Jeremiah Wright & Phil Robertson
If you’re not interested in Duckgate, then please move on. I blog about the intersection of religion and culture. This story is exactly the kind of thing I like to talk about and to think about. Hence all the posts.
I’m reading a forthcoming book on Dante, called Reading Dante, by Prue Shaw of Cambridge University. She’s one of the world’s leading Dante scholars. The book is an introduction to Dante for the general reader. It is exactly what you want as a beginner, and I heartily recommend it (and will be saying more about it later). Today I read a passage in which Shaw criticizes the habit of medieval commentators to reduce the Commedia as “an encyclopedia of sin and virtue.
They downplay the narrative aspect of the text — what Dante did on the journey, and experience that profoundly changed him. They emphasise instead the reporting aspect — what Dante saw on the journey. What he saw is an orderly hierarchy of sins and punishments, reflecting an intellectual system which commands our understanding, rather than a psychological experience which engages our emotions.
This, Shaw maintains, is to get Dante all wrong. The attentive reader will observe that Dante is changed by the nature of his journey — by the interiority of his pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. For Dante, the pilgrim of the poem, his salvation came not from an experience akin to reading a theology textbook, but from giving his entire self over to the journey of transformation.
What does this have to do with Duckgate? Well, aside from the fact that Dante has to do with everything as far as I’m concerned, I’ll tell you.
I have not read any of the Duck family books, and I’ve only seen the show a few times, but from I know of Phil Robertson’s journey, the thing that saved him from the Hell of drug and alcohol addiction was an earth-shaking religious experience. He is a man with a very strong personality, who had some powerful personal demons binding him. It took a powerful, elemental kind of religion to save him. When I was in college, a friend who interned at a psychological rehab center for troubled teens told me that without fail, all the teens who had burned out in the occult had become fundamentalist Christians of some sort. My friend figured that their prior experiences were so traumatizing that only strong medicine gave them a sense of security, of stability. I don’t know what Phil Robertson’s life was like when he was lost in drugs and booze, but if a man is drowning on a storm-tossed sea, a life preserver made of tissue paper will not pull him out of the tempest.
I don’t say this as a theological commentary on Robertson’s beliefs, but rather as speculation on the psychological and emotional roots of the style and content of the Christianity that pulled Robertson out of his own Hell. Stay with me here.
Back in 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president, the world was introduced to his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. We learned from the fatherless Obama that it was the Rev. Wright who led him to Jesus, and set him on the right path. We subsequently learned that the pastor was a pretty outrageous racist. Like many conservatives, I had a conniption over this, and what I believed (and do believe) is a liberal double standard on racial bigotry, namely how we have to “understand” bigotry by people like Wright, but condemn it without qualification when it comes from a white person.
I still object to that double standard, but I came to realize that I really did have an obligation to try to understand why a man like Jeremiah Wright would have come to believe the hateful, crackpot things he does about white people. Wright is 72 years old — five years older than Phil Robertson, as a matter of fact. He lived through, and his views were formed by, years of segregation and racist abuse. The wonder is not that Jeremiah Wright exists; the wonder is that the times and its people didn’t make more like him. I think there is no excuse for an intelligent American Christian in the 21st century to hold such crude racialist views. But could I really say that I would have been all that different if my journey had been Jeremiah Wright’s journey? I don’t know. I really don’t. Do you?
Similarly, can you say with complete confidence that you would have been different if you had walked Phil Robertson’s walk? I can’t.
It is very hard for people to overcome the formative experiences they had along the road of their lives, and to see beyond them. In my own case, two years of bullying — almost all of it psychological — so marked me that I wasn’t able to reconcile myself to living in my hometown until the middle of my life, in the wake of a traumatic event: the death of my sister. And even still, the events of those two years, the worst of my life, color my reactions to all kinds of things. This is why I burned out as a Catholic over the sex abuse scandal: my experiences earlier in my life were impossible to overcome, and the internal tensions generated by those experiences and what I was learning about the way my beloved Church was run were too much for me to bear. So I broke.
What does this tell us about Wright and Robertson — and of Dante? That human beings are not machines. What is best and what is worst in us comes out of the meeting of our minds and our hearts, of our thoughts with our experiences. If fundamentalist Christianity rescued Phil Robertson from his self-created Hell, is it really so hard to understand why he would become a fierce exponent of it? I don’t have to share his theology to understand why he embraced it. Similarly, is it really so difficult to understand why Jeremiah Wright embraced his false gospel? I certainly don’t share his theology — in fact, I repudiate it — but after considering what he had been through, I had a lot more sympathy for him.
