Saturday, March 15, 2008

Barack Obama's Church

Rev.Image via Wikipedia
I apologize in advance to anyone here only to read about Universalism.  There is a breaking news story that I feel I have to comment on.  That concerns the videotapes recently release of Barack Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.  To those of you sick of hearing me talk about Barack, you may be excused now.  But, before you go, this is more than about just Barack Obama.  This story exposes some things we don't like to talk about and I feel I have to speak out about it.  In fact, several people have asked me to blog about it. So, at the risk of alienating some of you, I am going to proceed with the post.

Personal Indulgence

Before I begin, please allow me a personal indulgence.  I am tired.  Last night as this story broke, I initially thought I had to write about it.  But, then, I really didn't want to.  I'm tired of politics as usual.  I'm tired of the attempts to smear candidates (this goes both ways).  I thought to myself, "What sane person would ever run for office? Barack, you must be crazy."  I'm tired of race being an issue in everything we do or say.  I'm tired of being a Black man living totally immersed in White culture and having to interpret all the time.  All of my friends are White.  Not most of them. All of them.  Almost all of my neighbors are White. I attend an all White church.  I'd like to integrate.  I'd like to forget our "differences".  But, I am never completely allowed to.  Every time I'm called for a survey or register a product, for "classification purposes", I'm asked the color of my skin. I'm tired of the fear and suspicion that exists between so many Blacks and Whites.  And, I'm tired of people being so quick to believe the worst about a person.  Barack Obama is the epitome of a multi-racial, multi-cultural reach across the lines kind of guy.  But, because of what his pastor said, people are now fearful that he's a racist Black separatist.  I'd like to just pretend all of this doesn't exist.  But, I woke up this morning still living in the real world. So, this article must be written. I'll keep it as short as possible, I promise.  I hope it's the beginning of a dialog and maybe it will foster some understanding and alleviate some of those fears.  I spent about five hours putting this together.  I hope you find it useful.

You, my audience

I can probably divide you into four categories:

  1. The Obama groupie this is the guy or gal who is going to support Barack Obama no matter what he says or does or what "dirt" comes out about him. 
  2. Undecided- you're still evaluating all of your choices.  Hillary, Barack and possibly John McCain.
  3. The Obama skeptic- there are those who don't quite yet believe this guy is the real deal. Has he had enough experience?  Is he a "true American"?  You may have heard some rumors about his religion and his patriotism and are wondering if they're true.
  4. The Obama hater- yep.  There are a bunch of them out there. Either because he's too popular or you believe he's a racist or he's unproven or he's too liberal or...

If you're in camp 1, 2 or 3, I have hope that I can reach you with this article.  For the supporters, I hope to give you what you need to explain this to your friends who may be skeptical or undecided.  If you're undecided, or skeptical, I hope to convince you this is not the issue you want to make your decision on.  Frankly, if you're an Obama hater, you've probably got better things to do with your time. You've "seen the tapes".  There is no context that could possibly explain them.  And, why are you still reading anyway? (I kid, I kid).

Some of you probably think I fall into the Obama groupie camp.  Actually, I don't.  I just came on board with Obama a few weeks ago.  I was first drawn to his message of hope.  Then, I was impressed with his oratory skills.  Then, his intelligence.  And, finally his record of being able to work with people in his relatively short time in public service. He has been involved in some substantial legislation and the people who have worked with him say wonderful things about him.   But, I became aware of Obama's church sometime last year.  He announced his candidacy around the time I joined the UCC.  I didn't know at the time he was a member of Trinity.  When I heard, I went to their website to check it out and I was troubled.  I wrote to Trinity UCC and did not receive a response.  I was troubled because I thought White people would misunderstand the message of Trinity UCC.  I think that Barack Obama should have made his views more clear earlier.  I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that he is not a racist, a separatist or is anything less than 100% patriotic. But, he should have
anticipated this a little better and gotten out in front of it.

