After puzzling over why Wright would do the Moyers interview when it seemed the story was dying (albeit a slow and agonizing death), after watching some extended sections from the NAACP talk, and after hearing sections of Obama's reaction, it seems apparent that Wright's comments (a) further wounded a sheep in his care--this time personally, and (b) perhaps revealed a level of pride and lacking discernment. The former pastor is obviously wrong, compounding those wrongs, and appears irreverent about it.
It's a cautionary tale for us younger pastors. Here's a man that's served the same congregation over thirty years, who has no doubt learned many things in that time. He's perhaps forgotten more than I know. And yet, when he is supposed to be retired and out of the public light, seems so taken with himself and his view of the world that he'd beat the sheep rather than feed them and risk overturning perhaps the most significant bid for the presidency in American history.
The lessons are legion. Here are five from my perspective:
1. Feed the sheep, feed the sheep, feed the sheep. For the sake of argument, even if Obama was wrong in his Philadelphia comments where Wright was concerned, the appropriate response from the pastor isn't a series of interviews but Galatians 6:1-2, gently pulling the erring brother aside. Insofar as Wright still regarded himself as the stronger brother and Obama's pastor, he was obligated to bear with the weak (Rom. 14:1; 15:1-3) and to teach with all patience (2 Tim. 4:2). This, no doubt, is easier said than done when we're feeling personally attacked. But our call to heal and lead the sheep trumps our "right" to self-defense.
2. Be willing to suffer reproach for doing good. Wright sees himself as a servant of the marginalized and oppressed, a role he asserts Jesus assumed. If he really believed that, he should willingly and joyfully suffer for doing good (1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:13-17). To this we are called. While I think Wright's theological and political commitments are wrong-headed, his life illustrates for me the importance of my being willing to suffer for what I think is right--the Lord, the gospel and the sheep.
3. Think carefully about a separation of church and state principle in my own ministry and public comments on public issues. This, I think, is a serious weakness in some quarters of American Christianity, with social gospels on the left and the right. Wright interprets the critical comments in response to his sermons as an attack on the black church. The comments fueling all of this were pretty clearly political comments, not gospel, Christian, or church-related comments. That he doesn't see the distinction is quite alarming. Now he is in the public square assuming that his detractors at the least don't understand the entire black church and at worst are anti-black church. Whenever or if ever I am called to speak on some public issue, I need to do the hard work of knowing where the Bible stops speaking, where my opinion begins, and where either state concerns are over-running more fundamental biblical concerns or vice-versa.
4. Seek counsel before speaking. That hardly needs any elaboration, except to say that on stages as large as this, and on a thousand smaller ones, we either help the cause of Christ by speaking well or hinder it by speaking poorly. "No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:8). Surely we should count the costs before waging war, seek counsel before advancing plans. And beyond seeking counsel, heeding it. I can't imagine that any godly persons advised Wright to make these appearances, or they did that Wright kept their counsel. A good rule of thumb I learned in a different context: if you seek someone's counsel and you decide to do something other than what they counsel, at least make yourself accountable to the counselor and the counsel by advising the counselor that (a) you're going to do something different than what was counseled, (b) the reasons why, and (b) before you act.
5. Pray and war against pride. I don't want to judge Wright. I don't know the man's heart or motives in all of this. But it looks like the same kind of pride that lurks in my heart, seeking to control the assessments I make of myself, my own importance and influence, and my reaction to situations and people who don't think more highly of me than they do themselves. It's been said a lot. And most of us have read or heard C.J. and others on the dangers of pride. But is it not ever with us? Does it not always threaten us, our relationships, and even our ministries? Had Wright never said a word in his own defense, many people would have judged his life of ministry on a wider set of factors, some favorable and some not. But now, it seems pride may have ruined a reputation after the public ministry was completed. It can do as much and more damage in all of our lives.
Here's what I pray I would have said if I were forced to do a Press Club event in Wright's situation. I realize I have all the benefits of not being in the situation and the seemingly better sight that comes from Monday morning quarterbacking. And, it's a strange thing to confess another's sins. But Wright's flaws are so nearly my own, or so peculiar to the preaching ministry, that it's worth thinking through as though they had been my comments. So, here goes:
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you with regard to a number of issues drawing national attention, comment, and even anger. I realize that I don't deserve this platform to speak to you, and I don't take for granted the trust I am called to exercise as a minister and preacher of the gospel and a community servant.
"Much could be said in an attempt to explain the comments aired on YouTube and various media outlets. But explanation is not nearly as important as repentance.
"I want to make full and public repentance for my comments, which includes (a) denouncing those comments, (b) offering apology and, where possible, restitution for those comments, and (c) disassociating my sins from innocent and affected parties.
"For thirty years I have warned my congregation and many visitors to TUCC about the dangers of sin, the deceitfulness of sin, and the need for the atoning work of Christ to be applied to each person because of their sin. That atonement is appropriated through repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Son of God, Jesus Christ, who in His crucifixion satisfied God the Father's holy anger against sin. That includes sins of speech, like the words I spoke during those sermons. Those comments were careless, inaccurate, insensitive, divisive... in a word, sinful. Without rationalization or attempts at justification, I do now denounce and disavow these specific comments and phrases....
"I also wish to offer unfeigned apology to all those harmed by my comments. The numbers of such people is too large to list them all, even by demographic groups. But I do wish to apologize specifically to the members of Trinity UCC, fellow Christians around the world whose love for and association with the Savior has been hindered in any way, and citizens of the United States of America. Jesus Christ is meek and lowly in heart. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoking wick. Those are characteristics that should mark His people, especially His ministers. Those characteristics are not found in my comments. For that, I am ashamed and deeply sorry. I wish to apologize to anyone hurt by my remarks.
"Finally, I would like to make it clear that my comments were my comments. They were not the official position of TUCC and they do not represent the opinions and commitments of every individual member of TUCC, including my dear brother, Sen. Barack Obama.
"Attempts have been made to characterize Sen. Obama as basically sympathetic to my comments simply because he is a 20-year member of TUCC. As any pastor can tell you, not every member agrees with every position a pastor holds. And as a pastor with enough humility to admit that his opinions and sermons are not flawless presentations of God's word and truth, I am frankly quite pleased that members of TUCC, including Sen. Obama, have enough discernment and integrity to distance themselves from anything I may say that does not well represent Christ and/or their understanding of the Lord's word. In an effort to serve such members, to affirm and protect their integrity and freedom of conscience, it is important that my comments be viewed as my comments and that individual members of Trinity not be unduly and unfairly associated with views they themselves have never shared.
"I know Sen. Barack Obama to be.... And I pray that the American people would judge him by the content of his character, and not by the content of my sermons.
"Thank you for the opportunity to share these comments. As you know, I entered retirement from the pastorate and public ministry in January of this year. It's my plan to enjoy that retirement and to leave behind these things and to press toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. May the Lord bless you and keep you."