Reverend Jeremiah Wright has spent the last several days carefully placing himself within the prophetic tradition of African American religion. I attempted to place him in this same context here on The Root when I explained that he, like the biblical Jeremiah, is among the truth tellers who regularly warn the government that divine destruction is imminent if the nation continued to oppress the powerless.
Over the past few days Reverend Wright has reminded me of another biblical prophet: Jonah.
Most of us remember Jonah from our grade school Sunday school classes as the compelling and mysterious man trapped inside a great fish. But we may have forgotten why Jonah was swallowed by the fish.
Here is a quick recap of the story. God comes to Jonah, who is a prophet and a righteous man. He tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, which is in the east, and preach to the people. Upon hearing the voice of God, Jonah promptly gets up and goes the opposite direction. He goes west. Why would a prophet do the opposite of what God tells him to do? Well the people of Nineveh are not Jonah's people, and he does not want to talk to them. So he gets on a ship going in the opposite direction.
We know what happens next. Jonah finds himself in the midst of a terrible storm. He knows that God is angry with his refusal to answer the call to go east, so he tries to flee by throwing himself into the sea. At this point God sends the big fish that swallows Jonah and takes him directly to the spot that God told him to go to in the first place!
Even after being shown the utter absurdity of resisting the call of the Lord, Jonah still resists. God tells Jonah to ask the people of Nineveh to turn from evil. Jonah instead tells them that God will destroy their nation.
Then something amazing happens. When the people of Nineveh hear the prophet they become willing, as a nation, to turn away from evil. Upon seeing their sincerity God spares them.
Does this make Jonah happy? Absolutely not. It irritates him beyond all measure and he goes to the outskirts of the city and pouts. He even tells God that he wishes he were dead rather than having to watch these people be spared from suffering.
Why does this remind me of Reverend Jeremiah Wright? Because I believe he is acting like a reluctant and petulant prophet.
I believe Jeremiah Wright likes preaching to his own people, black people, embraced by the relative comfort of shared knowledge and practice within the African American church. I do not think he wanted to talk to white America or to try to bridge the painful, difficult, often personally brutalizing, racial divide. I believe that he has great and healing things to say to our nation, but that when called to do so he has resisted because he is angry about the evils of racism, imperialism, patriarchy and partisanship.
I believe that Obama's presidential campaign swallowed him whole and delivered him into Nineveh anyway. Like Jonah, when he arrived he chose to bring a message of damnation rather than healing. I believe that right now, Reverend Wright is pouting under a withered vine rather than rejoicing in the possibility that Americans might just find a way to create a multiracial coalition that begins to honor the promise of our nation's founding.
Religious traditions are tricky this way. One day we appear to be the triumphant prophet hurling truth from the mountain. The next day we are fighting with God in an angry fit because our enemies are not trampled beneath our feet.
Jonah is important to remember in the tradition of prophetic witness, because Jonah's story is a humbling text. Jonah reminds us that even prophets are imperfect. Jonah reminds us of what Paul tells Christians in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13: for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face-to-face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
I still believe Reverend Wright represents the best of what black prophetic preaching and worship has done for this country from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr. I also believe that Reverend Wright is currently revealing the fractures of a country so divided by race that we can barely hear one another over our own shouting. I believe that Reverend Wright must remember this humbling lesson that not even prophets can see all of what is possible, that he and we must continue to abide in hope.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.