What Joe Biden Should Learn from Obama’s Autobiography: Listen to Jeremiah Wright

I’ve just finished Barack Obama’s remarkable autobiography, A Promised Land. Its biblical title invites reflection about the theological orientation and resulting policies of the man the book portrays. By his own testimony, that direction was originally set by Jeremiah A. Wright, Mr. Obama’s former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side.

James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology has described Dr. Wright as Black liberation theology’s foremost contemporary exponent. So, in Mr. Obama, the United States experienced not only its first Black president, but its first chief executive to have been shaped spiritually by liberation theology.

With all of that in mind, the point of the following review of The Promised Land will be that had Mr. Obama employed what he learned at the feet of Jeremiah Wright, his policies would have been markedly different from their actual forms. Practically speaking, they would have more resembled those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt than a continuation of the neoliberal legacy of Bill Clinton. They would have set the country on a profoundly different and more widely beneficial trajectory from the one we are currently following.

Professed devout Catholic, Joe Biden, should take note. The radical biblical tradition espoused not only by Wright and Cone, but by King and William Barber – i.e., championed by thought leaders among Mr. Biden’s most crucial constituents – won’t support a return to “normalcy.” It requires policies that prioritize the needs not of Wall Street, but of the poor. It demands departure from Barack Obama’s business as usual.     

Liberation Theology

And that brings me precisely to liberation theology.

In case you’ve forgotten, liberation theology is reflection on the following of Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to improving their collective life economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.

Its Judeo-Christian orientation is about political and economic starting points and end points.

Sociologically speaking, it begins (as OpEdNews’ Rob Kall would say) from the “bottom up.” In the case of the Jewish tradition, it starts with the liberation of slaves in Egypt by a Life-Force they called “Yahweh.” It ends with Yahweh’s pledge to give the enslaved (as Mr. Obama’s book title reminds us) “A Promised Land.”

In its Christian form, the tradition starts with a poor houseless child who grows into a prophet. He promises dispossessed victims of the Roman Empire the end point of “the kingdom of God.” By this he meant a world where God is king instead of Caesar – a world with room for everyone. For liberation theology, that’s the North Star – the guiding vision meant to shape all of life, economically, politically, socially, and spiritually – a world where no one is excluded or marginalized

Following that star, liberation theology emphasizes what the Christian Testament’s Paul of Tarsus calls “the wisdom of God” contrasted sharply with “the wisdom of the world” (I Cor. 2: 1-16).  In modern terms, the wisdom of the world is trickle-down; it begins with the well-off. It holds that if the wealthy prosper, the tide that lifts their luxury yachts will lift all boats. By contrast, God’s bottom-up wisdom begins with the well-being of the poor.

Unfortunately, the policies, Mr. Obama describes in A Promised Land ended up reflecting the former over the latter.     

Jeremiah Wright’s Influence on Mr. Obama

That reflection contrasts dramatically with what scandalized America’s right wing when it first encountered Jeremiah Wright’s liberation theology. The discovery occurred soon after they realized that Barack and Michelle Obama not only were parishioners of a fiercely radical black pastor, but that he had officiated at their wedding (A Promised Land 23).

That sent conservatives scurrying to unearth evidence of Wright’s (and by extension Obama’s) unacceptably extreme viewpoints. In fact, what their excavations uncovered nearly terminated Mr. Obama’s political ambitions (140).

That’s because (true to liberation theology’s form) Wright’s words explicitly foregrounded the experience of the poor as victims of what he called U.S. terrorism. His sermons often traced it from the genocide of Native Americans, through the enslavement of Africans, to Middle Eastern policies that, he said, invited the tragic events of 9/11/2001. It led him to refer to his country as the “USA of KKK,” and to conclude, “Not God bless America,” but “God damn America” (140).

Despite all of that, and notwithstanding his eventual repudiation of his former pastor, President Obama’s testifies in A Promised Land that Rev. Wright remained an important part of his consciousness (142).  And so, throughout his narrative, the former chief executive gives indications of critical truths often reminiscent those voiced (albeit more forcefully) by his one-time pastor. For instance, Mr. Obama recalls that:

Personally

  • As part of a generation willing to question the U.S. government (456), he frequently found Wright’s black liberation theology inspiring and as channeling the understandable rage of black people in general (119, 141).
  • Not only did Rev. Wright’s disturbing insights become part of his consciousness, but so did the radical thought of W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash (11) – along with those of the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi and the belatedly revered socialist, Nelson Mandela (598).
  • He realized that despite the convictions of many liberals, America’s race problems are far from being solved (128).
  • He felt impatient with having to soften blunt truths that whites find disturbing (121).
  • He himself had often experienced police harassment (395).

