The Prophetic Stream, Conspiracy Theory and Paranoia: What’s Wrong with African-American Preaching

There’s a brouhaha about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. which deserves close consideration. I have written a good deal about self-criticism, and its origins in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. Recently I have been hearing a consistent invocation of this “prophetic tradition” among those explaining (if not justifying and admiring) Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr.’s preaching style.

Reverend Joseph Lowery explained on CNN that Wright’s sermons were only “divisive” in the sense that they distinguished between people who were in this prophtetic tradition and those who weren’t “in the community of faith” defined by that tradition.

Well, they certainly separate us from the people who are not from the community of faith and who do not subscribe to prophetic preaching. There are hundreds and hundreds of preachers in black churches across this country who may not use identical language, but they have a common theology with Jeremiah Wright. They’re in the prophetic stream.

The prophets of old, the Jeremiahs, the Amos, and they spoke angrily and sometimes with cruel phrases and words, to the rulers and kings of their day. That’s who they were talking to on behalf of the poor and oppressed of their day.

The black church has been a place where black people take their sorrow, their travail and their longing for hope and for deliverance. They expect the preacher and thank the preacher and say, “Amen, hallelujah,” to the preacher, who takes their burden to the Lord. And then they join in a movement to help bring new order and a new day into being. That’s prophetic preaching, and it’s traditionally the black church.

Similar remarks from Randall Bailey:

I often wonder if those who criticize these homiletical strategies of calling the nation to judgment do not read the 8th to 7th C. BCE prophets, such as Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. They delivered judgment speeches against the nations of Israel and Judah and their rulers because of the ways in which they oppressed the poor, perverted justice, and ignored the moral and ethical imperatives of the religion.

As someone who has read the prophetic texts, and thought a good deal about them in the context of the tradition of self-criticism, I think these characterizations of the “prophetic stream” represent a profound misunderstanding. The prophets are ferocious in their criticism of their own people; they have relatively little to say about the real oppressive forces in the world of their day in the 8-7th centuries BCE. When the people of Israel get smashed by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the prophets don’t go into a rant about how evil these vicious imperialists are; they invoke them as God’s agents in punishing Israel for their sins. When, under more normative conditions, when they chastize rulers and aristocracy for their treatment of the poor, they do so again with vigorous, even violent rhetoric, but they do so in the hopes of changing their people. The prophets, however rough they may be, love the people they chastize, and rebuke them for the sake of their transformation.

Historically, this “prophetic turn” represents something exceptional among ancient peoples, and one of the reasons that the Jews have survived these defeats, while the other nations, once conquered, decimated, sent into exile, tended to disappear. For these rebukes of the prophets aimed at reminding the elites that they had obligations to the poor; that the people of Israel constituted the unit, and that rulers ruled “for the people.” As a result, Jewish communities in the ancient and medieval world had an exceptionally high degree of internal cohesion that permitted them to survive under the most adverse conditions. Among elites in various civilizations — rulers, aristocrats, wealthy — Israelite and Jewish elites have the most highly developed sense of obligation to their commoners. Most nations, once conquered, saw their elites abandon them and join the lower echelons of the imperial administration that now held power. As Abraham Heschel pointed out, the prophets were among the few who denounced “the idolatry of power” with such fervor.

But the core reason for their success comes from the profound attachment that the prophets felt for their people. There is no trace of hatred in their clean anger, no desire to see failure and punishment, no joy in the downfall of the sinners. Indeed, their commitment to the very people they rebuked, in some cases, so savagely, meant that, often enough, those rebuked took them seriously. The very fact that these prophetic denunciations became canonized as sacred scripture — that we hear the shepherd Amos’ version of the tale, not that of the royal priest Amatzia — tells us that not only the prophets, but the leaders of the people shared these values and accepted the prophetic rebukes.

All this is very far from what is here invoked as “Black Liberation Theology” or the “prophetic stream” of African-American churches. There, although Reverend Wright repeatedly speaks about “we,” he really means the white ruling class who, in his mind, deliberately conspire to destroy, even wipe out the blacks, the innocent victims of that malevolence.

Some commentators have complained that Wright’s sermons have been cherry-picked — snippets out of context — for their shock value, and that a longer exposure to his thought gives a significantly different impression. Here is a larger segment of the post-9-11 sermon that Wright gave, so one can get a sense of the context.

