South African liberation theologian and anti-Apartheid activist Allan Boesak recently offered a blistering critique of former U.S. President Barack Obama, comparing the popular politician to biblical tyrants like Pharaoh and Herod. Boesak delivered his comments in response to Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, in which Obama attacks his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who suffered a stroke in 2016 that left him confined to a wheelchair
“Why would this powerful, famous, rich, influential man need to not just spend time in the book on Jeremiah Wright but attack him the way he did?” said Boesak, a former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, in comments last month. “Barack Obama can write bestsellers without even once mentioning Jeremiah’s name. But he doesn’t. That name continues to bother him.”
Wright served as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, for 36 years and retired in 2008 just as Obama, a member of the church, sought the presidency. Wright, whose father was a Baptist minister in Pennsylvania, performed the Obamas’ wedding, baptized their children, and gave a sermon that inspired the title of Obama’s 2006 memoir The Audacity of Hope.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, controversy emerged as national media outlets aired short snippets from a couple of Wright’s sermons in which he criticized American government and society for military violence and racism. The often out-of-context clips played on loop on cable opinion shows and in political ads. The Obamas moved their membership from the church during the campaign controversy.
Over the past month, Republicans have revived clips of Wright to use in political ads against Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, who is running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate in a runoff election on Jan. 5. In addition to using clips of Wright, some Republicans have also attacked clips of Warnock preaching at the church where Martin Luther King Jr. once served as pastor alongside his father.
Boesak noted that Obama criticized Wright for mentioning contemporary issues like American militarism, greed of capitalism, and societal racism in sermons. While Obama suggested these comments didn’t belong when discussing biblical texts, Boesak insisted that “any preacher worth her salt must” apply the texts.
“The problem is that Jeremiah Wright, in his critique on American empire, was as offensive as Jesus was to the empire of his day. And since Barack Obama cannot get at Jesus, he attacks Jeremiah Wright,” Boesak said. “The rewards of empire were too rich. And that, in my view, is why Barack Obama cannot leave Jeremiah Wright alone. That is why one of the most powerful men in America, still strutting the world stage, remains obsessed with a preacher in a wheelchair.”
“While the politician is bound to the desires of the party and its donors — and in America’s case, to the desires and ambitions and the workings of the American Empire — the preacher is bound to the words of the prophet Micaiah: ‘As the LORD lives, whatever the LORD says to me, that shall I speak,’” Boesak added.
Boesak said what worries rulers like Herod — or Obama — is a prophet who has “the perspicuity to discern, the power to confront, the boldness to expose, the courage to hold accountable, the resilience to suffer for what is right, the fearlessness to judge between right and wrong, the faithfulness to hold up the difference so the people can see and judge and make choices.”
“That is the power that terrifies the empire,” Boesak added. “[Obama’s] book will come and go. The American empire will crumble and fall. What remains is the fire of truth and power. And that is a fire no water can put out.”
Quoting Obama calling Wright a “erudite, middle-aged, light-skinned Black man” seeking “street cred,” Boesak argued Obama dismisses Wright’s critique of issues like military interventions — which Boesak noted Obama increased over the previous administration — without evidence but with personal attacks.
“Arrogant power does not stop at flatly denying the truth. They have to go further, smothering it with haughty mockery, choking it with presidential ridicule, leaving it no room to breathe,” Boesak said of Obama. “In a denigration pronounced from the throne of Pharaoh, all the Black struggle for freedom, dignity, and life, all the suffering and pain, all the sacrifices and blood, all the glorious resilience because of a faith always under siege, always threatened but never conquered, all that is diminished, trivialized, and delegitimized.”
Boesak, whose various positions have included a stint at American Baptist Seminary of the West (now known as Berkeley School of Theology) in Berkley, California, is the author of nearly 20 books. Although a celebrated activist, minister, and politician in South Africa, he also sparked controversies such as when he faced charges of fraud that sent him to prison for a year — though he later received a presidential pardon. In 2014, he keynoted a New Baptist Covenant luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s general assembly.