This morning I heard a news report on “The Today Show” about the surging poll numbers of GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. He is apparently appealing to Republican voters who like his socially Conservative views, and is ahead of last month’s front-runner, Mitt Romney, even in Romney’s home state of Michigan.
But I don’t write this because of Santorum’s poll numbers. I write this to challenge Mr. Santorum, Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich to be honest politicians, and to win their nomination based on truth and not on sensationalism…AND I challenge news organizations to be honest and accurate as well, seeking truth in reporting and again, not sensational reports that will drive their ratings up.
Peter Alexander did this morning’s report, saying that Santorum is using religion as one of his tools to fight his opponents. We already heard him say that President Obama has a “phony theology,” but Santorum took a jab at the President’s Christianity yesterday, intimating that something may very well be wrong with a man whose pastor was Jeremiah Wright. Said Santorum, “He sat under Pastor Wright for 20 years.”
Enter the now infamous sound bite of Wright saying, “no, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America!” End of clip. As the clip aired, Alexander continued talking, saying that Wright was “forced to resign from his church after making inflammatory remarks.”
My soul fell out of my body. First, the clip…which I will talk about in a minute, but Alexander’s carelessness as a reporter made my blood boil. Pastor Wright did NOT resign; he retired after serving Trinity United Church of Christ for 36 years! In his book, A Sankofa Moment: The History of Trinity United Church of Christ,” Wright writes, “It was during those years between 2001 and 2005 that we began to look earnestly for a pastor to succeed me in leading the flock of God known as Trinity United Church of Christ….We were looking for someone who loved the Lord with all their hearts, their souls and their minds. We did not want anybody coming into the congregation who was playing with the Gospel or playing God’s people, pimping them or trying to get over on them!” (p. 283) The church had a Plan of Succession; his retirement was not new news. Pastor Wright preached his last three sermons at Trinity UCC in February of 2008; his last Sunday as senior pastor of Trinity UCC was the first Sunday of March, 2008.
The lack of accuracy in Alexander’s reporting is a giant black eye on a news operation which prides itself as being competent and accurate.
But then…that clip. I cringed. There it was again…ten words taken out of context, and done purposely in order to feed into the fear, suspicion …and dislike of President Obama that has never disappeared. From the claim that the president is not American to the charges that he is really a closet Muslim…a non-American, non-Christian, who is in the White House. Santorum is feeding the sharks and he knows it.
That clip came from a sermon, entitled “Confusing God and Government,” and was actually preached in 2003. In that sermon, Pastor Wright began by asking, “If you were to ask the average Christian, ‘did Jesus cry?’ almost every Christian would quote for you that John 11:35 verse, which most Bible students call the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.”
He goes on to tell the story around that particular verse…but then he begins to talk about why Jesus cried, going to the Gospel of Luke, where on Palm Sunday Luke says Jesus wept over the city; “he cried for his people who did not know the things that make for peace.”
Wright says, “He cried for his people because they were blinded by their culture, they were blinded by their conditions, they were blinded by their circumstance, they were blinded by their oppression…” He described a people who in Jesus’ day were oppressed by the Roman government; he said these people were tired of their oppression…they were blinded by the pain of their situation…”
He explains how people get confused: “Let me help you with something,” he said. “The military does not make for peace. The military only keeps the lid on for a little while…War does not make for peace, war only makes for escalating violence and a mindset to pay the enemy back by any means necessary,” a sentiment spoken by preaching greats including William Sloan Coffin and Martin Luther King Jr.
Wright talked about the people in Jesus’ day who wanted a new king but who were blinded by their circumstances, and “it made Jesus cry because they missed the meaning of his ministry.” He continues to develop this thought, saying in the sermon that people were “confusing external appearances with external power. People look for a miracle, Wright said, which is “just a sign,” but “the deeds of power point to a God who is greater than any physical limitation, and a God who can overcome any limiting situation…The people under oppression were confusing God and government.”
As he develops his thoughts, he talks about how some Muslims (and he is careful to say “not all Muslims”) confuse God and government who “condone a law condoning killing any and all who do not believe what they believe. They call it ‘jihad.'” He says we in America do the same thing: “we cannot see how what we are doing is the same al-Qaeda is doing under a different color flag, calling on the name of a different God to sanction our murder and our mayhem.”
“We confuse God and government,” he said. He mentions some of the things America has done in the name of God, including oppressing Native Americans and African Americans…”We believe God approved of African slavery.” He talks about America’s Constitution which assumed men to be “more equal” than women, and he said, “We confuse God and government; we believe God is on the side of the wealthy.”