A Request

I'd like to ask you to do this.  It's what I have begun to do. I haven't completed my assignment yet.  But, I intend to.

  • Listen to Barack Obama's reponse to the tapes.  He was on Countdown last night.  He was on Anderson Cooper's 360 and he blogged about it.
  • Judge Barack Obama on what he says and does not on the actions of those who support him. 
  • Think about context- the videos are just a few minutes of tape taken from years of preaching.  It is obvious that the intention of the tapes was to be as damaging as possible.  Think about every time your pastor has mentioned a social issue over the years (I hope he has mentioned a social issue).  Could you string together a 2 minute video that shows he is "unpatriotic"?  Has he ever criticized President Bush?  Has he ever criticized President Clinton?  Has he ever spoken out about the way America takes care of its poor?  Our health care system?  Anything?  Part of the responsibility of the church is to speak truth to power.  In the Old Testament, it was the prophets who called the King to task.  Nathan speaking to David comes to mind. Go back and read some of the scathing words the Prophets used concerning Israel.  Read how they talked about G-d judging Israel for her sins.  I hope your pastor is doing his job.  I've only been attending my church for about a year. The UCC is very interested in social justice.  We've talked about the war.  We've talked about health care.  We've talked about the hungry.  We've talked about how our government could do more.  If I had the tapes and I had the time, I could make it look like our Pastor hates the government and the United States.  Now nothing could be further from the truth. But, selective editing of years of video can produce anything you want to produce.
  • My intent is to listen to one or more of Jeremiah Wright's sermons in its entirety.  A friend yesterday criticized him because while he pointed the problems, he didn't come up with any solutions.  I don't know whether he did or not.  But, I do know her assessment was unfair.  She  heard (like I did) a few seconds lifted from a speech. She doesn't know the conclusion of that speech. She doesn't know the introduction.  Neither do I. But, until I do, I'm not going to assume that the entire speech was intended to divide people.
  • Oh, in case you didn't know.  Jeremiah Wright is retired (has been in the works for almost two years).  And, he is no longer on Obama's campaign.

The friend I just mentioned said she would wait to hear Senator Obama's response before passing judgment. I was happy to see that just a few minutes after she and I exchanged those emails Obama said (in part):
Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it's on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue.
The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments. But because Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community, where I married my wife and where my daughters were baptized, I did not think it appropriate to leave the church.
A Little About Barack Obama

Barack Obama is constantly characterized as Black. And, he's accepted that label. Well, that's actually a little simplistic.  And, I'm sure he's frustrated by people now trying to label him as a Black separatist or a racist.  Barack Obama's father was Kenyan.  But, he left the family when Barack was about 2 years old.  Barack was raised by a White mother.  His mother was a world traveler, who later married an Indonesian man who became Barack's step-father.  Barack's half-sister is Indonesian.  Barack Obama has struggled, like all of us Black people, to fit into American society.  But, his struggles have been amplified because of his multi-racial, multi-cultural heritage.  People question whether he's Black enough.  People question whether he's Christian enough.  Whispers are still going around about him being a Muslim.  How can a man born to and raised by a White woman be a Black separatist?

Guilt by Association

Let's talk for a moment about guilt by association.  The people who put the tapes together would like you to believe these are Obama's ideas because they were spoken by his minister.  As I recall John McCain sought after and got the endorsements of some on the Evangelical side of Christianity to boost his support among the more "right leaning" members of the Republican Party.  Well, have you seen these videos?

Rod Parsley says Your Taxes Murdering Innocent Children supporting African American Genocide

Rod Parsley- John McCain calls him a "Spiritual Guide"

People have said to me that they would shocked and appalled if a White pastor said America deserved 9/11. That was anti-American and unpatriotic.  Does anyone recall this tape?

Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blame America's "sins" for 9/11

I want to make it clear, I am in no way implying that John McCain shared the views of Rod Parsley when it comes to abortion or to homosexuals.  And, McCain has distanced himself from Falwell and the like. But, there are some questionable view of Ted Hagee (another McCain supporter) also. Just like Reverend Wright's views should not be attributed to Barack Obama, these guys views should not be attributed to John McCain or anyone other than themselves. BTW, I presented the Falwell and Robertson tape not because they are McCain supporters but because some people were shocked that Reverend Wright would dare imply America might have been deserving of 9/11.  My point is, he was certainly not the only preacher to share this view.

How many of us could stand up to having to support the words of the people we know? Even people we know and love?  I have a very good friend I talk to daily (literally).  He's a "radical" Jew.  He spends hours a day posting stuff on Arab blogs.  He's an extreme hawk, IMO.  He and I have extremely sharp differences of opinion when it comes to those things.  We couldn't be any further apart.  But, he advised me on starting my business and we still bounce ideas off of each other.  And, as I said, we talk every day.  If I were running for office and people starting taking his blog posts and saying "Brian must believe these things about Arabs because his business consultant and good friend does, it would be totally unfair and untrue."  You'd probably be shocked at some of the things he writes, just as you are shocked by the things Jeremiah Wright says.  But, I sure hope you wouldn't hold me accountable for what he says just because he's a good friend of mine.  Friends have differences of opinion.  And, while Jeremiah Wright was Obama's spiritual advisor that does not mean that he lived by every word that came forth from the mouth of Jeremiah Wright.  Every week my pastor says something I disagree with.  I don't leave the church over it. Now, you might say the things he says are not this radical.  And, they are not.  But, Jeremiah Wright is a prophetic type of fiery preacher who says over-the-top things to get his congregation's attention.  And you've seen a few minutes out of a 30 year preaching career.  Don't we owe Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt that this was not the weekly fare being served up at Trinity?

The UCC's Response

I am proud to be a member of the United Church of Christ, the same denomination that Barack Obama belongs to.  I joined a little over a year ago.  I was attracted to the denomination for two reasons.  One is their slogan "God is still speaking..."  But, the more important reason is their emphasis on social justice.  The United Church of Christ has a long history of being on the forefront of confronting social justice issues such as civil rights for women, Blacks and homosexuals.  The church is not afraid to take a stand on tough issues and has a tradition of "speaking truth to power".  I have heard our pastor say the reason that the separation of church and state is so important is not to protect the church from the state.  It's so the church can continue to be a credible and powerful voice in speaking the truth to government and to criticize it when it needs to be criticized.  Almost every week, no matter the "liturgy", we talk about whatever the topic is in light of social justice.  How does this impact our society today?  What should we be doing about it?  What are our institutions (government and church) doing about it?   The United Church of Christ is a mainline denomination.  It's not a "Black denomination" by any stretch of the imagination.  The UCC issued a statement strongly supporting Trinity and calling the attacks on it a caricature.  You might ask how a video can be a caricature. But, as I pointed out earlier, it's easy.  Find a few impassioned sermons (and I'm guessing all Reverend Wright's sermons were impassioned) and lift out the parts that make your point.  I'm sure that given enough time, I could put together a video that would make exactly the opposite point about Reverend Wright.

After watching the video, you might be shocked to learn that any White people dare cross the threshold of Trinity.  Well, they do.  I personally know three White people who have attended the church and said they felt very welcome there.  A couple have said they would like to attend regularly, if they lived in Chicago.  Reverend Wright's style of preaching attracts people by the thousands. This is not some small, segregational cult.  Trinity draws 6,000 people and they are certainly not all racists.

You might be surprised to learn this woman not only choose to attend Trinity.  She drives almost an hour to get there!  She doesn't look like a Black separatist to me.

