Judging by Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, Barack Obama’s church seems to be an angry place—angry at white America for the many ways it has held back and held down the black community represented in its congregation. I want to write about one source of that anger—crime and criminal punishment—in another post. For now, I’d just note that one can see something similar in a lot of mostly white evangelical churches. There, the target of white believers’ anger is the secular culture that tolerates and even promotes all manner of evil.
Remember Jerry Falwell's comment about September 11? In a televised conversation with Pat Robertson, Falwell said that the terrorist attacks of that day were the wages of America’s sin—and Robertson said “amen.” Falwell and Robertson weren’t alone in that sentiment. And in the 1980s and 1990s, I heard a number of white evangelicals say that the AIDS epidemic was nothing more than God’s wrath visited on those who indulged in sexual sin and drug use. Sentiments like these are rarely heard from pulpits in white churches (at least, I don’t recall hearing them in any sermons), but I think they’re more commonly held than most Christians would like to think.
Falwell, Robertson, and Jeremiah Wright have a lot in common with each other: their instinctive response to what seems to them a morally blind culture is rage and condemnation. It’s incredibly tempting, but it’s the wrong response. Martin Luther King’s approach is the better one, and the one that is more faithful to orthodox Christian belief. King sought not to condemn the white world that sought to oppress him, though he had good reason to seek precisely that. He didn’t ask for God’s wrath to be poured out on those who persecuted him—on the contrary: he sought fellowship with his oppressors; he wanted to wrap his arms around those who rejected him. That kind of love is redemptive, as King’s life and legacy show. The rage that Falwell, Robertson, and Wright have peddled, by contrast, breeds nothing but more rage. Those propositions are ones that white and black Christians alike get wrong, and frequently.