TEI Update #224,  November 11, 2008

My Experience with Jeremiah Wright and the Media

Stuart J. Rankin

Let’s be honest. The media has incredible power to shape our thoughts about reality. Driven by sound-bites and provocative video clips, controversy is hard to shake.

When the sermon clips of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, now infamous, began to dominate the media, who of us knew anything about Dr. Wright? It was thus easy to assume he was an extremist. A majority of bloggers condemned Dr. Wright on the basis of the sound-bites alone. And they usually admit it!

I don’t often pay much attention to media controversies, including this one – but still in the back of my mind, the picture painted by the media stuck. In fact, it is hard to shake the power of that sensory impression.

But what I learned first hand, last week, is that things definitely are not always as they seem. My father, Rev. John Rankin, hosted Jeremiah Wright in Mars Hill Forum #139, November 6, in Milford, CT. The focus of the evening: “The Bible, Race, and American History: What are the Issues?” Earlier in the year, my father saw in Dr. Wright his clear theological and pastoral interests, which were far deeper than the sound-bites taken out of context.

Many of the 700 or so attendees were expecting to see some resemblance to the fiery and inflammatory preacher depicted in the media clips. In this regard, they and the host of media were most likely disappointed. However, the very open-minded audience instead saw a soft-spoken theologian and pastor of 41 years, an advocate for racial reconciliation and equality (if you can believe that), and one who unashamedly confesses Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior.

Those elements, as well as Dr. Wright and my father’s main points, were mostly not covered by the media. Instead, if you happened to catch any of the national media coverage, you might have thought that the evening was about Wright vindicating his name and lashing out at the media.

The truth is that those much played sound-bites from evening’s forum (which whole stories and talk-shows built their discussion around), totaled but a few minutes in response to audience questions. The bulk of the evening dealt with the more substantial issues of religion and race – the passion that is closer to the core of who Dr. Wright really is. But such reasoned discourse does not usually make for headline news.

After the forum, later that night at a restaurant, Dr. Wright showed an AP wire report he received on his phone to my father. As he did, he sighed, and commented on why he has so little trust in the media. My father, in turn, was also amazed at how the report “bore little resemblance to reality, playing instead to established stereotypes.”

Earlier that night, while arriving at the forum, Dr. Wright was chased down by one media program as we got out of the car. I felt that the reporter was simply trying to agitate him and elicit some controversial comment. One question, given in an antagonistic manner, which they did not air, was “Rev. Wright, now that Obama is president, is it still God-damn America?!”

Should we be surprised that Dr. Wright is a bit skeptical of the media, which has offered him little in the way of good faith? Consider also the very human side of the equation, of what his family has had to endure, and the hate mail and death threats.

Do I think Dr. Wright should explain his controversial comments? Yes, of course. Any public figure should. But that also requires the willingness to listen and understand his perspective. Wright has tried to explain that his comments were taken out of context. But in the busy campaign season the listening media ear has been absent.

Regardless of where we might agree or disagree with the theology and the politics, the wisdom and choice of words, in Wright’s post 9-11 message, can we at least listen to his explanation that he is offering? – That he was emphasizing forgiveness instead of the all too easy retaliatory hatred toward one’s enemies?

Dr. Wright also comes from a culture and history in the black church that most of us don’t understand. Might we seek to understand that identity and history before we make our final judgment? My father offers these words:

“In contrast with those who care to demonize people they do not know, or who have not sought to listen or understand, I was witness to a different reality. For we who are white, how well can we conceive of what it is to walk in the shoes of a people who have known the dehumanizing and murderous centuries of chattel slavery and racism? Or of the deep emotions that continue to resonate as a result? Dr. Wright said to me that the wire report made no mention of his main presentation points, nor of mine. This witness ratified for me the need for the proactive to overcome the reactive in our public life.”

With the election is over, my prayer is that people might give Dr. Wright a second chance. In a public world full of transgression, have we lost the ability to forgive or ask for forgiveness, to love and treat with respect even those we may perceive as enemies? Can we operate in good faith until stories are given a full chance to be heard?

Jesus said it simply: “Love your enemies” and “forgive, just as you have been forgiven.” But have we instead condemned and rendered the Gospel obsolete from the public world, allowing sound-bite driven media and politics to dominate? Or is it still possible to embody the heart of the Gospel and transform the way in which we conduct our public life in media, politics, and outward?

The Six Pillars of Honest Politics, the heart of my father’s 25 years of public-policy ministry, says yes. And this forum sought to exemplify the power of the Gospel in our mostly unforgiving public sphere. Can we who are followers of Christ, working together as his one body, catch a vision for the power of the Gospel in our public sphere? I wholeheartedly believe yes and amen. Yes and amen.