“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye… and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
Sermon by Jeremiah Wright shortly after 911, 2001
Jeremiah Wright is a name some of us are familiar with. He was involved in the middle of a firestorm after 911. He was also known as President Obama’s preacher. I’m writing both in context of recent preaching about the HK protests and also within the Asian-North American community. While the issues are different, they are equally divisive as the political issues of 2001. I know it’s funny coming from me because I’ve also had my fiery moments on the pulpit, but I hope this case will help preachers everywhere become aware of the pastoral moments even in their prophetic mode.
Now, many years later and raw emotions have died down, Wright isn’t altogether wrong. We know for a fact that many of the weapons used against us were originally supplied through a US pipeline to combat Russian colonialism in Afghanistan. However, when the great evil empire the USSR disintegrated, another enemy surfaced. USA became the enemy. Without going to much into whether all of Wright’s thesis is indeed proven right, I like to think about the preaching lesson we can learn from Wright. The following lessons are important.
Lesson One: Prophetic mode in preaching is dangerous.
Every pastor is a public personality, no matter how small a parish or church s/he is. The words, once they get out, take on a life of their own. Like any mode of speech, the prophetic mode is open to the interpreters. When these words are taken apart, they are quite open to misunderstanding. Without context of worship and the entire context of the church life, those words on paper become as dangerous to the readers as they are to the preacher.
Lesson Two: Timing is almost everything.
Wright took a lot of flak for his remarks, even if he’s completely right. Why? The timing of his sermon probably wasn’t best. If we take his sermon and make it a historical lesson about being careful whom you use politically one hundred years from now, I’m sure its historical interpretation gets high marks. No less important than the venerable church historian Martin Marty gives Wright credit for being contextual to its time and his church ministry. Many preaching and theology professors have also come out later in support of Wright’s work. Not so on that fateful year 2001. That year was particularly vivid for me because after the 911 event, I took two overseas flight, both of them for work. I can tell you that I had the pick of seating on those empty flights. Flying for business was good, but the feeling of getting on the plane and hugging my loved ones before I left couldn’t be worse. I have friends who lost loved ones in the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. I have relatives working near the Pentagon. I have a friend who saw the plane crashing into the Twin Towers. I just wasn’t ready to hear any historical lesson. You can tell me a historical lesson on Columbus’ horrendous dealing with the Native Americans in Hispaniola but not so much about US foreign policy. The timing of Wright’s sermon wasn’t the best. Timing is the factor that brings impact.
Lesson Three: Every sermon has a human face.
When we preach as public figures, we have to understand that the public act of preaching is directed towards human beings. In the 911 event, human emotions were still quite raw. The Americans collectively weren’t open to discuss foreign policy just yet. As a safe bet, every time there’s a disaster, we should refrain from preaching moralistic sermons no matter how right we are. After all, people aren’t always logical. There’re other emotions in the human psyche as well. We have to consider all the other modes of preaching besides the prophetic when preaching. The prophetic mode is probably not suited right after a disaster.
If I were to summarize all that I have said above, what lesson can we learn from Wright’s sermon? The prophetic mode should always be seasoned and harnessed by the pastoral hat. Our pastoral hat demands that we try to understand human beings as complex emotional beings that need more than admonition to get on the way of the gospel. We have to always consider many different modes and moods simply because we’re dealing with humans.