Is there a double standard when it comes to hate speech? What's the difference between Sally Kern's anti-gay tirade and Jeremiah Wright's anti-America tirade? Kern compared gays to terrorists and cancer; Wright said, "God damn America," blamed whites for a conspiracy to facilitate black drug use and fill up private prisons, and even suggested that AIDS was a plot by the government to exterminate blacks. So, what's the difference?
Letters about my statements have pounced on this, claiming hate speech is free speech someone doesn't like. Since Wright is my colleague and a member of my denomination, his speech is acceptable, while Kern's deserves condemnation. He is a liberal, Kern is a conservative, and I'm a hypocrite. Case closed.
Think again. Both Kern and Wright claim that God is on their side, and both identify threats to the country they love. Both are also offensive to certain groups for different reasons. But Wright speaks as a black man in the black church, out of the experience of racism that is America's original sin. Kern speaks as a part of the white majority power structure, and for a party that has used race to divide and conquer. Her invectives are directed not at unjust systems like government and law enforcement, but at human beings who face discrimination and rejection because of their sexual orientation.
I would never say "God damn America" in the pulpit anymore than I would burn an American flag, but nobody has ever lynched one of my relatives, or hated me just for the color of my skin. Wright's attack on what the Bible calls the "principalities and powers" is as biblical as the Old Testament prophet after whom he is named " the one who once called Israel a "whore," a "harlot" and a donkey in heat, just to get the people's attention.
Do I think the government has engineered a system to imprison more blacks? No, but then why was the penalty for possessing crack cocaine in the ghetto a hundred times worse than for possessing power cocaine in the suburbs? Do I think AIDS was created by our government to kill blacks? No, but when that same government used blacks as human laboratory animals in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, it made a lasting impression.
When Wright dares to ask what we have done to cause others to hate us so much, especially with regard to Sept. 11, he does something as dangerous and offensive as the biblical prophets we love after they are dead. In the church, we call this "speaking truth to power." What Kern did was speak hate toward the powerless to raise money for her campaign.
To rail against oppressive systems that dehumanize and oppress is what prophets have always done. To compare a group of people to terrorists and cancer is to participate in the process of dehumanization. That's not prophetic preaching; it's pathetic preaching.
When Wright preached a sermon about America's capacity for evil, he said that we have become blind to our own misdeeds, and yet we want everyone to say, "God bless America!" Then, like his namesake in the Bible, he said the most shocking thing he could say to wake us up.
He called for no violence, compared no one to despicable things and never claimed to be speaking for God " only for black Americans, who have been abused, neglected, cheated, killed and continually treated as second-class citizens. Then he went back to his full-time job " helping the poor on Chicago's South Side. Kern should visit Wright's church. She might meet Jesus there.
Meyers is minister of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and a professor at Oklahoma City University.