Defending Jeremiah Wright

Now I am going to do what Barack Obama dared not do.  I am going to attempt to defend or at least explain Jeremiah Wright's words.  This issue is a hand-grenade and Barack Obama needs to distance himself from it as much as possible. It goes to the fears and mistrust that still exists in our society.  A lot of White people are just getting to the point where they could consider voting for a Black man.  (And a lot of people are just getting to the point where they could consider voting for a woman).  Having an issue like this come up at this time will make them pause, at best. They'll wonder if Barack Obama is truly patriotic since he attends a church with a pastor who is "clearly" not patriotic.  Will he defend us against our enemies if he believes we deserved to be attacked?  Does he have some hidden "Black" agenda that he's just waiting to spring on us?  Barack must put all those fears to rest. And, there is no reason to think any of those things.  But, this video brings up something I'd like to discuss with my White friends, that is the experience of being Black and why Jeremiah Wright would say such vile things.

OK.  This is getting longer than even I wanted. But, I've got to go a just a little further.  Please bear with me.  My friend.  I'll call her Angie, is scared by Reverend Wright's speech. She's comparing him to Fred Phelps (the guys who says G-d hates gays and is going to send them to hell).  She's concerned that Reverend Wright's congregation will rush out of church and start race riots because he's inciting them to do so.  Even though she never heard him use the word "hate" in the clips she saw, she says the implied hatred of White people is there.  I appreciate Angie sharing those thoughts with me because otherwise I would have completely missed that.  Angie said she felt personally attacked because Jeremiah White was targeting White people.   I assume she was referring to the comments about rich White people running America.  Well, the last time I checked rich White were running America.  What's wrong with a preacher being honest about that? 

This reminds me of the OJ Simpson case where Blacks and Whites looked at the exact same thing and, by and large, saw it vastly differently.  Not all Blacks though OJ was innocent.  And, not all Whites thought he was guilty.  But, it split very much along racial lines.  When I watched the first clip of Reverend Wright on YouTube yesterday, I heard a man speaking about the plight of the Black man in America and comparing that to the suffering of Jesus. I heard a man metaphorically (and maybe literally) comparing Jesus to a Black man and the Romans (who killed Jesus) to the White man. The comparisons are undeniable.  And, one of the reasons Black people so love Jesus is we know He can identify with our sufferings. He was born without an earthly father.  He was rumored to be a bastard.  He was born to a poor, downtrodden people.  He was treated as less than a full human because of his race. Without making my analysis of the clip longer than the clip itself, this is what I heard.  I also heard him wrap up by saying Jesus taught us to love our enemies. When Reverend Wright was comparing Barack Obama's struggles to Hillary Clinton's, I didn't hear him putting Hillary down.  Hillary doesn't know what it's like to have a cab pass her by because she's a Black man.  Hillary has never been called nigger.  Why is that considered hate speech?  The man's point was that Hillary doesn't know suffering and condemnation in the same way Barack Obama does.  Then, I scrolled down to read the comments and realized most of the people who watched the clip heard something entirely different!

Reverend Wright has had a different experience of America than most of you reading my blog.  He's had a different experience than I have had.  I have had a different experience than you, my White reader.  His view reminds me very much of my father-in-law, a 70 plus year old Black man who has lived in Kentucky all his life.  I love my father-in-law.  But, we have sometimes almost violent arguments about race relations.  He doesn't hate White people.  But, generally speaking he doesn't trust them much, because of his experiences.

Before you judge Reverend Wright too harshly, you might want to take a little time doing research on "liberation theology".  Look up professor by the name of James Cone.  This is a legitimate, systematic theology that Reverend Wright has studied and that is taught in seminary.  Frankly, I know precious little about it.  It's not my cup of tea. But, it's not a fringe, separatist or racist theology.  And whether you agree with it or not, it's Reverend Wright who made those statements, not Barack Obama.

Last Thoughts

No matter what you think about Reverend Wright, I hope you'll just judge Barack Obama for being Barack Obama.  And, I hope this is just the beginning of a dialog on race, politics and faith in America.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if all our pastors gave sermons on this topic this Sunday?! (Hint hint)


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