The people who posted this did so under the title “FOX Lies!! Barack Obama Pastor Wright”. They apparently think that this longer piece makes the snippet that played — as far as I know it was ABC, not FOX who broke this story — negates the meaning of the snippet. It certainly does show Reverend Wright calling 9-11 “unspeakable” and showing empathy at the tragedy of people — “black people” — throwing themselves out of the burning building. And this may or may not mitigate the appalling expressions of triumphalism — even glee — that Reverend Wright expresses to the delight of the audience, as he hits his “chickens coming home to roost” theme, although it hardly makes a “lie” of the snippet.

Let’s examine some of this larger sermon. After a look at the disturbing concluding lines of Psalm 137 — “Happy are they who smash your babies’ heads against the rocks!” — Reverend Wright appropriately calls such savage Schadenfreude into question today. He then turns to the 9-11 attack, which he informs us:

…spotlights the insanity of the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred. The people of faith have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents… the babies, the babies. And that, my beloved, is a dangerous place to be. Yet that is where the people of faith were in 551 BC, and far too many people of faith are in 2001 AD. We have moved from the hatred of armed enemies, to the hatred unarmed innocents. We want revenge, we want payback, and we don’t care who gets hurt in the process.

Aside from the tired rhetoric of “the cycle of violence” so often invoked about Jihadi violence, so far so good. The delight in killing innocent civilians in revenge is a dangerous and ugly direction to move in, whatever the biblical justification. But just who does the Reverend have in mind here? The obvious people described by this thinking are the perpetrators of the deed — Muslims so aroused by their desire for revenge, so filled with hatred, that they have indeed moved from hatred of armed enemies to hatred of civilians. Indeed, nothing illustrates that more than 9-11. In the “prophetic” scheme, Islamic terror represents the Assyrians.

But that’s clearly not what Reverend Wright means. His subsequent “faith footnote” — curiously a political rant, rather than a discussion of matters of faith — in which he hits his “chickens coming home to roost” theme, focuses not on the long list of crimes against humanity that one could attribute to Islamic terrorists, not on the spiritually dangerous hatreds in which America’s enemies — men of faith, to be sure — indulge on a regular basis, but rather on what “we” have done to deserve this hatred. When he hits his notorious high note, gesturing for emphasis, he is all but justifying this hatefull deed: “we” — arrogant, racist, imperialist, white America — deserved it. And his audience agrees.

In other words, the very interpretation he rejects — take delight in the smashing of the enemies children against the rocks — he refuses to apply to perpetrators of 9-11, but rather he takes “prophetic” delight in enumerating the sins of “his own” people that explain why these perpetrators take this delight. It was a bold and disturbing move for the prophets to see the Assyrians as agents of God’s punishment; but none of them delighted in the punishment.

Are we Americans the ones who take such delight? Is this why, despite the impressive evidence of widespread remorse to the contrary, Reverend Wright tells his congregation that “we” nuked the Japanese without batting an eye?

The segue here from those perpetrators of 9-11 who delight in killing civilians to Americans suggests a profound antipathy for “us.” This is hardly the “prophetic stream.” You cannot find an Israelite prophet who calls on God to “damn” his people. He might say God damns, or God will damn his people if they continue to sin. But everything the prophet does seeks to avoid that “damnation.” Only someone who hates those he criticizes can call on God to damn them.

One gets the sense that, in this post-colonial “Black Liberation Theology, the Jihadis are not “them” punishing “us”, but “us” — we people of color who have been ruined by white imperial dominion — punishing “them” — the people who run America.

And this tendency seems firmly imbedded in Reverend Wrights other sermons and his church’s activities. For example, the Church’s website hosts the Hamas manifesto published by the LA Times last summer. In other words, a column that compares the US Declaration of Independence with a charter that calls for genocide against the Jews, finds its way on to the “Pastor’s page.” And apparently, the Pastor’s page is full of violent contempt for white America and admiration and support for the most radical of the Palestinians.

This kind of thinking is not, I submit, in the “prophetic stream” of self-criticism. Indeed it replicates the a longstanding problem in the history of anti-Semitism. Often one cannot tell the difference between a prophetic diatribe (say Jeremiah) and an anti-Semitic one (say, John Chrysostom). The difference is that the former uses the verbal violence to chastize, the latter, to demonize. No prophet, no matter how angry with Israel, no matter how willing to see the Assyrians or Babylonians as agents of the Lord’s vengeance, ever tried to present these empires built on “state terror,” as somehow moral, justified, worthy of support and sympathy.