And I also had more sympathy for Barack Obama. The Rev. Wright was a father figure to him. He had accompanied Obama on a journey that led him to faith. In the nationally televised speech on race he gave in the wake of the Wright controversy, candidate Obama said:
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
This is exactly right. Obama refused to disown Wright, even though he denounced Wright’s racist views. Eventually, Wright’s own obstreperousness forced Obama to cut all ties. The important thing here is that we don’t learn about right and wrong, and how to act, by disinterested moral reflection. Most of us learn these things most of the time through the act of pilgrimage, in the company of others.
I first learned about Jesus at the Methodist church — a church I left as an adult, but which I could not denounce (even as I disagree with some of its doctrines), because to do so would be an act of ingratitude and impiety. My faith became real to me as an adult, and I was rescued from a small but real Hell I had made for myself, through the Roman Catholic Church. Despite everything else that eventually happened, I cannot denounce the Roman church, because like the Methodist Church, it helped make me who I am, and helped me on my journey towards repentance and restoration. There are a thousand and one things wrong with the Orthodox Church, but by now, I hope I’ve learned enough about life and human frailty to be wise in my judgments; after all, there are more things wrong with me than with the Orthodox Church.
Along these lines, I learned so very much that is true and good from the culture in which I was raised. It also had some very serious blind spots, which I came to see in it and in myself when I left. I came to appreciate how difficult it is to be aware of what you don’t know if you never leave your culture. The good things I learned from my years away — in DC, south Florida, NYC, Dallas, and Philly — helped me on my journey. As did the flaws of those places and their people.
The point — and I do have one, somewhere in this! — is that you cannot expect flesh and blood human beings to be “an orderly hierarchy of sins and punishments, reflecting an intellectual system.” They are — we all are — where we have been. It is hard to know when to take a strong stand on principle (moral, theological, political), and when to yield to empathy. When is justice required, and when is mercy? This is where wisdom comes in.
I remind you of the much-appreciated rebuke that Charles H. Featherstone gave me when I criticized Pope Francis for being squishy. From that great letter (which is now going to be the core of a book):
I hit the ground and was bullied and abused by teachers and fellow students (in addition to being abused at home) almost from the beginning. It was incessant. I lived with violence (my father was physically violent at times) at home and violence at school. I’m going to ask you to try and imagine what it is like to not be safe at home and not be safe at school. To live with that for several years. To live with being belittled and threatened and beat up and flogged and constantly being told you are stupid (that last bit was something my fifth grade teacher, as close to being a monster as I have ever met; she did worse, and not just to me). I am one of the few people I’ve ever met who actually enjoyed Junior High School, mostly because most of my tormentors went elsewhere, and because I finally fought back against those who still thought I was prey.
But they made an outsider of me, those kids, those teachers, those places. High School wasn’t abusive, but I didn’t have many friends. Truth is, I felt unwanted. Really, truly, horrifically unwanted.
And I was angry. Perhaps you know angry, perhaps you don’t. I don’t know. But given all the violence I found myself receiving, I blamed the world I was in, the people who surrounded me, hypocrites all, believing themselves to be so good and yet being so cruel and so callous. I was lucky, neither of my parents was particularly religious, and so God was never a part of abuse. But the Christians I met, meh, most of them were cruel in one form or another. Being Christian didn’t make them kinder human beings.
It was simple, really, though at the time I could not quite put it into these words — if the people round me didn’t want me, then I was not going to be a part of them.
Featherstone became a radical Muslim, because it was the radical Muslims who, by accepting him into their community, gave him a sense of belonging, and a focus for his anger. Eventually, he would become a Christian, because of a word of love heard under the burning Twin Towers, and proclaimed in turn by some liberal Protestants. It brought him out of the world of hate.
Does anything that happened to young Charles Featherstone justify his anger and hatred? No. Does it justify or otherwise make right the teachings of radical Islam? Absolutely not. But there is no way to understand why this man believed the things he did, and was saved the way he was saved, without understanding his biography, and the contours of his journey through the dark wood and all that followed. Same with Jeremiah Wright. Same with Phil Robertson.
We all want understanding when it comes to ourselves and those we love and identify with, but want to crucify everybody else on the straight and merciless lines of an intellectual system. You do this too. So do I. We have to figure out a way to tell the truth as we see it, and to live by the truth as we see it, but also to abide in love and mercy.