Sunday, March 16, 2008

Obama, his church and his former pastor

First, Obama set the record straight about his thoughts on Rev. Wright and his preaching at Huffington Post.

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. [...]

Let me repeat what I've said earlier. All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country.

...And while Rev. Wright's statements have pained and angered me, I believe that Americans will judge me not on the basis of what someone else said, but on the basis of who I am and what I believe in; on my values, judgment and experience to be President of the United States.

Please read the entire post if you haven't already or watch it here.

But that's not all that Barack has said. He reflects on Bobby Kennedy's words about Martin Luther King's death and speaks out about his church and his faith in Indiana on March 15, 2008.

His comment, 'the little bits of America all in me' line really struck home with me as did his overall point of choosing to not be divided.

I read blog posts on this topic from two other bloggers I respect that I want to share. Andrew Sullivan's and Poblano's comments both add critical elements for consideration when thinking about this.

From Sully:

All I can say is that very, very few public figures have been so candid about why and how they found the message of Jesus so compelling, or have explained their faith journey so pellucidly (certainly not our spiritually inarticulate current president). The appeal of that church to Obama was not anger or racism or the ugliness in some of Jeremiah Wright's tub-thumping. What Obama discovered - as a previous atheist - was the spiritual power of Christian hope.

Here's the relevant section:
"And in that single note - hope! - I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of the ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones.  Those stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope - became our story, my story; the blood that had been spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until the black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. 

Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shamed about, memories more accessible than those of ancient Egypt, memories that all people might study and cherish - and with which we could start to rebuild.  And if part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfill its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams."

My italics. I don't know how you can read Obama's writing or listen to any of his speeches and believe that Wright's ugliest messages are what Obama believes or has ever believed. He wrote these words long before he was running for president. They struck me powerfully as I read them; because they helped me understand how hard hope can be for the very poor or those from broken families or gripped with addiction. I don't see how the impulse to listen to, bond with, and help those people is an ugly impulse, however ugly the anger that can come from those places sometimes is.

Poblano goes on with this analysis of Sully's post and Barack's situation:

What this suggests is that Obama's personal journey has involved not so much the development of a belief in the power of a Christian God, but rather, the development of a belief in the power of the Christian Church, and in particular the Black Christian Church, to be a transformative and potentially positive force in poor, black communities.

Now, let me be very careful here. I am not suggesting that Obama does not believe in God. The truth is that that none of us are in a position to evaluate the faith of anybody that we do not know personally. [...]

But I am suggesting that Obama is intelligent enough to recognize the distinction between the private role of faith, and the public role of the Church, and that he is courageous enough in his own beliefs to hold the two somewhat at arm's-length from one another.

The fact is, there are a lot of things said by Reverends and Rabbis, Mullahs and Ministers, Popes and Deacons, that are not believed in their entirety by many of the people sitting in the pews. This extends to the occasions on which comments are made about politics or the community in a place of worship, but also to their interpretation of religious texts themselves, and even their underlying belief in a deity.

Faith is supposed to be like a cosmic on-off switch: you are either a Believer or you are not, you are either a Chosen One or you are not. But in fact, the vast majority of Americans, and perhaps the vast majority of people around the world, are sort of half-pregnant with faith. There are some things they believe and some things they do not. There are some things they believe at some points in their lives, and not at other times.

This is what Obama cannot quite talk about, because it is something that we haven't become comfortable talking about in American public life. Obama can't say something like this:

"You know, there are a lot of things that the Reverend said I was uncomfortable with -- and most of them had nothing to do with politics."

To say something like that, Obama would risk being branded as an atheist by the hypocrites on the right who conflate public proclamations of one's faith for personal virtue, and who callously use faith as a political bargaining chip. [...]

However, just as there are those who would use religion as a tool to divide and conquer (regardless of their own personal beliefs about God) -- there are also those who would use religion as an affirmative force in their community (again, regardless of their own personal beliefs about God). Barack Obama would seem to be one of these people. In fact, it was precisely because of this recognition that Obama chose to join the Trinity United Church of Christ:

It was because of these newfound understandings —- that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved —- that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. (source)

And then Poblano mentions this which to me is critical in understanding Barack's relationship to his church.

A little bit of context is important here. Obama came to Chicago in 1985 to work as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. This was a terrible time on the South Side of Chicago, in the midst of the crack epidemic. Obama was working alongside local church groups, and the people he was working on behalf of were mostly black, and almost uniformly poor. Many of them also came from a religious tradition, which was not the case with Obama. And so it would have been very important for Obama to understand the role of the Church in poor, black, urban communities. There would have been few better ways for him to do this than to join the Trinity United Church of Christ, which with more than 10,000 members, is among the largest religious institutions on the South Side of Chicago. Along the way, Obama navigated the complexities and came to develop a belief in the power of the Church -- and perhaps also (or perhaps not!) a belief in the power of God.

Barack did not grow up in a church; in fact, his childhood and teen years were not anything like the experiences of most African-Americans growing up in the Chicago area. Which brings me to a point I feel compelled to make. And I come at it with this background - I was raised overseas (in Liberia) and did not return to the US until I was part way through high school.

After having read/listened to Dreams of My Father, I deeply appreciate that Obama has an understanding of different cultures both within and without our nation. I do not think that Barack Obama can be easily sussed until one reads that book.

I know from my own experience of moving through different cultures that as an outsider there are things that you hear differently than those who have been immersed in it since childhood. When you come to it as an adult, you select what you choose to accept. But neither do you presume to correct all those who have grown up in it.

The variances in culture don't stop at the doors of our places of worship. We all bring them with us when we walk through the doors, whether church or temple or mosque. Our faith is impacted by our cultural mores whether acknowledged or not. What I saw as a missionary kid returning to the US in the 70's, is that much of what people assumed was an essential part of their practice of faith was really an essential part of their culture, not their faith. Some of their standards, their do's and don'ts, would have appeared nonsensical in other cultures.

I would emphasize that Obama was present in the culture of Trinity UCC but not one with it. The whole of his life experience argues against that.

However, none of this discussion is easily summarized in TV-friendly sound-bites so how much of this is likely to be covered by the corporate media is highly debatable.

UPDATE: 1 - The UCC has released a lengthy statement about Trinity UCC and Rev. Wright. It puts all of this kerfuffle in perspective.

2 - Andrew Sullivan has posted the complete transcript of Rev. Wright's sermon entitled "The Audacity of Hope". It's interesting and inspiring reading.


Post a Comment

<< Home