When Reverend Wright focuses exclusively about the moral depravity of the US, and adopts the victim and grievance narrative of our enemies, when he uses “we” when he means “powerful whites” (and maybe their black lackeys like Condoskeeza Rice), he’s making the same category error of the anti-Semites. Far from embracing those he criticizes, he justifies hating them.

Behind this profound slippage from prophetic loving rebuke to hatemongering demonization, lies a culture of grievance best seen at work in Wright’s conspiracy thinking.

The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied! The government lied about Pearl Harbor. (cheering) They knew the Japanese were going to attack. Government’s lied. We’ve got a paranoid group of patriots in power that now, in the interests of homeland stupidity (laughter) — I mean homeland security. The government lied about the Tuskegee experiment. They purposely infected African-American men with syphilis! [snip] “Fighting for peace,” is like raping for virginity… What’s going on in white America, US of KKKA, black men turning on black men. That is fighting the wrong enemy. You both are the primary targets in an oppressive society, that sees both of you as a dangerous threat. [snip] We cannot see how what we are doing is the same thing Al-Qaeda is doing under a different color flag (cheers and applause), and guess what else? If they don’t find them some weapons of mass destruction, they gonna do that like the LAPD (wild cheering) and plant some weapons of mass destruction. God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America…

Now this gets to the heart of the problem. Although Reverend Wright has no problem attributing paranoia and stupidity to the “group of patriots in power”, he does not seem to have much awareness of the power of paranoid thinking on his own ministry, and the terrible consequences of taking refuge in this thinking. And this is, indeed, a pervasive problem in the Black community.

I had my first glimpse of this problem in 2000, when, as the head of the Center for Millennial Studies, I sat on a panel with three rappers and a black academic colleague, discussing the apocalyptic themes in Hip-hop. The AIDS conspiracy came up repeatedly. Finally, a member of the audience asked, “How many on the panel believe these AIDS conspiracies?” The three rap artists all said they did. I said I did not. The African American professor said:

I don’t want to answer that, because if I say I do, I’ll lose credibility with my colleagues, and if I say I don’t, I’ll lose credibility with the brothers.

The implications of this reluctance to speak replicate closely the dilemma of Barack Obama when he says, “I can no sooner repudiate Reverend Wright, than I can my own family.”

Conspiracy theories offer the clearest markers that the prophetic spirit of loving rebuke designed to provoke genuine soul searching has been violated. Conspiracy theories operate in the exact opposite direction from real self-criticism. They blame a denomized “other” for all the malevolence, and reject any responsibility on the part of the self. Far from provoking self-examination, conspiracy theories feed sentiments of grievance and victimization, paralyzing any ability to self-improvement: my misery is someone else’s fault. And that someone else is most decidedly “not me.” Mark Steyn nailed the problem with this kind of thinking:

If you understand that AIDs is spread by sexual promiscuity and drug use, you’ll know that it’s within your power to protect yourself from the disease. If you’re told that it’s just whitey’s latest cunning plot to stick it to you, well, hey, it’s out of your hands, nothing to do with you or your behavior… “But most of all the victim mentality that tells African Americans (in the fashion of Rev. Wright’s most infamous sermons) that the important forces shaping their lives are the evil actions of others, of other races.”

The terrifying (and shame-driven) silence and denial in Africa about the real source of AIDS has contributed to the spread of the virus.

South Africa is the unkindest cut of all. It is the only country in Africa, amongst all the countries I have traversed in the last five years, whose government is still obtuse, dilatory and negligent about rolling out treatment. It is the only country in Africa whose government continues to propound theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state. Between six and eight hundred people a day die of AIDS in South Africa. The government has a lot to atone for. I’m of the opinion that they can never achieve redemption.

Steyn continues:

It makes no difference to white folks when a black pastor inflicts kook genocide theories on his congregation: The victims are those in his audience who make the mistake of believing him. The Reverend Wright has a hugely popular church with over 8,000 members, and Senator Obama assures us that his pastor does good work by “reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDs.” But maybe he wouldn’t have to quite so much “reaching out” to do and maybe there wouldn’t be quite so many black Americans “suffering from HIV/AIDs” if the likes of Wright weren’t peddling lunatic conspiracy theories to his own community.

