Obama's Pastor

March 19, 2008

A lot has been said about Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was Barack Obama's pastor for two decades. Obama even delivered a major speech on race yesterday that dealt with Wright. Hopefully, we will not allow emotion or the ratings-focused cable news talking heads to lead us astray or cause us to miss some important lessons. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts about Wright's comments.

First, it is always important to remember context. Although I will not try to excuse or defend the content of his controversial remarks, it does seem the remarks have been used to paint an unfair caricature of him. As Obama explained well in his speech:

Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Those who know him personally--like Obama--are the most qualified to speak about his beliefs and character. They offer a much different picture than what the news media have sound-bited down for us. The church Wright pastored for 36 years has also publicly offered its support for him. The fact that he was there for 36 years is itself a testimony to his ability to lead and how the people feel about him. Their new pastor explained:
Dr. Wright has preached 207,792 minutes on Sunday for the past 36 years at Trinity United Church of Christ. This does not include weekday worship services, revivals and preaching engagements across America and around the globe, to ecumenical and interfaith communities. It is an indictment on Dr. Wright's ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15- or 30-second sound bite.
I bet most pastors who have preached as much as him could be made to sound bad (although not necessarily as bad nor in the same way). It is time to try and capture a fuller and more accurate assessment of people before we start throwing our sound-bite-driven stones.

Second, it seems that some of the responses to Wright's comments and Obama's speech demonstrate that racism is still a problem in America. Clearly, Wright has a problem here. But so do many of us whites in America who do not seem to understand or care about the situation for those who are part of the minority. Some have attacked Obama for criticizing his grandmother in his speech. However, if we really are going to take a stand against racism, we must fight it in all of its forms. His honesty and reflection is something that all of us should engage in. Perhaps offering the best explanation for the need for more consideration here was former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who stated:
And one other thing I think we've gotta remember. As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say "That's a terrible statement!"...I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack -- and I'm gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you -- we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told "you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus..." And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.
That is some good advice. Perhaps we should try to view the world from the perspective of the other person instead of just judging them. That, of course, cuts both ways as Wright should also attempt it. Huckabee also explained, as one who has preached many sermons, that not everything one says is written and planned and thus some of the controversial remarks by Wright may have been him misspeaking or not explaining himself as well as meant. Hopefully, all of us will make a more serious effort to understand and listen to people instead of simply judging them.

Third, some of the reactions to Wright's comments seem to suggest a modern theology that has submitted itself to nationalistic fervor. Although I do not agree with many of the claims of Wright, he is right to believe that God might just decided to punish and even damn America. We can put on a happy face and sing "God bless America" all we want, but that does not mean America is immune from judgment. Wright's first obligation--as it is for all Christians--is to God and not country. As Christian musician Derek Webb wisely noted in his song "A King & A Kingdom":
my first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man
my first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
it's to a king & a kingdom
Amen! Perhaps it is time for Christians to rediscover the prophetic tradition of the biblical prophets (including one named Jeremiah). It is time for American Christians to be more Christian than American (rather than making our nation an 'American idol'). Some Christian programs, like the "Albert Mohler Program" the other day, have bleeped out the word 'damn' in Wright's statement "God damn America." Although I disagree with his statement, it is in that context a theologically correct word and not a curse word. Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News religion blog explained this point well.

What does all of this mean? Race is still a difficult issue in America, especially when politics and religion is thrown in. Wright’s comments were inaccurate, inappropriate, and hurtful to the cause. He should therefore apologize and work harder to avoid such offensive rhetoric. But hopefully we can also learn from this situation and avoid the problem of swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction as some of his critics have done. More points could be made, but hopefully these are a few things to dwell on and grow from as we seek to build a color-blind society where we treat all of God's children with love and respect.

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