The place of the wealthy is forever up for discussion. Jesus, in the New Testament, and God in the Hebrew scriptures admonished the wealthy for not caring enough for the poor. William Sloan Coffin once said “Our nation is going to have quite a lot to say about how tolerable this planet is going to be. And if it’s as hard for a rich individual to get into the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, you can imagine what it must be like for a rich nation!” In other words, the debate about the rights of the rich versus the poor is not new; the chasm between the two has been a subject for prophets and apparently for God from the beginning of time.
In this sermon, Wright makes three points; Governments lie; governments fail, and governments change. He talks about how our government has lied over time “The government lied about Pearl Harbor. They knew the Japanese were going to attack. Governments lie! The government lied about the Gulf of Tonkin – they wanted that resolution to get us into the Vietnam War. The government lied about Nelson Mandela and our CIA helped put him into prison and keep him there for 27 years. ..Wright talks about well-documented instances in which the government has lied, but ends that section with “God doesn’t lie.
He then talks about how our government (and others) change. “Long before there was a red, white and blue colonization, the Egyptian government was doing colonization. They colonized parts of the Mediterranean. All colonizers ain’t (sic) white…But while the government of Egypt and Pharaoh ran it, they don’t run a thing today, and why? Because governments change. When the Babylonians carried away the people of promise into exile, the Babylonian government was the baddest government around, but when King Nebuchadnezzar went crazy, his government was replaced by the government of King Belshazzar. King Belshazzar held a great big feast, big banquet, defiled the sacred vessels stolen from the temple in Jerusalem, and a hand appeared.” Here, Pastor Wright describes the writing on the wall translated by Daniel, which said to the king that his government would fail. Governments, Wright said, using the Biblical text, change.
But, he said, “God doesn’t change, quoting Malachi 3:6 which says “…thus says the Lord, and I change not.” God, he repeats, does not change, an affirmation and a comfort to people who need to know that God is a constant, no matter what.
Finally he says governments fail. He talks of how the Roman government fail; the Russian government failed; the British government failed; the Japanese government failed …and the American government failed “when it came to treating her citizens of Indian ancestry fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed; she put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, she failed.”
Said Wright: She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing, “God bless America” No, no, no! 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 as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”
Governments fail, he says, but God never fails. He asks the congregants to refer to the Bible, where it says people will be cursed for not treating people right; in Deuteronomy 27 and 28, there are extensive lists where Moses explains why people (and nations) will be cursed and why they can and will be blessed. The fall of Jerusalem came about because the people “forsook God,” and the curse was that God allowed the enemies of His own people to topple them. It is not a pleasant message, but it is in the Bible.
I challenge Mr. Santorum to read the sermon, instead of making sneaky comments implying that there is something wrong with the president’s theology because he sat under the teaching of Pastor Wright. One might argue that a theology that allowed for the enslavement of African-Americans, the oppression of women, and the exploitation of workers is phony, too, if the Bible is to be taken into account.
At the end of the day, though there is one God, there are many different theological perspectives. The Rev. Franklin Graham gave a lukewarm acknowledgement that President Obama is a Christian, though he strongly affirmed that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are. When pressed by reporters on “Morning Joe” about his thoughts about the president’s faith, he waffled, criticizing the president’s policies which to him seem to be more concerned with protecting Muslims than Christians in places like Egypt. “We are not protecting the minorities,” he said, intimating that a good policy would be one that protected “the minorities,” which, in Egypt, are the Christians.
Yet, in America, many Christians historically have not been all that concerned with protecting its minorities. So, which theology is “phony?” Which theology is “real,” in Santorum’s view or in Rev. Graham’s?
Rev. Graham said “all I know is that I am a sinner saved by grace.” That is the correct Christian jargon, but saying the words does not a Christian make, and, conversely, NOT saying those words when asked if one is Christian does NOT mean that one is not. Rev. Graham is right: the measure of one’s Christianity is found in the way one lives one’s life. Rev. Graham seems to have problems and issues with the president’s policies primarily in the Middle East, making him apparently doubt the president’s Christian belief claim.
As for NBC, I hope Peter Alexander corrects his error, and I hope all of the news operations are careful to check their facts before they put reports out that will only feed the fears and insecurity of so many people. I don’t feel sorry for politicians who rip each other apart, because those in politics know what they’re getting into, but the press has a duty to get the facts right and care about the lives of people it disrupts and destroys when it is not careful.
A candid observation ….