This may seem harsh, a form of “blaming the victim.” But that’s partly because such harsh criticisms are not really the job of white folks. That’s the job of black prophetic ministries. That’s real “self-criticism,” not a politicized “prophetic ministry” that at the same time as it empowers resentment it disempowers the people who absorb such a “victim narrative.” Here’s the reflection of one member of the black community on this problem that cuts to the core:

10. “The Victim Mentality” — This is what I despise the most. The victim mentality is that this bad thing happened to me because I am black. I will be honest with you all; I am partly ignorant to this because I am a child of the 80s. I did not grow up during slavery or during the civil rights movement. What I do know is that if you always feel or think like a victim, think about the words associated with victim? Weak, defenseless, tricked, scared, etc (you see the kind of negative connotation at which I am arriving?) Personally, I refuse to live a life where I am a weak-minded individual. Perhaps, the victim mentality was suitable during those difficult times in our history, but times have change. We still have many imperfections, but if you always feel like the victim, that paranoia in itself, will prevent you from succeeding.

And, of course, the conspiracy theory is the obverse side of the “they owe us” mentality.

The depth of this problem comes out in the responses of Reverend Otis Moss to the question posed by Terry Gross about whether the “younger” generation, not embittered by the failure of the 60s like Reverend Wright, still adhere to these beliefs. His intellectual effort has not gone into examining whether Wright’s lunatic accusations of the US government “inventing AIDS to commit genocide against people of color” has any merit. (By the way, what an incredibly stupid strategy for white America, if it were deliberate. Given the incredible expense of AIDS’ slow death, and the impossibility of keeping it confined to your “target” audience, it would have to be the most incompetent genocidal weapon ever invented… and one that the black community could foil merely by mobilizing self-control.) Rather his effort goes into rationalizing the conspiratorial thinking.

Otis’ answer effectively shifts attention from the conspiracy theory to the plausibility, to an appeal to the outside audience to “understand” how blacks might find such thinking believable. And there are no absence of white “liberals” ready to go along. In doing so, in focusing on the Tuskegee experiments which were a) revolting, b) conducted secretly for forty years (1932-72), and c) when, revealed, it horrified whites as well as blacks, and was firmly denounced and renounced by the very culture in which it appeared, Otis prolongs the life of the very thinking that prevents “change.” Similarly, the very idea of comparing a scientific project like the Hubble Space Craft with a social problem like drugs or AIDS in the black community, suggests that he has no appreciation for the cultural dimensions of the problem. Blacks in America don’t need more well-educated “leaders” who can jive talk honkeys, but honest prophetic types who can challenge the collective, victim narrative of their communities.

Obama, in refusing to reject this thinking, in claiming that “I can no more disown him [Wright] than I can disown the black community,” Obama reveals just how hard it is, even under the most perilous conditions, to challenge this thinking. Steyn notes:

What is the plain meaning of that sentence? That the paranoid racist ravings of Jeremiah Wright are now part of the established cultural discourse in African-American life and thus must command our respect? Let us take the senator at his word when he says he chanced not to be present on AIDs Conspiracy Sunday, or God Damn America Sunday, or U.S. of KKKA Sunday, or the Post-9/11 America-Had-It-Coming Memorial Service. A conventional pol would have said he was shocked, shocked to discover Afrocentric black liberation theology going on at his church. But Obama did something far more audacious: Instead of distancing himself from his pastor, he attempted to close the gap between Wright and the rest of the country, arguing, in effect, that the guy is not just his crazy uncle but America’s, too.

Which brings me to a possible hypothesis about Obama. Here’s a man who has political ambitions, who moves to Chicago and gets advice about joining a church for the sake of his community work, who joins Jeremiah Wright’s congregation and receives a warm welcome, who listens to sermons that, even as they may strike him as inappropriate, seem so widely accepted, even popular, that criticizing them would only hurt him both personally and politically. And then, when he moves from the parochial to the national, from the victim narrative of the black community to the “post-racial” narrative of the American people, finds himself between a rock and a hard place.