Internationally

  • He found sympathy with the assessment of critics like Wright that America’s “. . . ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start” (xv).
  • In fact, after World War II, the U.S. had “. . . bent global institutions to serve Cold War imperatives or ignored them altogether . . . meddled in the affairs of other countries, sometimes with disastrous results;” and its “. . . actions often contradicted the ideals of democracy, self-determination and human rights. . .” (329).
  • America’s war in Vietnam was no less brutal than the Soviet Union’s repression of Hungary (469).
  • The criminal U.S.-supported Shah of Iran and his feared SAVAK secret police were typical of murderous client regimes supported by America in the Global South following World War II (310, 450-1).
  • The Shah’s regime was part of U.S. Mideast policy that needlessly alienated Muslims throughout the world. That policy tolerated corruption and repression in the region and routinely humiliated Palestinians (358).
  • China represents an attractive alternative (to the United States’) model for the developing world (481).
  • That’s true especially after so many Global South countries embraced the illusory “wisdom” of the Washington Neoliberal Consensus and thus followed America over a fatal precipice (330).

Obama’s Repudiation of Wright (and radical change)

Despite such insights, Mr. Obama’s presidential ambitions not only made it necessary for him to repudiate Jeremiah Wright, but evidently to adopt a series of policies that contradicted the tenets of liberation theology. His policies prioritized the welfare of the rich over those of the working class and poor. Accordingly, the president ends up admitting that:

  • Because of the financial crisis, he did not follow through on his campaign promises to U.S. workers (177).
  • For him, the financial markets (presumably as opposed to wage earners) were the only audience that really mattered (304).
  • His interventions alone were responsible for saving bankers from wage earners’ justified anger and retaliation (297).
  • Resulting white working-class anger, e.g., in Pennsylvania about jobs lost through such neoliberal policies, was justified (144).
  • In retrospect, bank nationalization and prosecution of crooked bankers might have been a better solution to the Crisis of 2008 than the bailouts favored by his economic team (280, 296, 305). 
  • By avoiding that solution and bowing to bankers’ interests, Obama consciously missed a once-in-a-generation chance to reengineer the overall economy in a bottom-up way reminiscent of FDR’s New Deal (304).
  • He could have done so, because of his 70% approval rating coupled with the super majority he possessed in the Congress at the outset of his first term (225, 378, 243).

Nowhere in his autobiography does Mr. Obama reveal his repudiation of Wright’s outspokenness than in the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil tragedy of 2010. There, BP Oil had unleashed the most devastating oil spill in the history of offshore drilling. It lasted for 87 days and pumped out into the ocean at least 20,000 (and possibly 50,000) barrels of oil daily (569).

As time wore on and scientists and engineers scrambled to cap the leaks, Republicans increasingly blamed the president for the failure to do so. They even referred to it as “Obama’s Katrina” (569).

What Mr. Obama’s best instincts told him to say in response was reminiscent of Wright’s candor – this time in favor of perhaps the earth’s most oppressed being, Mother Earth Herself. According to the former president, he should have said:

“. . . the only way to truly guarantee that we didn’t have another catastrophic oil spill in the future was to stop drilling entirely; but that wasn’t going to happen because at the end of the day we Americans loved our cheap gas and big cars more than we cared about the environment except when a complete disaster was staring us in the face, and in the absence of such disaster, the media rarely covered efforts to shift America off fossil fuels or pass climate change legislation, since actually educating the public would be boring and bad for ratings; and the one thing I could be certain of was that for all the outrage being expressed at the moment about wetlands and sea turtles and pelicans, what the majority of us  were really interested in was having the problem go away, for me to clean up yet one more mess decades in the making with some quick and easy fix, so that we could all go back to our carbon-spewing, energy-wasting ways without having to feel guilty about it” (570-71).

Again, that’s what, Obama admits, he wanted to say: stop drilling altogether, get rid of your big SUVs, pay the true price of gasoline, and pass courageous climate change legislation despite effects on the “American Way of Life.”

