Monday, March 31, 2008

Conversion -- Sightings

Conversion is a topic that many steer clear of, especially in the context of interfaith conversations. Christianity and Islam aren't the only conversionist religions, but they are the most active. In the West, especially among Christians, conversion has become something like switching brands, but for others conversion is deeply problematic (that is especially true if you are the religion being left behind. In light of the much discussed "conversion" and baptism of the former Muslim journalist Magdi Allam by Benedict XVI, Martin Marty broaches this topic. He does so with reference to a couple of other conversations about conversion, which can be unsettling to many.
I am a believer in sharing my faith with others. I don't believe that one will go to hell if one doesn't convert, but I do believe it's appropriate to share my faith and invite others to join in the community of Jesus. That being said, I respect the beliefs of others. I also understand why those left behind would consider converts to another religion to be apostate.
I invite you to consider Marty's post in today's Sightings and offer your thoughts.


Sightings 3/31/08

-- Martin E. Marty
Many sincere religious changings occur through inter-faith marriages or after quiet searches, while the publicized, stormier versions of conversion produce what their left-behind communities call "apostates." The difference shows up terminologically; it is one thing to hear from a "former"—as in "former" Catholic, Mormon, or Southern Baptist—and another to hear from an "ex-" Catholic, et cetera. Converts who are "ex-" often sound like those in philosopher Max Scheler's description: "The apostate does not affirm his new convictions for their own sake, he is engaged in a continuous chain of acts of revenge against his own spiritual past."

When the foremost Italian Muslim journalist Magdi Allam was baptized as a Catholic last week, Pope Benedict XVI said "we no longer stand alongside or in opposition to each other." Allam, formerly seen as a "bridge" by Catholics to Muslim moderates and a long-time ardent supporter of Israel, offers plenty of quotations that breathe the spirit of Schelerian revenge. Some Muslims grieve but say that Allam's conversion was a personal matter. But his versions of what Islam is always about must be supplemented with testimony by Muslims who "stayed," or by more neutral analysts and critics.

Conversion remains one of the most controversial topics on the religious scene. Becoming a Muslim apostate is dangerous business, something which ex-Muslim authors of best-selling memoirs publicize and exploit. Again, one does not count on them for balanced reports on Islam, any more than ex-Mormon testimonies were reliable witnesses about the Latter-Day Saints during the Mitt Romney campaign.

Christianity and Islam are traditionally convert-seeking movements, as Judaism has not been for most of the last twenty centuries. Many Christians who are less zealous to make converts are quiet about the conversion theme. Give a host of evangelical leaders credit, then, for risking abrasion with Jews through a full-page advertisement in the March 28 New York Times. The signers of the ad, many of them mission-minded evangelical leaders, emphasize their loyalty to Israel and their love for Jewish people, expressions often affirmed by Jews who know them. Yet they make clear that the attempt to convert Jews is not off their agenda. "It is good and right" for there to be "ministries specifically directed to the Jewish people," the touchiest point. "It is out of our profound respect for Jewish people that we seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them…for we believe that salvation is only found in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the World."

Many Jews, welcoming evangelical support for Israel, hide their uneasiness or disgruntlement over evangelical attempts to convert Jews, knowing that efforts to convert will continue, so cherished is the conversionist ideal among many Christians. So strong is the impulse to pursue it that one can read off-beat stories about it. In the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, a lively columnist who opposes the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod administration from the Missouri right, attacks the Synod's current "Ablaze" campaign for public relations overreaches: "Historically," she writes, "the church kept statistics on baptisms. Now, however, it keeps a tally of what it calls 'critical events.' On March 17 a man reported discussing Jesus with his waitress—and the Ablaze! Count went up by one." That waitress is not likely to engage in acts of revenge against her own spiritual past. Others will, and the arguments will go on.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
The March issue of the Martin Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum presents an essay by Jerome Copulsky, Assistant Professor and Director of Judaic Studies at Goucher College: "The Last Prophet: Spinoza and the Political Theology of Moses Hess." Commentary from Rabbi Shai Held (Jewish Theological Seminary of America), Leah Hochman (University of Florida), Jeffrey Israel (University of Chicago) and Ben Sax (University of Chicago) will be available on the forum's discussion board,where readers may also post responses.
Access the discussion board at:
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Race and American Life

