Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Barack Obama's Response to the Wright Affair

One of the hardest things for anyone to do is sever a relationship. When the issue with Jeremiah Wright first broke, Barack Obama delivered a wonderful speech on race and the need to overcome our divisions. In that speech, Obama distanced himself from Wright's words but not from his long time pastor and friend. Despite that address, and Wright's absence, the sniping remained. Over the weekend, as we've been discussing, Jeremiah Wright stepped forward to defend himself. That is understandable, and as I've posted before, I had hoped that this would help clarify things. There is, of course, always the difficulty of translating one's theological convictions for others, and Wright has had difficulty helping a largely white audience understand Black theology and liberation theology. It sounded to many as being separatist and even hateful. It's not designed to be either, but is instead a call to action on behalf of justice.
But ultimately we are in the midst of a hard fought campaign with historic consequences. Wright has become for Obama excess baggage -- the kind of baggage that simply won't go away. Each candidate has their own baggage to deal with. Hillary has Bill; McCain has Bush. Obama it seems has Jeremiah Wright -- and what happened yesterday ultimately broke a relationship. I hope in time it can be repaired, but for now there is a complete break.
Obama spoke much more forcefully today -- having taken in the full scene -- and essentially broke free of Wright.

His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs. And if Reverend Wright thinks that that's political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought either.

In today's press conference, a transcript of which can be found on Lynn Sweet's Chicago-Sun Times blog , Obama spoke highly of his church home and its new pastor. He hopes to continue his relationship with the church, but he also understands that things are strained. It is never easy to be in this position -- to walk away from friends and loved ones. But here is a situation that unfortunately required that action.
It saddens me that things have come to this. This was the conclusion that Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson made as well.

The reality of the African American church, of course, is as diverse as the African American community. I grew up in the Methodist church with pastors -- often active on the front lines of the civil rights movement -- whose sermons were rarely exciting enough to elicit more than a muttered "Amen." They were excitement itself, however, compared with the dry lectures delivered by the priest at the Catholic church around the corner. And what I heard every Sunday was nothing at all like the Bible-thumping, hellfire-and-damnation perorations that filled my Baptist friends with the Holy Ghost -- and even less like the spellbinding, singsong, jump-and-shout sermonizing that raised the roofs of Pentecostal sanctuaries across town.

Wright claims to represent all these traditions and more, but he does not. He also claims universality for the political aspect of his ministry. It is true that the black church, writ large, has been an instrument of social and political change. But most black churches are far less political than Wright's -- and many concern themselves exclusively with salvation.

I point all this out not to say that one tradition is better than another; as Wright said, different doesn't mean deficient. But what Wright did was to try to frame the issue in such a way that to question him or anything he has ever said was to question the long, storied tradition of African American religion.

Historically and theologically, he was inflating his importance in a pride-goeth-before-the-fall kind of way. Politically, by surfacing now, he was throwing Barack Obama under the bus.

Sadly, it's time for Obama to return the favor.

And today there is great sadness -- in the Obama household, in the Trinity UCC household, and likely in the Wright household. Obama refused to throw his friend under the bus, but now he had no choice. Saddest of all is the fact that much of what Wright said has merit -- but in making his case he undermined the person committed to taking us in a new direction.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I feel like a kid whose parents are divorcing.