I was tired of hearing Jeremiah Wright, so I started reading him. This did not improve matters. In his books I found mainly (in the words of one of his admirers) "Africentric Christian manhood," a panic about the situation of the African American male raised into a truculent paranoid theology. There are many expressions of love in Wright's preaching, but only for his own, which is not love's strongest test. In 1991, he inaugurated a series of sermons honoring Martin Luther King Jr., with a sermon called "Full of the Holy Spirit"- -the next one in the series was "The Audacity to Hope"--in which there appears this flourish: "Don't let anybody trick you into thinking Minister Louis Farrakhan is your enemy. He ain't the enemy. Any African man who can clean folks up, get them off of dope, get them in school, get them reading instead of rapping, get them building each other up, is not the enemy. ... Some folks are tricky. They will try to make you choose between Malcolm and Martin. Don't you let them. ... And they are not going to make me choose between Minister Jackson and Minister Farrakhan. When Jesse is right, he's my friend; when Louis is right, he is my friend. When Jesse is wrong, he is still my friend; when Louis is wrong, he is still my friend. You don't give up a friendship because you have a disagreement. That ain't no friend!" Except for the tenderness toward Farrakhan, this is reminiscent of Barack Obama's legendary Philadelphia speech: everybody is somewhat right; loyalties are unshaken by philosophies; differences are distractions in an hour of crisis. I do not doubt that the life prospects of African Americans in the inner cities constitute an hour--no, an era--of crisis, an American disgrace. I see why hopeless people are tempted by the social benefits of fascism, but I do not see why they succumb to the temptation, because nothing will determine their way through life more than what they believe, and Farrakhan's beliefs doom them to isolation and despair.
Is pride everything? What has race to do with truth? Is it really so hard to choose Martin over Malcolm? Anyway, Wright's tribute to Farrakhan's service to black literacy is vitiated by an extraordinary riff in another sermon in the series, called "Faith in a Foreign Land," in which he denounces the usurpation of African traditions by "Babylonian," or Western, traditions in the education of "exiles," or African Americans: "These exiles became schooled in Babylonian literature, from Beowulf to Virginia Wolfe [sic], and their heritage was wickedly wiped away from the tissues of their memory banks. They became skilled in Babylonian philosophy from Descartes to Meister Eckhart, from Immanuel Kant to Jean Paul Sartre, from existentialism to nihilism, from the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx to the wissenschaftlichkeit [sic] of Martin Heidegger. " This whole passage is a little sic. To mock Shakespeare, in a black church in Chicago, as "Babylonian Shakespearean literature"--that is nihilism. To exclude young African Americans from the mental ambition represented by such books is to defeat them. I first heard the preaching of Jeremiah Wright in 1989. The sermon was called "Premature Autopsies," it was written by Stanley Crouch, and it appeared on a powerful record by Wynton Marsalis called The Majesty of the Blues. In that sermon Wright lauded "the slow, painful development demanded of serious study." They were sterling words, but they were not the reverend's own.
But I have the pulpit now, so quiet down, brothers and sisters, and listen up. Our text for this morning's homily is the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Bathra 12a, wherein it is stated: "Rabbi Yohanan said: From the day the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken away from prophets and given to children and to fools." And there is more in the same unenraptured vein: "words of prophecy" is a rabbinical euphemism for nonsense, and in the age after prophecy, which is our age, "a wise man is preferable to a prophet." I cite these counsels of downward metaphysical adjustment because I am weary of being told that fevered demagogues such as Wright are "prophetic." If he is a prophet then I am a sibyl. There is no more empty or abused word in contemporary American theology than "prophetic." It hallows all kinds of absurdities and calumnies. Is it prophetic to proclaim that the government loosed aids upon the black community? If so, it is false prophecy.
Yet here is Cornel West, camp follower of all false prophets, including Wright: "The distinctive features of prophetic activity are Pascalian leaps of faith in the capacity of human beings to transform their circumstances, engage in relentless criticism and selfcriticism, and project visions, analyses, and practices of social freedom." Or more concretely, "populist, feminist, trade- unionist, socialist, or Red, Green, and Black politics." What Bible does this son of man read? But contemporary prophecy, you see, is another name for the left. The equally countercultural wrath of John Hagee or Pat Robertson is not "critique." Whereas Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, James Cone, Audre Lorde, Maulana Karenga--they are prophets all. Was prophecy ever so easy? An anti-Petraeus piece in The Nation, a jibe at the Patriot Act on Bill Maher, a rant at the National Press Club, and you are vatic. West also includes himself in the swelling population of the seers: in the eighth century B.C.E., Amos declared that he was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but in the twentieth century C.E., Cornel West declared, in the titles of two of his own books, that he is himself prophetic. Progressivism and the ego: now there is a subject! Sure, there are features of the prophetic temperament that Wright and the other Jeremiahs share--the unceasing excitation, the wild hyperbole, the fantastic promise of total transformation, the impervious radicalism, the imputation of personal election; but these are features of style. What distinguished the ancient prophets (if you believe these things) is that they enjoyed direct access to the godhead. Even their universal vision of social justice owed its authority to a supernatural revelation. But to whom do our prophets speak, except to each other and Bill Moyers? So praise the Lord, because He does not speak to us, so that we may not be intimidated in the use of our minds, and have a nice week.
By Leon Wieseltier