of the prophetic Black Church. It has been my great joy to get to know him as my colleague, friend and older brother.
So when 2008 happened, we lived through it all with him, Ramah and the family. We talked often about those tragic events and what politics and power can do to people. I shared with him that we were experiencing the same phenomenon in South Africa. There are people I have known as comrades in the struggle, have shared life-and-death moments with them. Yet now that they are in power, I scarcely recognize them. Jeremiah told me how, when Barack Obama came to him to ask for his blessing for the political path he has chosen, he told him, “Remember, you are a politician. I am a preacher.” As one who as a preacher, entered politics, and because I couldn’t get away from being a preacher, felt compelled to leave politics, I thought I understood what he was trying to say. It was a word of wisdom, which he hoped Obama would understand, because it makes all the difference in the world. Whereas the politician is bound by the policies, ethos, ambitions, the power and the loyalties of politics, the preacher is bound to a higher loyalty. While the politician is bound to the desires of the party and its donors, and in America’s case, to the desires, ambitions, and workings of the American Empire, the preacher is bound to the words of the prophet Micaiah: “As the LORD lives, whatever the LORD says to me, that shall I speak.” (II Kgs 22:14) And when the preacher is pulled in other directions, is tempted to be silent because the rewards for that silence would be so great, she is haunted by the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
If I say, “I will not mention God, or speak anymore in God’s name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in.” (Jer. 20:9)
That, Martin Luther King Jr., told us, “is a fire no water can put out.”
That was 2008. In that same year, so we learn from a top secret report published by Wikileaks, the Pentagon was deeply worried about the growing anti-war sentiment in Western Europe. At least two governments, in the Netherlands and Portugal, had lost elections because of their support for America’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the trend continued, America would have to go it alone, carrying all the blame and the costs, politically, economically, and morally. The Pentagon was petrified. The secret report reveals their thinking. “Our only hope” – this is a quote – “for reversing the growing trend of anti-war sentiment is the election of Barack Obama.” The Pentagon’s reasoning made perfect sense. That would put a much more cosmopolitan, secular, elegant, and pleasant face on the war that up till then had been represented by this right-wing Christian evangelical Texan, anathema to cosmopolitan, secular Western Europeans. Barack Obama, this sophisticated, Harvard educated college professor of Human Rights Law, and above all African American, would reverse all that. He would become the new face of the empire and its wars and would be able to make it seem benevolent and acceptable. And that is exactly what happened, concludes investigative journalist Glen Greenwald. Obama got in, he continued those policies, continued the wars, thereby continuing and justifying the lies that got it all started in 2003. He became the perfect servant of the empire. So while President Obama took up the mantle of George W Bush, lying to and deceiving both the American public and the international community, Nobel Peace Prize in hand, Jeremiah A Wright, putting on the mantle of Elijah, was speaking truth to power, his Bible in his hand.
Right through his presidency, Obama was deeply concerned not to be seen as being a Black man, owning what Aimé Cesairé called “the singularity of our blackness,” reminding America that while he was indeed the president of all Americans, he would serve justice and restore dignity to those who were singled out for enslavement, oppression, dispossession, and disenfranchisement for four hundred years. He would rather use his power to further the cause of the rich and powerful at home, as in Flint, Michigan, or with the protests at Standing Rock, and act as if the victims of American empire did not exist, as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen, or indeed in Guantanamo. While Jeremiah came to Africa to teach his students about the beginnings of African slavery and reaffirm their ties to the motherland with love, dignity and respect, probing the realities of imperialism and colonialism, learning from the colonized, Obama gave us AFRICOM and an unprecedented American military presence, good only for America and the minions of empire in our midst. This while Jeremiah Wright went on to preach justice, even through tears of pain and undeserved suffering. Throughout those years, even as Mr Obama was riding high, the reviled Jeremiah Wright would be what Barack Obama decided he could not be: unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian. The rewards of empire were too rich. And that, in my view, is why Barack Obama cannot leave Jeremiah Wright alone. That is why one of the most powerful men in America, still strutting the world stage, remains obsessed with a preacher in a wheel chair.
I think Barack Obama is obsessed with Jeremiah Wright for one, final reason. The Gospels tell us that after the murder of John the Baptist, Herod the Tetrach was afraid of Jesus, because he “saw the same powers in Jesus” that he saw in John the Baptist. While earthly power comes and goes, those “same powers” Herod saw in the powerless Jesus, remain. What Herod saw were the powers of the true prophet of God: the perspicuity to discern, the power to confront, the boldness to expose, the courage to hold accountable, the resilience to suffer for what is right, the fearlessness to judge between right and wrong, the faithfulness to hold up the difference so the people can see, judge and make choices. That is the power that terrifies the empire.
So this book will come and go. The American empire will crumble and fall. What remains is the fire of truth and power. And that is a fire no water can put out.
Allan Boesak – minister, theologian, former politician, and leader in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He emerged as a public force thirty years ago as the most visible leader of the United Democratic Front, the largest anti-apartheid movement in South Africa’s history. During that tumultuous decade, he also became the leader of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.