Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Pastor Casts a Shadow - New York Times

A Silly Vicar

The Pastor Casts a Shadow - New York Times

I rarely read Herbert because he's soooooo pious, but this time he's dead on.

Wright is a period piece, pumping out the rhetoric of Black Theology that was fashionable during the late '60s when he was in seminary. The basis of Black Theology, and the various other "new particularisms" that preoccupied theologians during the period, was two-fold. Academic theologians and their clerical proteges regarded the mission of the church as prophetic in the Old Testament sense: to engage in social critique and political action in the interests of justice. It would be hard to argue with this. Toward this end however, theologians and clergy appropriated the analyses and rhetoric of the secular left of the period to articulate their prophetic project

I can understand the impulse. During the high days of the Revolution there was the pervasive view that if you hesitated to endorse the radical line you were a sell-out and a wimp. Views that seemed reasonable or commonsensical were simply bait thrown out by a reactionary Establishment to block social change. Underlying this was a theory of meaning according to which factual truth and falsity were, at best, negotiable. Language was an expression of power relationships, and even language that seemed to the naive purely factual was a mechanism for promoting political agendas. Should I believe P or not? That depended on who was promoting P, whose interests it served, and what the social and political consequences of belief that P would be. Evidence for P was irrelevant or misleading because the Establishment manipulated and invented evidence and, because they controlled the mainstream media and other "respectable" sources of information, regularly bamboozled the public into accepting lies that served their interests.

More deeply however, facts simply did not matter. Was Africa the cradle of civilization? Was Jesus black? To answer those questions we were to consider whose interests the answers served and what the consequences of accepting one answer rather than another would be. White supremacists answered no to both questions and those answers served their interests. We should therefore believe that Africa was the cradle of civilization and that Jesus was black because these doctrines would smack down white supremacists, boost black Americans' self-esteem and promote social justice. History and genetics were largely irrelevant: if even the flimsiest, most conjectural case could be made for these views we should accept them and promulgate them.

Did Wright really believe that the US government spread AIDS and promoted drug-use amongst black Americans? Given any version of the correspondence theory of truth, no. He "believed" these doctrines because they came from the right place, served the right interests and would produce (he imagined) the best consequences. Conspiracy theories like this were current, though by no means universal, amongst the black masses: they came from the right place. More importantly, they served the right interests. They were an expression of the legitimate cynicism and anger of black Americans, their recognition that the government had lied to them and trashed them.

Was O.J. guilty? That was the wrong question to ask. The question was whether he should have been acquitted, and the answer was yes because O.J.'s acquittal was an expression of the cynicism and anger of the black community, the recognition that blacks were treated unfairly in the criminal justice system and in particular that black men were imprisoned, executed and lynched on the suspicion of having violated the purity of white women. O. J.'s acquittal was not about O. J.: it was about the thousands of other black men who had been unjustly treated. Similarly, Wright's conspiracy theories were not about AIDS or crack cocaine: they were about the Tuskegee Experiment and all the other ways in which the US government had screwed over black Americans. Did the government create the HIV virus and promote drug-use? To answer "yes" was not to say something about AIDS or crack cocaine: it was to say that the government had screwed blacks over, and that they had every right to be angry about that. That was true and therefore, interpreted in this way it was true to say that the US government created the HIV virus and promoted drug use to screw over black Americans.

That's theology. Ask the rector of your church whether he believes in "the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come" and he will certainly say "yes." Ask what he means by that and he will tell a long story. If you have a philosophy PhD or some other credential that suggest that he can level with you he will tell you that these clauses in the Creed are really just an affirmation of "life in depth and fullness here and now" or some such twaddle. Resurrection, he will tell you, does not, of course, mean that your body will be reanimated--or that Jesus' body was reanimated--or that you will continue to be the subject of conscious states after bodily death. Rather, he will tell you, when the Church affirms the Resurrection of the Body it means that the body is good, that sensual pleasure is good, and most particularly that sex is good. Likewise, if you pressed the Rev. Wright as to whether he really believed that the AIDS conspiracy theory, if he trusted you, he would say that what he meant was that the US government conducted the Tuskegee Experiment and screwed over blacks in innumerable other ways, and that black Americans should be angry about that.

Anger, cynicism and power politics do not play well in 2008, and what Americans found most offensive about Wright's message was his assumption that anger and cynicism were good and would motivate his constituency to play power politics in the interests of achieving justice. Wright was stuck in 1971 but Americans looked back nostalgically to the way things were a decade earlier, to the days of Camelot. As an undergraduate in 1971 I played "Urban Dynamics" a simulation game developed by our college chaplain in collaboration with liberal ministers in Chicago and originally called "Ghetto." Urban Dynamics was a territorial capture game, played out on a board that all of us recognized as a map of Chicago. There were four teams, representing (we were told) WASPs, Irish-Americans, White Ethnics, and Blacks. We started with restricted territories but the goal, we were told, was to capture as much territory as possible for our team, to beat back other teams and to achieve positions of power for our members. Beyond that, the rules were vague, but when it came to the big picture, we were told, that was the way the world worked.

I thought the ground rules of the game were simply crazy. The idea that ethnic groups were out to capture territory and expand their holdings seemed the me simply bizarre. I grew up in a tribal area and that was not the way it was. Moreover, the assumption that ethnic groups were competing teams seemed flat out wrong. The ground rules were however non-negotiable and Chaplain made it clear to us that if we thought otherwise we were simply naive. I was Black in the game but wondered why, in real life, I shouldn't be fighting for the WASPs, or why Chaplain wasn't fighting for them. This wasn't what life was like and certainly wasn't what life should be like.

Wright was however playing Urban Dynamics. He bought into the ground-rules of the game, that blacks and other ethnic groups were competing teams whose goals were to capture territory and beat one another up. Of course, it was just a game. His parishioners were not really interested in beating anyone else up and if white folks showed up at his church they would be welcomed. But he was playing Urban Dynamics and assumed, facts be damned, that cynicism, anger, power plays and identity politics would make the world a better place. That is exactly what Americans in 2008 did not want to hear, and with good reason. And that is what Obama rightly rejected when he repudiated Wright.

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