He is in the same dilemma as the BU Professor who didn’t want to answer the question about AIDS conspiracies: somewhere he’s going to lose credibility. And somewhere he should lose credibility. Somewhere he needs to make some critical decisions. Maybe if Reverend Wright had taken seriously his own pious comments about the call of 9-11 to engage in some personal reflection, to “ask about my relationship to God” — a God who, at last check, in the Bible commands us not to “bear false witness,” there would be a productive place to move here.

But the evidence suggests that we are far from that. Instead of offering us blacks capable of serious introspection, the media analysts have a string of smart, educated black commentators ready to defend this thinking. And when they get “on a roll,” they reveal a remarkably rigid (post-colonial) ideological thinking about the nature of “evil” in today’s world. Indeed, one gets the sense that any black who had the nerve to challenge their community’s victim narrative, anyone who draws attention to the dysfunctions of the black family, to the “crabs-in-the-basket” attitude from both peers and family towards blacks who do well in school, to the devastating impact of entitlement on effort — whether it’s a Bill Cosby or a Shelby Steele — will be dismissed as an “oreo,” a sell-out.

Could that be the meaning of Black “Liberation” theology’s hostility to “middle classness“? You can make money, but don’t you dare “betray” your people by challenging their “comforting” tale. You can get out of the economic “crab basket,” but don’t you dare try to get out of the ideological one. Solidarity, brother.

America is by no means a “post-racial” society, not only because of lingering “racism” among whites, but because of flourishing “victimization” among blacks. This is a mutual problem, not, as Reverend Wright seems to think, a problem of white people conspiring against innocent blacks. No true prophet would ever argue that his own people are innocent victims. When the Israelites were — certainly by modern, “post-colonial” standards — innocent victims of imperial terrorism on the part of the Assyrians and Babylonians, their prophets were not “comforting” their people with fantasies of innocence, but flagellating them for their shortcomings.

The Black “prophetic stream” needs to aim a fraction of such (in current conditions) ferociously harsh criticism towards themselves and their communities. And when they do, there are many white people eager to work with them.

30 Responses to The Prophetic Stream, Conspiracy Theory and Paranoia: What’s Wrong with African-American Preaching

  1. Sophia says:

    Doesn’t this have a reflection in the Arab/Israeli narrative?

    I would argue that there are some striking similarities. And I think in both cases the narrative itself is blocking real progress.

    How can the constant reinforcement of fear and negativity, however “joyful” the choirs, fail to keep people negative and afraid? And moreover from accepting responsibility for our own shortcomings?

    Those of us who live in big cities, who see and maybe even experience deep poverty – the brutality of the city in winter – the blocks scarred by fire and neglect – the seeming impossibility of walking even 5 short miles to the edge of the gleaming towers – let alone finding a safe haven within them – well understand the daunting challenge of trying to overcome poverty, personal shortcomings and an array of personal and social illnesses.

    Do we, on top of that, need to hear that we’re being deliberately targeted? That people do in fact hate us and want to kill us – simply because of who we are – and that in fact we’re surrounded by evil? (Ironically – isn’t that an odd reflection, in fact, of Bush’s speech – that we were attacked and hated for no good reason – simply for our “freedoms”?)

    What is the end game? Whether you’re listening to an ISM rant, or a Hamas sermon/political rally, or a preacher like Wright – or other fear-mongers for that matter – how is this supposed to make us feel and what is it supposed to make us feel about the larger world around us – let alone the perceived “enemy”? Definitely it will make us sense community with our peers – but what about taking responsibility and what about trying to build bridges between our communities and the “enemy”? And what about the inner enemy – the enemy of fear, the enemy of hatred and self-hatred, the inner enemies of doubt and a failure of faith?

    The prophets were ranting at the failure of the people to uphold the laws of Torah – people were stricken because they failed to respect the Lord and lead a righteous life. Even much later poetry – at the time of the expulsion from Spain for example – blames a failure of the Jewish people to uphold the laws of Ha Shem for his having deserted us, and thus for our suffering. Thus hope was maintained even in the time of greatest despair – and responsibility also for the self and for the community: that both could be improved from within, from following in a righteous path – regardless of what the outside world was doing.

    Is that the message of these other narratives?

  2. Jim C. says:

    “The African American professor said: ‘I don’t want to answer that, because if I say I do, I’ll lose credibility with my colleagues, and if I say I don’t, I’ll lose credibility with the brothers.’ ”

    If I were one of his colleagues, not answering would lose just as much credibility with me as answering “yes, there’s a conspiracy”.