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
March 30, 2008

Rarely do we, as a nation, acknowledge the presence of racism and prejudice in our midst. At least we don't do it very publicly. We want to believe that racism is part of our past, but not our present. Unfortunately, there are signs that it remains with us. Consider the whispers that America isn't ready for a black president or a Hispanic president. Is this simply realism, or is it incipient racism? The issue of sexism and whether we're ready for a woman president is related, but somewhat different - and thus fodder for a another conversation.

Due to a combination of a black candidate for the presidency and the much publicized statements by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright - statements that concern White America and its suppression of black aspirations - the issue of race in America has been brought out into the open. And, from what I can tell, we're not very uncomfortable with the discussion. Wright's statements are radical in many ways, but they're also deeply rooted in traditional black preaching. They seem so strident that they seem to undermine one of the premise's of Obama's candidacy, that he is a post-racial leader.

Although he risked being labeled a “race” candidate, Senator Obama chose to address the statements of his pastor and its context - our “racial stalemate.” Much attention has been given to the fact that Obama disavowed the statements but not the man who uttered them, a decision that troubles some.

But that was only part of the speech; the most important elements focused on the deep seated frustration and anger that is present in many of our communities. He acknowledged it, and then invited the nation to begin a conversation that would take us beyond the present distress. Now, as anyone who has paid attention to the controversy knows, the response to the speech has been mixed, largely due to the context and agendas of the listener.

What I heard was a deeply personal and eloquent speech, one in which Obama defended his presence in the church while stating his disagreements with the pastor's rhetoric. I heard him narrate our nation's history with regard to race, acknowledge our shortcomings and urge us to get beyond the controversy so that together we can live out the intentions of the Constitution.

He noted that his biggest disagreement with his pastor had to do with the degree of progress that has been made. As he pointed out, it is the progress that has been made that gave birth to his own candidacy.

While America still has significant racial and ethnic issues to deal with, the fact is, we as a nation have become increasingly diverse, and that diversity is being felt at the highest levels of our society, from corporate board rooms to the highest echelons of government. Consider that in the past eight years we have had two African American secretaries of state. We also have Latino and Asian representation in top positions in the government. Things are changing, but the changes have not come easily.

Despite the progress, the legacy of mistreatment of minorities remains with us. It's a legacy that includes a Trail of Tears, slavery, Jim Crow and the World War II era incarceration of Japanese Americans. There is the legacy of redlining and neighborhood community covenants that were intended to keep neighborhoods from mixing. It's a legacy that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement and other efforts to bring equality to the nation. Some movements have been more strident than others, and all of them have been resisted.

The issue here isn't whether one supports Senator Obama's candidacy. The issue here is whether we are willing to have a discussion that can help us move beyond this impasse. This conversation, if we're willing to engage in it, will have important implications for our future as a nation. From the looks of things, our nation's future will only be more diverse than it is now. Therefore, it would seem to be wise to address the resentment and anger that is lying just below the surface. To do this we'll need to reach across the divides and listen to each other's stories. This won't be an easy road to take, but it's a necessary one. The good news is that, as Obama said in his speech, the barriers that hold people back or divide us aren't unchanging. It is possible to get beyond them, but only if we choose to engage each other in a serious long-term conversation.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc ( He blogs at and may be contacted at or c/o First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.

March 30, 2008

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Adventure Begins

We're on our big trip to Michigan. Yesterday we made an offer on a house! Today we meet the congregation. We wonder what we're doing at times, but that is the way the faith journey goes. You don't always get to have all the info you want, but you go anyway. And so here we are!!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Brett Favre, Catholic Hero

My son's name is Brett, but we didn't name him after Brett Favre. No that honor was due to a then San Francisco Giants player, Brett Butler. I can't say I was ever a Brett Favre fan; his Packers were a nemesis to my 49ers of old. But Brett has proven himself to be a determined and professional quarterback. What I didn't know was that he was also a person of faith, a Catholic, but not one who displayed his faith on his sleeve.

