Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Defenses of Wright Pour In

In addition to the myriad posts in defense of Rev. Wright that have appeared on blogs around the country, a few more high profile defenses have shown up in the last few days. The theme running through them is the revelation of Wright in broader context, while in no way excusing the tone or incendiary nature of the remarks that have found a home on the cable news channels. This is laudable, but not likely to sway the opinion of most blue-collar whites, who would benefit most from the perspective - primarily because their choice of news outlets can generally be narrowed to those which can be digested without too much effort, i.e., while sofa surfing. Saying that these news outlets do them a disservice is to state the obvious.

The most notable treatments of Wright of late have been from Martin Marty and Rev. Dean Snyder. Marty is a Professor of Religious History at the University of Chicago. He was one of Wright's instructors, a periodic attendee at Trinity UCC, and calls Wright a friend. His defense is, well, fair and balanced. The other supporting words, whose timing couldn't be better, are from the Dean Snyder, pastor of the church Hillary and Bill Clinton attended for their eight years in the White House. Rev. Snyder describes Wright as "an outstanding church leader" to whom we do an injustice if we "evaluate his dynamic ministry on the basis of two or three sound bites." I doubt that Rev. Snyder cleared this comment with Sen. Clinton or her campaign advisers before issuing it, but then again, maybe that's how its supposed to work in a democracy with a functioning separation of church and state.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Wright's Message vs. His Methods

It is clear to me from so many of the reactionary comments concerning Rev. Wright that precious few of the commentators have ever set foot in a black church, or have any significant acquaintances that have. If they did, they would realize that Rev. Wright is not an anomaly in the black community. In fact, his ethnicity aside, he is not really an anomaly in evangelical Christianity. First, to call Wright and those like him racist or anti-American is ludicrous. Yes folks, many black pastors lace their messages with imagery and hyperbole that tie scriptural accounts of struggle and triumph to the struggles of their parishioners. This is an act of relevancy. It is not racist. There is no call for retribution. There is no call for violence. There is no call for hatred. There is no call for incivility. Rather, the call is to reflection, repentance, and dedication to God and his principles.

Please hear this - when a black minister points out the existence of institutional racism in the greater society, or the ungodly acts of our government, he is attacking the passivity and apathy of his listeners. To what end? In the Christian message, change begins within, not through external acts like violence. This message calls the hearers to personal accountability. It teaches them that they cannot depend on the greater society to solve all of their problems nor to rescue them. It reinforces to them that there may even be cases where either the government or government-supported industry may disregard their safety or well-being – as in the Syphilis experiments on blacks. It teaches them that those in power don’t always have their best interests at heart, but that God does! This continues to be an important message is some corners of the black community, especially those where blacks may have been victimized due to their prior passivity or undue trust in the supposedly benign acts of the greater society, i.e., whites. It is this message of personal responsibility, of pride, of enduring faith, and yes, of strength that draws young black men to the church. No doubt, Senator Obama connected with some aspect of this message as a young community organizer in Chicago, and once settled in his new "church family," felt no need to leave, despite the occasional odd comment from the pulpit.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama's faith in broader context

E.J. Dionne has an insightful article over at The New Republic. He explores the parameters of Obama's Christian faith, and how it finds expression in his politics. He makes the key point that the senator can hardly repudiate the man who baptized him. Rather, Obama is attempting what many of us have had to do when we have "outgrown" our initial religious experience. Senator Obama is not the first Christian to leave his spiritual nest to spread his wings and learn to fly on his own. In fact, I know many African-Americans who have done just that, while keeping "grandma's church" near to their hearts, as it was the wellspring of their religious experience.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama's Speech on Race

Well, the accolades have poured in from the media elites, so I will not pile on. It was a great speech. Rather, I am taken by the response from the Right, specifically what appear to be gelling as bases for attack ads. The lapses in logic have been eating at me, to the effect that I had to write a point/counterpoint - if for no other reason than to keep my blood pressure down. So, here for your consideration are some of the points I hear being made:

1. The vast majority of Americans, when they hear the hateful words of Wright, can’t stand it and would have walked out of the church. Meaning what? That the congregants at Trinity and other like churches are not like the “vast majority” of Americans? Invoking the notion that one’s choice of worship needs to be constrained by the practices of the many is not only patronizing, but also flies in the face of one of the founding premises for this country – freedom of religious expression. Besides, it may be that the nobler virtue is engagement. Wrestling with uncomfortable issues, discussion, debate, prayer, dissent, and other like actions are elements of engagement. One engages those with whom one desires to create or maintain a bond, possibly for a greater good, or a higher purpose. Sounds rather Christian to me.

2. Obama sat there for 20 years and heard this hateful speech, so he must have remained because he agreed with it all. This reveals a clear ignorance of the principles of fellowship and the breadth of ministry as practiced at Trinity and churches like it. It fixates on excerpts from a few sermons, out of the hundreds of sermons that would have been preached by Wright and other ministers at Trinity over the years. It assumes a fractal relationship between the excerpts and the sermons and ministry as a whole, wherein the excerpts encapsulate all that one needs to know to form a conclusion of the merits of the ministry, and that such a conclusion, once drawn, is sufficient to inform one’s judgment to disassociate. An excerpt is not a sermon; a sermon is not a minister; a minister is not a church; and a church is not a faith. What does a church do? What services does it provide? Who does it serve? What role do members play? The underlying assumption here seems to be that congregants are nothing more than mentally passive dupes that do nothing but listen to sermons who's primary content is venom. The unspoken implication is that this then predisposes attendees towards hatred and violence. "Oh my, aren't those angry black people frightening. Lock the doors!"