Instead, the president describes his Casper Milquetoast response with the following words: “. . . I somberly took responsibility and said it was my job to ‘get this fixed.’”

Missed Opportunities

In other words, in contrast to liberation theology’s and Jeremiah Wright’s “preferential option for the poor,” Obama’s policy preference supported the corporate status quo. He short-changed those represented by what he elsewhere describes as “his kind of crowd” from the days when he worshipped at Trinity United – “democracy activists, heads of nonprofits and community organizers working at a grassroots level on issues like housing, public health, and political access” (466).

That in a nutshell encapsulates Obama’s choice not to follow the outspokenness not only of Jeremiah Wright, but of FDR’s ghost with whom POTUS #44 wistfully compares himself throughout his memoir (177, 239, 240, 264, 388, 524, 547, 549).

Following Roosevelt, Mr. Obama’s legacy could have been different. He could have bailed out wage earners instead of the bankers. He could have instituted a 21st century New Deal prioritizing health care, infrastructure renewal, clean energy technology, and a green counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Moreover, Barack Obama was more up to selling those programs than any president within living memory. He was better equipped for game-changing fireside chatting than even Roosevelt himself. No chief executive since FDR enjoyed his natural charm, charisma or eloquence.

Yet by his own admission, he wasted what that other Roosevelt called his “bully pulpit” by failing to persuade the American people to support legislation in their own best interests regarding single-payer health care, immigration reform, clean energy, nuclear disarmament, and cessation of endless wars (594).

Conclusion

None of this is to say that his own words in A Promised Land reveal President Barack Obama as somehow nefarious or intentionally two-faced. As presidents go, he emerges as a decent man. And no one can deny the significance of his enormous achievement as the first black man to overcome the tremendous obstacles barring election to the highest office in the land. Moreover, once in office, #44 acquitted himself with impeccable moral integrity (595). His staff worked extremely hard. Mr. Obama was the kind of boss most of us would like to work for – upbeat, sensitive, inclusive and willing to laugh at himself (534). He is also a gifted writer.

Neither is any of this to say that Mr. Obama should have been as outspoken as Jeremiah Wright. Such style might be appropriate for a prophetic pastor on Chicago’s south side, but it’s surely not the way to get elected president.

As a theologian however, I find it regrettable that the former president so completely cut himself off from the lessons learned at the feet of his early mentor. (And this is where Catholic Joe Biden has something to learn from his boss’ admitted regrets.) Had President Obama quietly embraced Dr. Wright’s lessons, had he ignored the Geithners, Emanuels, and Sommers, had he prioritized the needs of the poor, had he offered us another New Deal, we’d likely be living in a far greener country with far less wealth disparity, injustice and anger ( 522, 524).

And judging by Mr. Roosevelt’s success with the electorate, the Democrats would today enjoy much firmer standing in the White House and halls of Congress.    

Biblically speaking, Barack Obama would have brought us all that much closer to A Promised Land.

View from the Border: Christians Torturing Christians, Lawyers Following Jesus

Readings for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49: 3, 5-6; PS 40: 2-10; I COR 1: 1-3; JN 1: 14A, 12A; JN 1: 29-34

So, I’m here in Tijuana, Mexico. As I noted last week, I’ll be in Baja California for three weeks working with a border rights project called Al Otro Lado (AOL). It’s helping refugees and immigrants claim their internationally recognized entitlement to asylum from repressive governments, gangs, the ravages of climate change, and from a worldwide economic system whose “free trade” agreements have destroyed jobs and created grinding poverty across the globe.

Yes, I’ve entered another world here – vastly different from what I experience every day in my new home in super-affluent Westport CT. And I love it. It’s brought me to a social location similar to the ones experienced by most of the world’s inhabitants – including Jesus and his friends 2000 years ago.

What I’ve found at this Mexican border is closer to the reality of my former home in central Kentucky’s Appalachia where so many live from hand to mouth as part of the national precariat that ironically (as Rev. William Barber says) has come to include 43% of Americans – in the world’s richest country.

Here in Tijuana, I’ve met two kinds of people that give me great hope despite the power of a third group that dominates public policy and discourse. All three groups stand starkly revealed in the light of today’s liturgical readings. As we’ll see presently, those selections from the Jewish and Christian Testaments call Jesus’ followers to a universal community that overcomes the narrow ethnocentrism required to justify torturing one’s fellow human beings.   

