What if the only thing you knew about Thomas Jefferson was that he owned slaves?
What if, instead of the video of the I Have a Dream speech, elementary school students were taught that Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “My government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world …”?
What if the single piece of information you possessed about Nelson Mandela was that he co-founded a terrorist organization called Umkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as MK), which stands for Spear of the Nation?
With apologies to William Blake, if you believe you can see the world in a grain of sand, you better make sure it is the right grain.
So, how well do the twelve words we know about Jeremiah Wright define the man, the nearly four-decades of ministry, the church he built, the denomination it belongs to, the black community, and whatever else we think he might represent? Are those words the right grain of sand?
The Bill Moyers interview with Wright last Friday night went a long way towards illuminating other dimensions of the man. My father – no fan of lefty politics of any stripe – called me after watching the segment with some surprise in his voice. Perhaps he was expecting Wright to cite Stokely Carmichael as his most important intellectual influence instead of Martin Marty, who is probably the most distinguished scholar of religion in America and the very model of thoughtful moderation.
It was Marty, no doubt wearing his signature bow tie, who inspired Wright when he was a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School to take over a failing church on the far south side of Chicago and make it relevant to the community it was serving.
“Do you know anything about Jeremiah Wright other than those twelve words?” my dad asked.
“A little,” I said. A grain or two of sand’s worth.
When I first moved back to Chicago in late 2001 to start the Interfaith Youth Core, it seemed like I heard Jeremiah Wright’s name mentioned every place I turned. All kinds of people – rich folk and poor folk, traditionalists and progressives, young people and old people, black and white, believers and atheists – told me I had to go see him preach.
Nobody said anything about radical politics or hating America or stirring up a race war. The one word I heard used in reference to Jeremiah Wright over and over again was the word that Martin Marty used to describe his ministry: “Hope”.
Sometime in late 2003, I woke up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to make the long drive down to Trinity from my condo on the north side of Chicago. I arrived an hour early for the service, and still wound up in the balcony.
I remember feeling that the sermon was smart and moving, and I thought Wright had earned his reputation as a man who sent of signals of transcendence with his words.
But here is what I remember most about that morning: At the end of the service, Reverend Wright read aloud a letter that a young woman had sent him. She had grown up in the congregation, was now studying for a PhD in Oceanography, and was writing to thank Reverend Wright and Trinity for all they had done to support her.
This is what we’re about, Jeremiah Wright said, waving the letter from the pulpit, proud enough to be her own father. The congregation cheered wildly.
Maybe that’s the grain of sand that best describes the world of Jeremiah Wright.