3. Obama’s speech on race was an effort at “disavowing everything” while courting the support of the Black community, who buy into the “victim approach.” Inaccurate. Obama is not disavowing “everything.” In fact, his focus was on asserting his disagreement with the words of Wright that many have found offensive. The notion that the speech was aimed at pandering to Blacks is unfounded and ignores political reality. Obama is winning 80-90% of the black vote. What’s left to court? If anything, the speech was outreach to the uninformed in general, non-blacks more specifically, and whites in particular.

4. Approachable and non-threatening "good Blacks" like Juan Williams or Larry Elder have been helping Whites understand the segment of the Black community that languishes in victimhood. Not sure that seeking the advice of a conservative friend counts for balance, thoroughness, or journalistic integrity. Just sounds like a search for affirmation amongst the familiar. Not much of a stretch. I heard one commentator suggest to Pat Buchanan that he should visit a Black church to learn more. He responded by saying, "Why should I? Why would I go there?" It was if he had been asked to visit Antarctica in a bathing suit.

5. Associating with a minister that gave an award to Louis Farrakhan reveals either poor judgment, or agreement with all of Louis Farrakhan’s views. Guilt by association is alive and well. What was the award for? Lifetime Achievement? Achievement of what? The award was given to Farrakhan for his efforts to enhance the lives of blacks in Africa and the Diaspora. To those outside of the Black community and outside of Chicago, the deeds of Louis Farrakhan may be overshadowed by his rhetoric. Without attempting to excuse his statements, it is my understanding that the award was given for his actions, i.e., community re-entry programs for offenders, education and social outreach programs, etc. Trinity and churches like it are focused on substantive action that benefits the Black community. The word “achievement” is most critical here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Better Wright than wrong, again.

Alas, while I hope Senator Obama doesn't lose the nomination because of this, I have doubts. The divides in this country run too deep. For example, I can't expect say a white Presbyterian to feel comfortable with attending the majority of black churches in America. Just as they might not feel at home at an historically black college. Not because blacks would ostracize them, but because they would be exposed to acts of racial/cultural pride that they might be offended by. The Black community has, through its institutions - of which the church has been preeminent - continually attempted to reverse the psychic and social damage of slavery and poverty. Some of this has involved Afro centrism, which focuses on having pride in your cultural heritage, and not feeling ashamed of it. It does not promote hatred of whites. It promotes loving one's self.

It seems to me that blacks are most acceptable when they are docile. Sorry to burst your bubble, but most blacks deal with the dichotomy of being patriotic members of our society and at times vocal dissenters every day. America is great, but she is not perfect. America deserves our loyalty and service, but not serf-like docility. Black leaders since the 50's have sought to harness this dynamic in productive ways, but not to quench it. Rev. Wright's approach to sermonizing is aimed at harnessing the productive energy (faith -> action) of his constituency. His hyperbole may not suit some, but guess what? He is not talking to you. He is talking to a membership composed of people from Chicago's south side. Do you think you can motivate his 10,000 members to good works? Do you have the tools to serve as a bulwark in such an impoverished community? The whining I often see reminds me of the unrealistic attitudes civilians sometimes have towards the military and war. They want soldiers to be Boy Scouts when circumstances require them to be warriors, sometimes at great psychic cost.

Many of the things that Rev. Wright says have been said by other evangelical ministers, both black and white. Maybe not as colorfully, but they have been said. When he says God Damn America, he is echoing a chorus of religious commentators who have reflected on whether God would continue to shed his grace (unmerited favor) on this nation. In the kindler, gentler delivery of a Pat Robertson, it usually comes across as an appeal based on 2nd Chronicles 2:14 (KJV), which reads, "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." What usually follows is a diatribe that warns what could happen if we don't follow this admonition, i.e., war, disease, poverty, cultural decay, etc. Many times this imagery is capped off with "evidence" by citing that when the historical nation of Israel sinned, God would punish them. Again, if you are not an evangelical, maybe you have not heard these kinds of sermons before. No excuses, just facts.

Better Wright than wrong

It is unfortunate that Wright's sermons have come to hurt Senator Obama. For those who are not evangelical Christians, they may not be familiar with preaching and the way it is viewed by many, if not most evangelicals. A sermon is not a written speech, nor does it carry the weight of doctrine. It is often filled with allegory, analogy, emotion, etc. Further still, sermonizing in a Black church takes on additional dynamics, rooted in the Black experience in America.

Many may be surprised, but these sermons are not always flag-waving, zombie-like promotion of the American status quo. Rather, they are usually challenging on a personal level. Challenging to complacency, and more often than not, aimed at people who may lack the erudition to wrestle with issues of faith solely through impassioned self study. Again, some may not know this, but Reverend Wright is not atypical in the Black religious community. I have sat and listened to my fair share over the years, and the sermon clips that are played (out of context) are not particularly unique.

The Next First Lady?

After reading many blog comments about Mrs. Obama, I was struck by what appears to be the lack of cultural familiarity with the Michelle Obama's of the world. As a Black man, Michelle, as profiled in both The New Republic and the New Yorker, is familiar to me. Very familiar. To attempt to connect with her approach to motherhood, feminism, and marriage without acknowledging that many of her attitudes are rooted in African-American cultural traditions would be flawed. I have no farther to look than my mother, aunts, former girlfriends, my wife, and now my daughter to see similar examples of assertive, achieving, yet traditionally rooted women. Many of these women have struggled with trying to find balance between career success, and the call to remain relevant within the Black community. They have been at once desirous of the prestigious job and nice home, and ongoing acceptance at their grandmother's church, with all that entails. They want their men to achieve, but they don't want them to sacrifice their identity. They want greatness, but not at any cost. It might appear to be an easy calculation to onlookers, but I assure you that Mrs. Obama would not be the first to struggle with it. Comparing Mrs. Obama's journey directly to Ms. Clinton's without wrestling with these cultural parameters risks credulity