Consider that last group first – the dominant one. They’re best represented by Donald Trump and the Republican Party whose mostly white members (sporting their red MAGA hats) loudly trumpet their Christian faith. Nevertheless, this group takes great delight, it seems, in making their brown and black fellow Christians suffer.

It’s a kind of sadistic cruelty that puts obstacle after illegal obstacle in front of mostly non-white Christians seeking a healthier, safer life for their children and themselves. Despite court orders to the contrary, the process continues to separate small children (and even infants and babies) from their parents. It confines asylum seekers in what refugees themselves call “the icebox” (hielera) – a holding tank through which those lucky enough to get a “Credible Fear Interview” (CFI) must legally endure for no more than 72 hours – but where stays sometimes stretch out for 3 or 4 weeks. The tank is kept at 48 degrees Fahrenheit while detainees are allowed to wear no more than one layer of clothing, are given aluminum blankets to cover themselves at night and are served frozen and expired food. It’s a form of state-sponsored torture. There’s no other word for it.

Meanwhile, those who have not yet qualified for a CFI are forced to wait 3 or 4 months for the privilege to endure such cruelty. Each of them is given a number placing them on “The List” for eventual refrigerator admission. So, thousands have their ciphers scratched on little pieces of paper that they’re warned not to lose.

The announced time for reading list names is usually 7:30 in the morning. But occasionally, the names are called at 4:00 a.m.; other days, the time 10:00. And those missing the summons, must reapply for another number and begin their wait all over again. Most days only 40 people are called to the hielera over a scratchy bullhorn with names read quickly in distorted, barely audible tones. But some days, as many as 700 names are called. Other days, no one is summoned.

Under such a “system,” you can imagine how people are kept off-balance. It inflicts confusion, anxiety, frustration, disappointment and pain on impoverished people who have already experienced great hardship walking with their small children and their most treasured possessions all the way from places like Honduras and El Salvador. Just imagine missing the announcement of your number!

But that’s the entire point: to make asylum seekers fail – to render the process as difficult, excruciating, frustrating and futile as possible. That’s white Republican Christianity for you.

Meanwhile, the Christians at the gate awaiting hielera admission provide examples of courage, optimism, kindness and hope. That’s the second group I’ve seen here over the past week – a hopeful one in the face of their fellow Christians’ meanness. In fact, all AOL volunteers have witnessed those edifying qualities every day despite the long lines, despite the frustration and dashed hopes. Those waiting in line are typically earnest, patient, smiling, and easy to speak with.

The children are the best – running around, playing, drawing pictures with the crayons supplied by border workers anxious to help. This second group is awe-inspiring and uplifting.

But it’s the third group that is for me the most admirable. Here, I’m referring to the volunteers in Al Otro Lado.  In the past year, over 3000 of them have passed through the program. Most come from the U.S. The majority of them are young women. Many are law students or lawyers. 3000 in a single year!! Does that give you hope or what?

Volunteers prepare asylum seekers for their CFIs and provide free legal counsel otherwise unavailable to their confused clients. Typically, the counsellors stay for a week. Many stay longer. Some come back every few months. None of the thousands of volunteers – much less the permanent staff – is motivated by money or material ambition. It’s all about service, respect for clients, contesting the insanity of the entire process and about giving, giving, giving . . . And all of this, despite the Sisyphean nature of the work – despite knowing that most of those served will not be successful in overcoming the system’s bias against them. Instead, they’ll be sent back to the very life-threatening situations they’re trying to escape.

It’s all entirely inspiring and without any pretense of faith motivation. Nonetheless, it’s also entirely coincident with the spirit of today’s liturgical readings. I mean, the irony is that AOL volunteers are nearer the spirit of this Sunday’s readings than those loudly professing their faith as followers of Mr. Trump and the version of Christianity that so many white people endorse.

To show what I mean, here are my “translations” of today’s texts. Read them for yourself here to see if you agree – to see if I’ve got them right.  

IS 49: 3, 5-6
God’s people
Serve; they do not rule.
This has been our purpose
From the very beginning
As individuals and communities.
Loving kindness to others
Is a sign of strength.
It is the glory of being human
To reject narrow ethnocentrism
For the good
Of the whole human race.
 
PS 40: 2-10
Lord, help me to love
As you do
Hearing the cry
Of the afflicted
Putting aside
All religious nonsense
And living simply
According to your
Law of love
Calling us
To social justice
And to speak truth
Without fear.
 
