Monday, June 02, 2008

Obama and his church

We found out this weekend that Barack Obama has resigned his long time membership at Trinity UCC in Chicago after his affiliation with the congregation has caused him one too many political headaches. It’s a sad ending to what from the beginning has been a very sad and unfortunate story.

Before I go on, a disclaimer is in order. I am no expert in the Black Church. I’m a white, suburban male who has not spent a significant amount of time worshipping in the Black Church (a term which is itself far too generalized). While I don’t have much firsthand experience in these issues, I have a number of friends, colleagues, and teachers who do. I was very fortunate to have friends and professors in seminary who were raised in and are active in the Black Church and can talk about these issues on intellectual, spiritual, and emotional levels. My view on the whole situation with Obama and Rev. Wright is largely formed by what I have learned from them, so take my views for what they’re worth.

I first heard of Jeremiah Wright several years ago when I heard audio of some of his sermons in a preaching class. Of the half dozen or so sermons I heard in their entirety (and many other short clips), I’d say 90% of the time he wasn’t yelling the way we’ve seen in those sound-bites that have been ripped out of context and run in endless loops on cable news channels. Rev. Wright actually has a very rhythmic, mesmerizing speaking style that almost makes you forget how good of a biblical and theological scholar he is. He puts forth a tremendous amount of substance in a very attractive speaking style.

That being said, he does yell and speak off the cuff in the heat of the moment, as do many African American preachers. And as happens sometimes when preachers go off script, he says things that, in retrospect, he wishes he might not have said. No one who preaches regularly, myself included, wouldn’t take back some of their impromptu comments if given the chance.

But even more important than the realities of the occasional gaffes that are part of public speaking is the tradition of prophetic speech in the Black Church. From what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by friends and teachers, the church occupies a very different place in African American culture than it does in the Caucasian culture in which I was raised. The difference is chiefly in terms of empowerment. White, educated, reasonably affluent people have a plethora of venues in which we feel safe to express our hopes, dreams, frustrations, and general opinions. We’re on top socially and economically, so we have the tremendous privilege of being heard whenever and wherever we want. As the great philosopher Homer Simpson said, “I’m a white male aged 18 to 45. Everyone cares what I think!”

This is largely not the case in the African American community. In the average white church you can find business leaders, civic leaders, and other people with tremendous influence in society at large. In the Black Church there is a tremendous sense of disenfranchisement, and the church is one of the few places where African Americans feel truly free to voice the frustration and anger that comes from this sense. As the spokesperson for the community, the preacher has the opportunity (some would even say the obligation) to give voice to these frustrations. So when Jeremiah Wright or another African American preacher yells about oppression they are not just giving voice to their feelings, but to those of their whole congregation. Is it any wonder that the congregation roars back? It’s cathartic!

So it’s simultaneously unfortunately and unsurprising that the media has jumped all over the whole Jeremiah Wright story. Some say that it’s indicative of the latent racism in America’s white majority culture. I think that’s true insofar as it demonstrates our willful ignorance of how important the church is as an institution in African American culture. But the main reason the story has been so big is simply the reality of a 24 hour media culture. Broadcast media is big business, and most of it is controlled by corporations whose singular goal is to keep their stock price high. Clips like the ones of Jeremiah Wright yelling seemingly anti-American sentiments from the pulpit grab people’s attention and can keep it for a period of time, enabling CNN, MSNBC, and Faux News to charge higher ad rates.

Barack Obama is a major player in a game whose rules he did not make, and to win he has to pick his battles carefully. I believe him when he says this was a painful decision for him, and that he felt it was the right thing to do. And neither I nor anyone else can say if the pain he has caused himself and others by leaving the church will be outweighed by the good he might be able to do as President. That will be for historians to judge long after all of us are gone. In the meantime all we can do is pray for him (and John McCain, and Hilary Clinton, and George W. Bush) as he faces many difficult decisions in the days ahead. I hope he will be able to find a place to worship where he is welcomed and treated not as a symbol for one cause or another, but as a beloved child of God.

1 comment:

Donald Sensing said...

Yes, there are things that I have said from the pulpit that I wish I could take back. But I demur when you equate the occasional gaffes we all make with the systematic, ongoing and routinized messages of outright falsehoods, racial hatemongering and race baiting that Rev. Wright shouted with such great certitude from his pulpit, year after year.

Like you, I studied the A-A church when I was in seminary, and I do understand that their church is one of the few places where black Americans have felt "safe" and still do. And your point is. . . ?

White churches no longer make blacks sit in the balcony. White churches (in the UMC, anyway) accept black pastors.

It's 2008, not 1908, and IMO, it's time for Trinity UCC to start believing it and acting like it.

We should not err by thinking that Rev. Wright is typical of black American preachers. He is not. He is, thankfully, an anomoly.

In fact, as more and more blacks Americans move solidly into the middle class (or well above, i.e., Barack and Michelle Obama), the kind of class-and-race-warfare preaching of Jeremiah Wright is much less inspiring to A-As. That it survived in Wright's church I would ascribe to him personally, since he formed the church to begin with. Will that rhetoric survive his retirement for long? I personally doubt it.

"Faux" News? Funny, Hillary Clinton said that FNC's political coverage really is the fairest of them all.