  3. Foo Bar says:

    Your post contains a factual error. The Tuskegee experiment was not “more than half a century ago”. It started more than half a century ago, but it continued until 1972. Surely the relevant date for assessing how recently the government was conducting a revolting, racist experiment is not the experiment’s start date, but rather its end date.

    thank you. corrected. – RL

  4. Foo Bar says:

    Furthermore, the analogy between the professor and Obama doesn’t work very well. Unlike the professor, Obama has explicitly acknowledged the absurdity of the conspiracy theory. He said “I wasn’t aware of the AIDS conspiracy statement, which I think is completely out of line and off the wall.”

    The proper analogy to Obama- one that would capture what it is that Obama has not done but what his critics ask of him- would be a good bit different. It would amount to demanding of the African American professor not only that he proclaim the conspiracy theory to be “out of line and off the wall” (which the prof didn’t do but which Obama *did* do) but also that the professor turn to the rappers and declare that if they beli eve that nonsense, they’re kooks and therefore he doesn’t want to have anything to do with them (i.e. he hereby disowns them). To make the analogy really work, the professor and the rappers would also need to have some close prior personal history in common.

  5. AST says:

    This kind of stuff is an attempt to fake the same spirit that moved the prophets in the Old and the Apostles in the New Testament. When I read those books, my impression isn’t one of angry, raucous rancor, but one of pleading with the people to mend their ways. There are cases, such as that of Ananias and his wife, who died at the feet of Peter when they falsely claimed to have contributed their property to the community, but I hardly think that Peter was gratified by it.

    The New Testament especially counsels Christians who lived in an age of subjugation by the Romans and animosity from Jewish religious leaders. Yet, they are not taught to hate or rebel or behave unseemly. I don’t believe that God’s spirit manifests itself in yelling, rowdy and angry rants like those we see in many fundamentalist churches today. It can’t be forced and it can’t be faked.

  6. […] an interesting piece exposing the misdirections in Wright’s basic thinking. It’s worth reading. Augean Stables The Prophetic Stream, Conspiracy Theory and Paranoia: What’s Wrong with Afric… And here’s an interesting blog article by a psychoanalist picking apart a NYT editorial commenting […]

  7. David Bachrach says:

    I don’t recall an instance where any of the prophets tampering with the truth.

    could you say that, in their rhetoric of rebuke, they may have exaggerated how bad the Israelites? – rl

  8. fp says:

    And moreover from accepting responsibility for our own shortcomings?

    It is politically easier to scapegoat others than to take responsibility. That’s how demagogues make careers. Remember Hitler being elected?

    What is the end game?

    With respect with arabs, the end-game is not clear only to those in denial.

    With respect to the Wrights, the end-game is to sustain their power and influence and to have presidential hopefuls dependent on them for their political careers.

    how is this supposed to make us feel

    afraid and guilty and appeasing and paying jiziyah and pressuring israel to commit suicide. which works like a charm.

    The prophets were ranting at the failure of the people to uphold the laws of Torah

    another religious way to induce guilt and, therefore, controllability, but at least then they didn’t know any better.

    the more we get away from knowledge and reason and into religious nonsense, the less we will find solutions to real problems.


  9. fp says:

    Keeping the Anastasis Empty

    See what I mean?

    ouch. that’s quite a metaphor for the empty tomb. would this qualify as prophetic rebuke? — rl

  10. Roger Simon (The Other One): “Obama Won Over His Base… the American Media”

    Heh. I’m reminded of how dreadfully out-of-touch our MSM Betters were during the Amnesty Debate. Every pro-amnesty politician they praised as heroic; every poll was spun as demonstrating an American enthusiasm for amnesty. Just because you wish it to …

  11. […] March 24, 2008 by bobthompson It’s lengthy but very, very good. […]

  12. Prophetic?

    Defenses of recently-released You Tube snippets of sermons by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. tend to emphasize such words are just part of the prophetic tradition. Speaking as one who has also at times engaged in prophetic preaching, I have one huge problem…

  13. Michael B says:

    As a couple of commenters have already noted, what is wrong is the fact that Wright tampers with the truth at a rather basic level, not to mention a lack of moral and intellectual coherence. (Falsehoods can be propounded in a coherent manner, Wright doesn’t even bother with much coherence or cogency, his “prophetic” preaching is more in-line with Elmer Gantry styled preachments. The notion such incoherence and lack of conscientiousness – if not lack of veracity as well – can simply be whitewashed by placing it under the rubric of “prophetic discourse” reflects a profoundly contorted sense of moral and intellectual authenticity. There are worse things in the world, but there are few that are worse that can be propounded from a pulpit.)