I COR 1:1-3
This is what it means
To do God’s will
And follow holy Yeshua
As our Master Teacher
Living gracefully
And at peace
With everyone.
 
JN 1: 14A, 12A
Yes, Jesus
Is our model
Our source of strength
And of child-like openness
To God’s real presence
In flesh and blood
Sisters and brothers
Among us.
 
JN 1: 29-34
The great prophet
John the Baptist
First recognized
Jesus’ fiercely gentle power
Against the world’s
Foolish ‘wisdom,’
Fear, selfishness
And violence.
Jesus, John said,
Embodies eternal wisdom
The very Spirit of God.
So should we all.

Do you see what I mean about the three groups I’ve met here in Tijuana? The refugees and AOL staff embody on the one hand and recognize on the other the Jesus we’ve been reviewing every Sunday since Christmas with our readings focused on “the infancy narratives.” The refugees here in Tijuana embody the Homeless One who was born in a stable, the Refugee from Herod’s infanticide, the Immigrant who lived those years in Egypt.

And despite not wearing any faith convictions on their sleeves, the AOL volunteers embody the global perspective, openness to the afflicted, and the Spirit of John the Baptizer and of Yeshua himself that are centralized in today’s readings.

We can only pray that Trump Christians might one day see the truth as clearly. We can only pray that all of us might see like that. The lives of people like Jesus depend on it.

Jeff Sessions as Mullah: His Christianist Version of Sharia Law

immigrant mothers

Last Wednesday and Thursday were the most theological days I can remember.

It all revolved around the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from their immigrant parents, including tearing nursing infants from the breasts of their mothers and the attendant prospect of “baby jails.”

To begin with, the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference condemned such policy as clearly immoral.

Even evangelical Trump supporter, Franklin Graham, called the Trump policy “disgraceful.”

In response, Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, offered his best imitation of the Islamic theocrats his type loves to vilify. Instead of invoking U.S. law, the Constitution, or legal and historical precedent, the nation’s leading law enforcement agent decided to justify Trump policy theologically. He claimed that the apostle Paul would endorse it, since the program comes from government, which Sessions declared enjoys ipso facto divine authority.

Sharia Law, anyone?

More specifically, the AG referenced Romans 13. He said, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

The next day, Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders followed suit averring that “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”

Such theological debate invites refutation.

The first response is that Paul obviously could not have meant that all government legislation reflects the will of God. That would mean not only that the U.S. slave system was divinely approved, but that the decrees of Genghis Kahn, Hitler, and Stalin enjoyed divine approbation.

Even closer to home, the Sessions interpretation of Romans 13 would mean that Jesus himself, Paul, and all the great Christian martyrs – not to mention religiously-motivated champions of civil disobedience like Martin King and Mohandas Gandhi – were all condemned by God.

On the contrary, all of them (including Gandhi), drew inspiration from the example of biblical prophets who made a point of disobeying laws which routinely claimed divine origin.

In fact, Jesus’ defense for breaking the most inviolable law of his time, the Sabbath Law, was that law’s very purpose was to serve human beings. Laws contradicting such humanitarian purpose, he implied, have no authority at all.

So, what, then, did Paul intend by his words, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God”?

Try this:
• Authority means the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.
• All such power comes from God and God’s law.
• Government legislation reflecting God’s law must be obeyed.
• Obviously, all other laws must be disobeyed.
• According to Jesus’ teachings, God’s law is to treat others as you would like to be treated with special care for the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants.

In the end, the great Dr. William Barber II, the dynamic animator of the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign gave the best response to the self-serving absurdity and hypocrisy of Mullah Sessions’ invocation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Barber called their interpretations “heresy” and said:

“First of all, (they’re) misinterpreting that text. Paul actually was arrested by the government, because Christians challenged the government. That’s one of the reasons Paul ends up getting killed. . . Second of all, the Bible is clear, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, that one of God’s primary concerns is that we care for the stranger, that we do not rob children of their rights, and mothers of their children, that we welcome the stranger and make sure that the stranger, the immigrant, the undocumented person, is treated like a brother or sister. You cannot find anywhere where Jesus or the prophets would say anything like what Sessions said.”

Today it’s immigrants. One wonders about the next victims of Sessions’ Christian counterpart of Sharia Law. Beware!