"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" was Henry II's famous question, in 1170, concerning his former friend and political crony, Thomas Becket.
Becket was the king's good friend, having served him well as Lord Chancellor after his abilities first attracted the king's notice. In that office, he helped consolidate Henry's power by collecting the king's traditional land tax from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics. The clergy particularly resented Becket's effectiveness in diminishing some of their power in this way. Becket was so close to Henry that the king entrusted him with the raising of his eldest son, Henry.
Sure of Becket's loyalty, Henry appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, when the office fell vacant. But if he expected Becket to be the king's man inside the Church, he was much mistaken. Becket fell to his new task with a growing dedication to the Church's interests, and quickly found himself in a power-struggle with the king.
Within two years of taking the office, Becket was charged by the crown with contempt of royal authority and malfeasance as Lord Chancellor. Convicted on the charges, Becket stormed out of the trial and the country - fleeing to Europe where he spent six years in exile attempting to persuade the pope to take strong measures against Henry and England.
In 1170, Becket had nearly convinced the pope to excommunicate the whole of England when Henry finally proposed a reconciliation. The two men met outside Paris and personally negotiated a truce that allowed Becket to return to England. Once there, however, he became more strident than ever about the Church's authority and privilege.
When word reached Henry that Becket had excommunicated some who had stood with the king in past disputes, the king roared his frustration in his infamous question, which four of his knights took as a royal command. On December 29, 1170, after speaking with Becket at Canterbury, they slew him inside his church. Within three years, Becket was being venerated as "The hooly blisful martir" (in Chaucer's words) by common folk all across England.
I mention this tale from medieval England because in many respects it resembles the situation in which Democratic Presidential Candidate Barak Obama finds himself with respect to his friend, mentor and long-time pastor, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Nothing indicates that Senator Obama has uttered anything like Henry II's frustrated question, but it would be understandable if he did. The "Wrong Reverend Wright" (as pundits have begun to call him) has become the "turbulent priest" who simply won't shut up - to the consternation of the Obama campaign and the candidate, himself.
After being interviewed on PBS by Bill Moyers, the Rev. Wright appeared before the National Press Club in Washington, DC, where he took questions and expanded on passages lifted from some of his past sermons. He failed to soften the more incendiary and racist statements he had previously made. If anything, he stirred the pot even more - standing by his charges that the USA had brought the 9-11 attacks on itself by fomenting "terrorism" and imperialism across the world. In one statement he compared the U.S. Marines with Roman soldiers who crucified Christ.
As to his earlier charge that the US government had deliberately spread the AIDS virus to kill blacks, the Rev. Wright said he believed our government was "capable of anything". He further claimed that Mr. Obama disagrees with his remarks, publicly, because he is a politician - thereby implying that Mr. Obama actually agrees with the Rev. Wright's incendiary charges.
For his part, Mr. Obama has tried mightily to distance himself from the Wright diatribes. In recent comments to reporters, he said he was offended by some of what the Rev. Wright had said and could understand why the American people were also offended. In Tuesday he came as close as he has ever come to repudiating the Rev's divisive comments. I heard him say that Pastor Wright is hurting him, is hurting his campaign to unite people, and is hurting the country. Yet still he declines to say that he can have nothing more to do with the Rev. Why is this?
There could be several reasons, but two are plausible. First, there is the personal connection - just as between Henry and his boon companion, Tom Becket. A king has many acquaintances who act like friends because of his power and importance. But he doesn't get to have many real friends - those he knows really care for him and share his goals.
The Becket-affair happened 850 years ago, but what shines out from various accounts is the clear sense that the king considered Thomas Becket one of his true friends. They were a real team, in a way that wasn't possible with many - even with his wife, the fiery Eleanor of Acquitaine, whom Henry locked up in a castle for 16 years because she incited his sons to rebel against him. (Even wives played rough in twelfth-century England.)
The Rev. Wright knew Mr. Obama "back in the day" when he was just a young Harvard Law graduate trying to establish a rep as a black community activist. He has been Mr. Obama's friend and mentor for twenty years. By Mr. Obama's own account, his pastor brought him to personal faith, baptized his children, and helped him in his personal life.
Reading between the lines, I surmise that Pastor Wright also acquainted Mr. Obama with Black Liberation Theology - i.e., the Marxist-leaning, white-oppression, black-victimization social "gospel" that characterizes some inner-city black churches. Here was the genuine "blackness" that Mr. Obama needed in order to gain the support of blacks for a political career at the state and national levels.
The darker possibility is that Mr. Obama does agree with the Reverend Wright's radical statements but cannot - as the Rev has intimated - admit it, publicly. Here is where the Henry-Becket analogy appears to break down. Henry and Becket couldn't hold the same positions on church autonomy and independence from the crown, unless one of them set aside his integrity. Henry always knew where he stood. He simply didn't realize that Becket would not align with him, but would take the Church's position instead.
In truth, this is exactly where Mr. Obama finds himself. Whether he agrees with the Rev's inflammatory views or not, he always knew those views couldn't fly as a national platform that would draw whites as well as blacks to support a presidential run. Mr. Obama's error - like Henry's misjudgment about Becket - is that he did not anticipate Pastor Wright's unwillingness to muffle those radical views long enough for Mr. Obama to gain the presidency.
The Rev has his own agenda and his own reputation to build as an in-your-face critic of the "US of KKK-A". He wants to be the new Al Sharpton. It will make him famous and rich. Mr. Obama didn't see that their friendship wasn't deep enough to stop the Rev from pursuing his own purposes. It's very tough to be betrayed by someone you thought was a friend. I almost feel sorry for the senator.
On the other hand, "friendship" with a preacher of hate like The Rev is a little like handling poisonous snakes. You can build some fame with it, but snakes can bite you, unpredictably. In fact, they can kill you. Mr. Obama went a long way with The Rev, but now he has received a serious bite from him. It may be fatal. Old King Hank would understand. You could look it up.