    “Obama has explicitly acknowledged the absurdity of the conspiracy theory. He said “I wasn’t aware of the AIDS conspiracy statement, which I think is completely out of line and off the wall.”” Foo Bar

    Problem is, assuming the accounts I’ve read are correct, Obama says he hasn’t heard any of this rhetoric from Wright, after attending the church for twenty years and regarding Wright as a mentor. By contrast, I can’t imagine anyone among Obama’s supporters temporizing or arguing to “understand” and “accept” someone on the right (e.g., McCain) for having even a very modest or tangential relationship with some minister on the “right” who even one solitary time invoked similarly outlandish sounding conspiracy theories, racialist themes, etc. To the contrary, such a candidate would be excoriated mercilessly by the Left and by Obama supporters in general.

  14. Indga says:

    You could have saved yourself a bottle of ink had you reflected on this: prophecy is God-given foresight that the prophet shares publicly with the people because he has been sent by God to warn the nation that the people may repent and turn and live. Since prophecy is not hindsight, Wright is entirely outside of the prophetic tradition because, like the Monday-morning quarterback, he is looking in the rear-view mirror. No prophet is sent to a synagogue/church; the OT prophets were sent to the people of Israel. Is it too much to ask that Wright’s and the black church’s claims about the prophetic tradition adhere to the Judaeo-Christian one? What’s this about a “black church” anyway? Is not the church Christ’s? Then blacks are making a distinction that contradicts the neither Jew nor Greek of Galatians.

  15. KarenT says:

    A few years ago, I was reading a consumer health magazine directed at black readers in the doctor’s waiting room. There was an interview with former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. She said that the spread of HIV in the black community was due to “racism”. There was no elaboration, just the apparent expectation that her unqualified statement would be accepted as self-evident.

    I was surprised at this vague and simplistic statement, to which I found no obvious connection to her stated desire to reduce the incidence of HIV and other STDs. But her statement may have helped her connect with her audience, if the theory about AIDS being invented as an agent of genocide was widespread in the black community at the time.

  16. Richard Landes says:

    to foo bar

    you wrote:

    Furthermore, the analogy between the professor and Obama doesn’t work very well. Unlike the professor, Obama has explicitly acknowledged the absurdity of the conspiracy theory. He said “I wasn’t aware of the AIDS conspiracy statement, which I think is completely out of line and off the wall.”

    The proper analogy to Obama- one that would capture what it is that Obama has not done but what his critics ask of him- would be a good bit different. It would amount to demanding of the African American professor not only that he proclaim the conspiracy theory to be “out of line and off the wall” (which the prof didn’t do but which Obama *did* do) but also that the professor turn to the rappers and declare that if they believe that nonsense, they’re kooks and therefore he doesn’t want to have anything to do with them (i.e. he hereby disowns them). To make the analogy really work, the professor and the rappers would also need to have some close prior personal history in common.

    your point is well taken, and thank you for the reference to Obama’s comments on CBS. i might say in defense of my argument that i wasn’t making an analogy, but saying that the two men face the same dilemma. your point highlights, as i did not, that Obama has had more courage than the professor and responded more forthrightly. on the other hand, the good professor was not so directly implicated and not under the spotlights: he had not been attending these rappers’ songs, donating to their causes, and acknowledging them for 20 years as his spiritual mentors. the idea that this is the first time Obama ever heard of these conspiracy theories is scarcely believable, and the fact (?) that only under national scrutiny with his election campaign on the line, did he come around to so clear a denunciation, suggests that, like the professor, he has preferred temporizing when he could. thank you for your scrutiny of my argument. much appreciated.

  17. […] John J. Ray: As a former member of various Australian Nazi parties and a renowned academic racist, I have all […]

  18. David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the – Web Reconnaissance for 03/25/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  19. fp says:


    not to mention a lack of moral and intellectual coherence. (Falsehoods can be propounded in a coherent manner, Wright doesn’t even bother with much coherence or cogency

    Should intellectual coherence be a factor in theology in general and the liberation one in particular? Is that what would sell Wright’s stuff to his audience?
    Methinks not.

