Benedict and Jeremiah

Two very public, very controversial religious leaders have addressed the nation in as many weeks and the differences between them couldn’t be more striking. Pope Benedict, during his stateside visit earlier this month, spoke the truth about American Catholicism with equal parts commendation and critique. His humility and shy grace were evident in his speeches and sermons and in his carriage and demeanor (all of which was a little disconcerting to those who remember when his public persona—fair or not—was that of the rigid, humorless Cardinal Ratzinger).

Jeremiah Wright, on the other hand, has come out swinging. In a series of increasingly hostile speeches he has assumed the pose of the put-upon, the tragically misunderstood. At first he had a point: reducing thirty years of sermons to thirty seconds of incendiary sound bites was irresponsible and misleading and did serious damage to Wright himself, to Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations, and to the (multivalent) tradition of black preaching in America.

But now it’s hard to see much Christ-like grace and forbearance in Wright’s public bitterness and defensiveness. The Christian’s call to absorb the abuse of others is, of course, hard to practice in a culture shaped more by the raw lust for revenge than by the desire for reconciliation. But such a call is no less necessary for being difficult.

I think of Bonhoeffer’s insistence in Life Together on the “discipline of the tongue”: the skill, learned and perfected in Christian community, of knowing when to speak and when to stay silent. While the political pundits and TV talking heads will be preoccupied for awhile with the electoral implications of Wright’s recent words and actions (no silence from that crowd, alas), Christians have a unique opportunity to think deeply and talk honestly about what it means to practice the “ministry of bearing” (Bonhoeffer): to forgo the temptation toward self-preservation, and to practice instead the kind of suffering joy found only in bearing the cross of Christ.

(Originally published Tuesday, April 29, 2008)

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