I have written about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in these pages before (4/14). In that column I proposed that the former pastor of Barack Obama at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ is best judged, not by two-minute video clips, but by a full reading of his sermons delivered in the prophetic tradition. It seems the problem is deeper than that.
At the end of April, Pastor Wright appeared before the National Press Club, accompanied by what seemed to be hundreds of allies in the gallery, and made a presentation so embarrassing that Senator Obama had to distance himself fully from the preacher. The most disturbing aspect of the affair was the way Wright was playing to the crowd, rolling his eyes and grinning as he showed little respect for the moderator and her questions. The preacher is not only a problem for Obama. The preacher is also a problem for himself.
He is not alone. Two prominent evangelical clergymen presented problems for Senator John McCain. At a campaign appearance earlier this year, Pastor Rod Parsley was introduced by McCain as “one of the truly great leaders in America, a moral compass, a spiritual guide.” Parsley has also appeared on a DVD claiming, “Islam is an anti-Christ religion that intends through violence to conquer the world.” He believes as well that America “was founded with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed.” The Rev. John Hagee of Texas, whose endorsement was sought by McCain, has called the Catholic Church “a great whore” and “a false cult system.” McCain rejected the words and eventually the endorsements.
Obama wound up leaving his church of 20 years. It was not Pastor Wright who precipitated the move, but a Catholic priest, Michael Pfleger, who delivered a turkey in Wright’s former congregation. Although calling his sermon-ridicule of Senator Clinton a “conversation” that he presumed was not being taped, Pfleger’s performance was a full-blown comedic put-down of Clinton’s tearful moment in New Hampshire—not because she was losing, but because Obama is black. His mocking, handkerchief-waving, tear-wiping flamboyance were there for all to see. It was a mess.
I had a different impression of Father Pfleger, based on his tireless efforts to get gun control in Chicago, stop gang crime and confront racism (which he sincerely considers a primal sin) and also from taped sermons sent to me by one of his parishioners (a white professional woman) who had found consolation in his vibrant parish community.
The upshot of Father Pfleger’s performance is that Obama has resigned from his church. As for Pfleger, he has resigned from all Obama support groups and reluctantly obeyed Cardinal Francis George’s demand that he take a temporary leave from the parish of St. Sabina, where he has been for 24 years.
I sympathize with Father Pfleger, despite his silly performance. He is 59. He has been a priest for 33 of those years, most of them at St. Sabina. As is clear from a Chicago Sun Times article by Cathleen Falsani, he is anguished by the aftereffects of his raving at Trinity. He thinks the world hates him. Worse, he admits that he has profoundly wounded the parish (which still supports him) to which he has given most of his life. “I’ve spent my life trying, No. 1, to serve God, and to build up this faith community.... I don’t want to hurt this church. I don’t want to hurt these people, who are at their jobs and workplaces having to defend their pastor.” He wrote a painful apology to his people (available on the parish Web site) for the words he used and for “my dramatization.” He called the Clinton campaign to apologize. But it was done.
Neither Pfleger nor the other three pastors are crazy persons. But they do have problems of their own. And they are the problems of the preacher. The preacher’s main temptation is in the preaching. In that wholly unmerited position and opportunity, in the context of sacred word, worship and sacrament, one is attended to, listened to by believers. There is a terrible seduction in this. One can preach to the choir and hear a chorus of approval.
As a preacher myself, I know there are few moments to compare with the affection and approval of parishioners after Mass, especially if you have been helpful in strengthening their faith. But the most distressing moment for me was the one homily I gave that evoked applause. Of course, it was gratifying; but it was disturbing. What was the applause for? The Gospel? The Eucharist? Maybe the stirring indictment of both church and state? Or for me?
There are many styles of preaching. But I have always felt a suspicion of styles that call too much attention to the preacher, whether by extravagant display or studied hyperbole. This becomes particularly dangerous when “preaching to the choir,” who applaud your indictments of everyone but the choir.
The priest preacher is a mediator. The danger is that the mediator can become the message. If the preacher is short on self-knowledge and personal restraint, his own preaching becomes, sadly, more important even than the Eucharist itself or, in non-eucharistic congregations, more important than even the Gospel. The preacher becomes the message. And that is disastrous.
The disaster finally hit Father Pfleger and the parish he loves. It also wounded Barack Obama. In the senator’s search for a new faith community, I hope he finds a church that nourishes his faith and family. I hope, also, he finds a preacher who is more into the Gospel than he is into his performance.