  20. Michael B says:

    No, I was more simply noting that falsehoods can possess a certain (internal) coherence or consistency. I wasn’t thinking of liberation theology though, which does possess a notable degree of internal coherence, I was rather thinking of some of the more outlandish conspiratorial theories, such as the one involving AIDS as a genocidal plot initiated by whites.

  21. boqueronman says:

    From Wright: “They purposely infected African-American men with syphilis!” Untrue. Surprising that Foo Bar’s comment failed to point this out. The Tuskegee experiment was performed on subject’s who ALREADY suffered from syphilis. They were emphatically not infected with syphilis for the purpose of conducting the experiment. The shame of the entire enterprise was that the unfortunate subjects were deliberately not given effective cures, which already existed. This observation is not meant to absolve the “scientists” involved in the experiment, but to point out that the base from which the black liberation theology story of Tuskegee flows is not accurate.

  22. […] Mourner or, Dreaming of Intercultural Equivalence.&quot Thursday, March 27,categoryd.blogspot.comThe Prophetic Stream, Conspiracy Theory and Paranoia: What??s Wrong with African-American Preaching There??s a brouhaha about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. which deserves close consideration. I […]

  23. You need only look at Kanye West to discover how corrosive and terrible this entire line of thinking is. In one of his hit songs, “Heard ‘Em Say,” there’s a line that goes “And I know the government administered AIDS . . .” And of course, there was his famous anti-Bush diatribe during the Katrina Relief television program that was intended to be for charity.

    Kanye West is a zillionaire, and all he can see is a society bent on keeping him down.

    What an idiot.

  24. fp says:

    an idiot? why, because he has found a way to enrich himself by a gullible audience, both black and white?
    I would say it’s the audience that’s idiotic.

    he does not have to believe that he’s being kept down, he only has to present that in songs and laugh all the way to the bank.

  25. […] the buildings were left just on paper, probably because of WW2 was taking place..englishrussia.comThe Prophetic Stream, Conspiracy Theory and Paranoia: What??s Wrong with African-American Preaching There??s a brouhaha about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. which deserves close consideration. I […]

  26. Anna says:

    In response to Foo Bar:

    “The proper analogy to Obama … would amount to demanding … also that the professor turn to the rappers and declare that if they believe that nonsense, they’re kooks and therefore … he hereby disowns them). To make the analogy really work, the professor and the rappers would also need to have some close prior personal history in common.”

    To make a truly proper analogy, that close prior personal history in common with the rappers should be related to, and heavily based on, the rappers’ AIDS conspiracy ideas, just As Obama’s relation with Wright revolves around his sermons and preaching.

  27. Rich Rostrom says:

    Someone should have asked that professor “There are two opposing messages here on a very serious issue. One of them has to be false. Do you agree that whichever message is false, is destructive?” If he answers “Yes”, then ask him, “Do you, as a scholar, have a duty to oppose a destructive falsehood? If you fail to do so, are you complicit in that falsehood? In which way are you betraying the black community: by tacitly endorsing the cover-up of a hideous crime, or by tacitly endorsing paranoid nonsense?”

    Likewise, Obama should be asked “When you learned that Reverend Wright was repeating the AIDS conspiracy lie in his sermons, did you make any effort to answer him, to educate him on this issue, or to get him to counteract his promulgation of this dangerous falsehood? Reverend Wright has been compared to a ‘crazy uncle’. Well, one doesn’t argue with ‘crazy Uncle Jerry’ when he says something goofy about UFOs or Jesuits at Sunday dinner. But if ‘Uncle Jerry’ speaks lies to thousands of people who regard him as an authority, isn’t that a very different situation? Should it be tolerated by anyone who knows better? Should someone who has a position of considerable influence with ‘Uncle Jerry’ and his audience tacitly endorse the lies, or use that position to oppose them?”

  28. fp says:


    obama would have either found a clever way to answer or eschewed an answer.

    the reality that he cared as much about the crazy uncle as he cares about the jews or other international issues.

    wright was useful to his political career. he probably did not pay much attention to him beyond that.other than himself obama does not seem to care about much else.

  29. […] “The Prophetic Stream, Conspiracy Theory and Paranoia: What’s Wrong with African-America… by Richard Landes at Augean Stables. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *