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.

The Biblical Call to Woke, Politically Correct Identity Politics

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Zechariah 9: 9-10; Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14; Romans 8: 9-13; Matthew 11: 25-30

Whatever the world believes and does, choose to believe and do the opposite. That’s because the Truth that some call “God” is found 180 degrees opposite to what the world claims as true. That’s the message of today’s liturgy of the word.

So, take heart if as a follower of the Christ, they accuse you of advocating identity politics, deride you as a social justice warrior, woke, politically correct, a conspiracy theorist, or a whatabouter. Leaving aside their distorted meanings, all of those categories should actually be embraced by critical persons of faith who take this Sunday’s readings to heart.  

In today’s key selection, Paul refers to accusations like the above as “flesh,” because they insistently judge according to external appearances and directly contradict the teachings of Moses and Jesus. Such judgments routinely gas light activists demonstrating for social justice across the world. For instance, followers of Rush Limbaugh tell awakened Black Lives Matter demonstrators to go back to sleep. They admonish “conspiracy theorists” to simply accept White House narratives. They ridicule “social justice warriors” as pathetic Don Quixotes impotently jousting at windmills. And they say progressives, “snowflakes” should be embarrassed about their annoying “political correctness” and whataboutism.       

However, today’s reading from the prophet Zechariah calls for political strategy that penetrates below such superficiality at every turn. In the process, he longs for political leaders whose laser vision will reject the outer manifestations that tell us that things are fine the way they are. For instance, his ideal ruler will refuse military display and instead sponsor programs of national disarmament. That, of course, flies in the face of “American” cultural ideals of bluster, toughness, and aggression.

Finally, in our Gospel reading, Jesus promises that adopting contrary unfleshly values will result in easy, restful and unburdened existence for everyone.

Flesh Merchants

Before we get to those separate readings, begin by contrasting the wisdom of the world’s flesh merchants with the general vision recommended (as we’ll see below) in today’s selections. Think about the dominant culture’s superficial dismissal of social justice warriors, the “woke,” of everything that smacks of political correctness, or conspiracy theories or whataboutism. Those caught up in fleshly appearances want progressives to feel guilty about the critical thinking implied in each of those categories understood in the light of faith.

  • The Struggle for Social Justice: Our era’s flesh merchants generally ridicule what they call “social justice warriors” as naïve bleeding hearts. However, the truth is that the struggle for social justice lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It all began with the liberation of slaves from Egypt. The Hebrew Covenant prioritized the needs of widows, orphans and immigrants. It instituted permanent land reform measures and periodic wealth redistribution. Jesus advocated replacement of Rome’s empire with what he called the Kingdom of God – a world where God’s truth and love replaced Caesar’s looting, lies and oppression. All the great followers of Jesus were social justice warriors. Think Bartolome de las Casas, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and today’s William Barber.
  • Wokeness: Following in the footsteps of such prophets, all of us are called to permanent spiritual insomnia. In fact, Buddhism is entirely based on the concept. It teaches that the whole purpose of life is to wake up from the slumber that is endemic to dominant cultures everywhere. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” had a similar message. Any follower of the Judeo-Christian tradition is called to wake up.
  • Identity Politics: Notwithstanding its Buddhist and classical derivations, the term “woke” comes from the African American community. That origin reminds us that any struggle for social justice must begin with heightened awareness and affirmation of specific identity as an oppressed people. That’s why James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, jarringly insists that God is black. He’s referring to a divine preference for the unfairly “burdened” (as today’s Gospel selection puts it) in any age. It’s what lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ repeated allusions to God’s “preferential option for the poor.” It’s with the impoverished that followers of Moses and Jesus are called to unambiguously identify spiritually and politically. 
  • Political Correctness: This is perhaps the most distorted and denigrated of the concepts considered here. Originally, it was a self-critical tool used by political activists to make sure that their speech and action were consistent with their principles. More recently however, the term has been appropriated and trivialized by opponents of social justice to refer to any infringement of a dominant group’s supposed right to speak and act without considering the consequences for members of a subordinate class. Obviously, such “freedom” is out of step with the just-referenced preferential option for the poor. On the contrary, all would-be followers of Jesus the Christ are called to bring their speech and actions into correct alignment with their faith.    
  • Conspiracy Theory: Like political correctness, the original concept of conspiracy theory had no insulting overtones. In fact, conspiracy is a legal category referring to two or more people planning to commit a crime. Lawyers and prosecutors theorize about conspiracies all the time. And, of course, Jesus’ assassination resulted from a conspiracy between Jerusalem’s temple priests and the Roman imperial state. That fact alone should make his followers especially sensitive to conspiratorial plots. (BTW, one prominent conspiracy theory holds that following the Kennedy assassination, the CIA appropriated a negative understanding of the term conspiracy theorists precisely to discredit critics of the highly questionable Warren Report – and subsequently of every other CIA operation.) Bottom line here: no one familiar with history, much less Christianity, should be intimidated by accusations of being conspiracy theorists. Such allegations are meant to inhibit critical thinking.   
  • Whataboutism: The Wikipedia Dictionary defines whataboutism as any attempt to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. Actually, in our U.S. context, it’s most often a refusal to take seriously right-wing accusations against designated enemies such as Russia, China, or Venezuela for crimes routinely committed by the United States itself. It recognizes that “America” has no ground to stand on in its accusations of election-interference, persecution of Muslims, or corruption in high office. That’s because our country’s officials routinely engage in such activities themselves and embody unsurpassed corruption at every level. It’s all in the spirit of Jesus’ words, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Like Jesus, whatabouters are concerned with hypocrisy.

Today’s Readings

With all of this in mind, here are my “translations” of the readings that inspire today’s reflection. Please read them for yourselves here to see if I’ve got them right. I take them all as issuing a call to depart entirely from the dominant culture’s way of thinking and acting in the areas just designated.

Zechariah 9: 9-10: The world leader we’re all waiting for won’t come driving a Sherman Tank, Cadillac or a Rolls Royce.  Rather, she’ll arrive on a bicycle. Moreover, she’ll achieve peace by eliminating the entire military-industrial complex. No more war for this non-violent champion! 

Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14: When she comes, we’ll all join in grateful thanksgiving to our Great Cosmic Mother. We’ll praise her for her grace, patience, goodness, kindness and compassion. We’ll finally realize that might is found precisely in what the world considers weakness – in the fallen and heavily burdened. 

Romans 8: 9-13: On that happy day, everyone on earth will understand their spiritual unity with everyone else regardless of externals – “flesh” including its color. We’ll see that at core, all of us share the loving Spirit that animated Jesus the compassionate Christ. Fullness of life, he taught, lies in a direction 180 degrees away from the fleshy exterior reality to which the world so insistently limits our attention.   

Matthew 11: 25-30: Yes, the worldly wise and learned tell us that “reality” is defined by what we can see and feel and that might makes right. However, the unpretentious nobodies of the world who follow Jesus know much more. In their humility, disarmed non-violence, and refusal to compete, they share the very mind of God. They’ve discovered the secret of an easy, restful and unburdened existence.

Conclusion

I suppose what I’ve been seeing in today’s biblical readings are implications that call into question our culture’s superficiality – something Paul called “flesh.” I hear the readings warning us against the dominant culture and its rejection of much deeper (spiritual) values firmly founded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I’m talking about commitment to social justice, and the identity politics that sides with the poor and oppressed. I’m referring to awakening from cultural slumber and the adoption of woke ways of thinking and acting that are politically correct in terms of coherence between theory and action. My reference is also to judicious suspicion of official stories mouthed by “leaders” who have repeatedly lied to us – even in the face of their accusations about conspiracy theories. All of this, I’m saying, entails complete rejection of hypocrisy hiding behind deflecting complaints of whataboutism.

I at least feel great relief to recognize culturally imposed guilt tripping for what it is. I’m happy to embrace my efforts to be an awakened politically correct social justice warrior identified with the poor and oppressed and alert to conspiracies by the rich and powerful.

All of these are proud labels embodied in countless heroes most of us profess to admire – people like Moses, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, Martin King, Dorothy Day, William Barber, and Jesus himself. We’re in very good company.