Well, with Favre retiring after this past season, Joseph Kip Kosek, a professor at George Washington University, reflects on his legacy and his faith. Interesting piece, especially if you're a Packers fan (which I'm not). But, nonetheless . . .


Sightings 3/27/08

Brett Favre, Catholic Hero

-- Joseph Kip Kosek

Earlier this month, legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre announced his retirement after seventeen years in the NFL. He walked away holding most of the major records at his position, and as much as any athlete of his time he attracted not just admiration but veneration, inspiring even a "Packers Prayer" ("Our Favre . . . Hallowed be thine arm"). Favre has become a football deity, but he has also achieved the status of an exemplary American Catholic. Indeed, the website Catholic Online ( names him second among the "Top 10 Catholic Heroes of the Super Bowl." For many Americans, "Our Favre" is less a divine figure than a fellow believer. Favre, though, is a peculiar Christian athlete whose career defies familiar evangelical optimism in favor of a darker, distinctly Catholic vision.

Brett Favre would never be mistaken for Kurt Warner, the born-again former St. Louis Rams quarterback who accepted the Super Bowl trophy in 2000 with a "Thank you, Jesus." Unlike his late Baptist teammate Reggie White, Favre did not convene on-field prayers or claim to receive personal communication from God. Green Bay's gunslinger was never that earnest or, frankly, that devout. The product of a small Mississippi town, his career brings to mind the fiction of Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy, Southern Catholics for whom faith was often occluded and salvation often arduous.

More than any public proclamations of devotion, Brett Favre's well-publicized personal suffering marked him as a model Catholic for those who cared to look. Early in his career, he struggled with addictions to painkillers and alcohol. In December 2003, his father died unexpectedly. Ten months later, his wife Deanna was diagnosed with breast cancer, only a few days after her brother had been killed in an ATV accident. The next year, Brett's mother's home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Most of these travails followed his lone Super Bowl victory, evoking not so much the generous God of prosperity theology as a more inscrutable Almighty, intent on humbling the exalted. In her bestselling 2007 memoir Don't Bet Against Me!, Deanna Favre compared the couple's ordeals to those of the biblical Job. Indeed, Brett increasingly exuded a Job-like equanimity, remarking after his wife's diagnosis that "if I asked why my father died or why Deanna has breast cancer, I would have to ask why I throw touchdown passes."

Contrast the Favres' litany of grief with the high living of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, also raised Catholic. Brady had a child last year with actress Bridget Moynahan, and then took up with supermodel Gisele Bündchen. Wisconsin's Catholics, who include more recovering alcoholics and cancer survivors than actresses and supermodels, may respect Brady's skill on the football field, but they understand much more deeply a religion of pain and loss. Brady, a three-time Super Bowl winner, is conspicuously absent from the "Top 10 Catholic Heroes of the Super Bowl."

Deanna Favre's memoir offers a Catholic rebuff to the secular celebrity culture exemplified by Brady and Bündchen. She and Brett were still in college and unmarried when she became pregnant with their first child. Friends pressured her to have an abortion, but she insists that "there was no way I could destroy an innocent life." She told her friends that having premarital sex was "a bad choice, and for every choice there's a consequence." When Brittany was born, Deanna writes, "I knew I'd made the right choice." Certainly this story holds appeal for Catholics and evangelical Protestants alike. Yet in narrating her struggles, Deanna – a self-described "quiet Christian" – never quite manages an evangelical level of effusiveness. Don't Bet Against Me! begins with an unsettling account of its author in a hospital bed, being prepared for breast cancer surgery; beneath its gaudy pink cover, the book brings readers into a world of guilt, responsibility, and suffering bodies.

