05/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When You're Wright, You're Right

Jeremiah Wright is nothing if not a complex man. He's the product of his race, his time, his education. In an hour-long interview, one-on-one, with Bill Moyers, we met one side of Pastor Wright. He's soft-spoken. He smiles easily. He's a man of deep faith. An intellectual, a Biblical scholar/historian with superior command of language, Wright is no seething separatist, no ticking-bomb militant. He does not hate white America. Quite the contrary.

The motto embraced by racially diverse members of this man's Trinity United Church of Christ is "Unashamedly black, unapologetically Christian." They are about pride in who they are and outreach to "...the least of these..." both here and abroad. They are about ministering to the blighted urban neighborhood where many of the members grew up-- ministering spiritually and in terms of human need. It's a tough job. Winning that battle or losing it is often a matter of life and death and, when the odds are against you more often than not, it's enough to make you angry. Enraged at the system that's failed, over and again, to do the right things for the right reasons.

The Reverend Jeremiah Wright preaches like an angry African-American prophet. White folks find him scary as hell. Wright lets fly, from the pulpit, with fiery oratory about social justice--and the dearth of it--in America. He rails against a government and a society which turn their backs on real human need, against militarism for corporate profit and the neocon philosophy of world dominance that would make us little better than a new Roman Empire. And, like the man says, things didn't work out so well for an empire based on brutality, a sense of ethnic superiority and avarice. Does he go too far? Arguably, he does. Is his language offensive? At times, no doubt, it is. Is he representative of every African-American preacher in America? No.

Like it or not, however, he's got a point. And preaching in this bitter Biblical voice in the face of injustice is nothing new. Black preachers have been delivering the same angry message since the time they sermonized beneath live oaks far enough from the plantation house so Massa couldn't hear them. Face it. In the 18th and 19th centuries a black man, inspired by God or not, could get beaten for voicing an opinion offensive to white folks. Or lynched.

History repeats itself. A public spoon-fed outrageous sound-bites and a MSM lusting after the blood of another hyperbolic, headline grabbing story are happy enough to figuratively lynch Jeremiah Wright. We don't want to know who he is. We don't want to try understanding the whole of his message. We don't give a damn about repentance or redemption. We don't care about a Gospel that tells us love made visible in the real world is social justice. We don't want to hear the truth about who we've been or who we might still be. That's dirty laundry. We like our history sanitized. We're the Good Guys in this Western, we're the ones wearing the white hats here, a woe be unto the un-American apostate who tries to tell us differently. Americans are Americans, by God, and we don't need someone rubbing our noses in history we don't want to remember. History we don't want to know about at all.

We've met the 30-second raging Wright. We've met the thoughtful, rational man of God who insists there is more to Christianity than status quo personal piety--that Sunday morning, well-turned out, sit still for an hour and feel better about ourselves because we did it habit that too many of us take for real faith. We've met the lecturing, indignant Wright, speaking to the NAACP about the chasm that still exists between Black America and White America. On Monday morning, we met another Jeremiah Wright in a televised National Press Club news conference. This time he was the bull facing the picadors, prodded, nicked by sharper and sharper questions; wounded by no-win wording, attacks in question form that pricked and cut until he bled. Until he was angry. We wanted to provoke that rage again. It's great TV. Great copy.

The Wright/Obama story is not one of political relevance. It's a human story. And it's a tragic one. Two decent, intelligent men who have made real, positive differences in a troubled world are being used against each other in a game of political one-upmanship. It's become a blood sport for the media and a weapon for the campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain. That's a shameful abuse of the public trust all the way around.

We are Americans. Surely we have not forgotten that each of us is free to speak out for what we believe to be important, for what we believe to be true--even when we disagree with one another. Surely the Bush years have not succeeded in stripping away all we had left of individuality, independent thought and the inherent right to express ourselves. Surely, at the end of the day, we are better than a lynch mob?