The Favres' Catholicism became a somber counterpoint both to the joyous hedonism of sports stardom and to the exuberance of the evangelical athlete. When Sports Illustrated asked Brett to recount his favorite football memory, he seemed to channel Walker Percy, or Job: "If I were to make a list, I would include the interceptions, the sacks, the really painful losses. Those times when I've been down, when I've been kicked around, I hold on to those. In a way those are the best times I've ever had, because that's when I've found out who I am. And what I want to be." As it happened, the last pass of Brett Favre's career was an interception late in the conference championship game, a bad choice of throws that cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl. For every choice there's a consequence. Wisconsin's Catholics understand this, and weep.

Joseph Kip Kosek is an assistant professor of American Studies at George Washington University.


The March issue of the Martin Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum presents an essay by Jerome Copulsky, Assistant Professor and Director of Judaic Studies at Goucher College: "The Last Prophet: Spinoza and the Political Theology of Moses Hess." Commentary from Rabbi Shai Held (Jewish Theological Seminary of America), Leah Hochman (University of Florida), Jeffrey Israel (University of Chicago) and Ben Sax (University of Chicago) will be available on the forum's discussion board, where readers may also post responses.

Access this month's forum at:

Access the discussion board at:


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Pillow for McCain?

Did you hear the gaffe recently that John McCain made, the one that Joe Lieberman had to correct? Did you hear many questions in the press as to whether this was a sign that maybe he doesn't know as much as he leads us to believe? If you saw the first, you probably didn't hear much about the latter. Although he has flip-flopped with the best of them, you don't hear much about him being a panderer -- that straight talk express keeps going, with nary a question.
It would seem that John McCain and the press are pals. They love him because he gives such great access. They hang out with him on the bus and join him for BBQ's at his Sedona Ranch. They seem to think that his recent "conservative" streak is simply a primary necessity and that the Maverick will emerge in November. We'll see, but in the mean time, maybe a few questions. If the press was treating Obama with kid gloves as SNL seemed to suggest, what about McCain? Is he being vetted. Now, I like John McCain, but I don't think he's our best choice to be president, but as Neil Gabler writes in the NY Times today, he does appear to be the first "post-modern candidate."

What makes 2008 different — and why I think Mr. McCain can be called the first postmodernist presidential candidate — is his acknowledgment of the symbiosis between himself and the press and, more important, his willingness, even eagerness, to let the press in on his own machinations of them. On the bus, Mr. McCain openly talks about his press gambits. According to Mr. Lizza, Mr. McCain proudly brandished an index card with a “gotcha” quote from Mitt Romney that the senator had given Tim Russert of “Meet the Press,” a journalist few would expect to need help in finding candidates’ gaffes. In exposing his two-way relationship with the press this way, he reveals the absurdity of the political process as a big game. He also reveals his own gleeful cynicism about it.

Obama may be the wave of the future, but McCain, despite his advanced age, seems to have understood the modern political game better than most. He has figured out how to lasso the press in ways few others have. He is the candidate of the the Colbert era!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

W.E.B. DuBois: An American Prophet -- A Review

With all the ruckus about Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama, it might be a good idea to take a look into the lives and views of earlier Black leaders, some who would look radical even today. W.E.B. DuBois was a person of faith, even if unorthodox, a Socialist, and an important voice in the wilderness for much of the first half of the 20th Century.

Dr. Edward J. Blum has written an excellent literary biography -- W.E.B. DuBois: An American Prophet (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). It's not your traditional biography, in that it uses the various genres used by DuBois, to explore his ideas. It's a most important book. My review of the book appears this week in the Christian Century.

The Ending drags on

Everyone seems to know that Barack Obama will be the nominee, everyone except, it would seem, Hillary Clinton and friends. I don't normally look to David Brooks for insight, but in a piece today he notes that Obama endured his worst period of the campaign, and didn't get taken down. There is no way she'll catch him in delegates, and the Super Delegates seem to be coming around to the position that the leader in pledged delegates should be the nominee. As in November, you don't get to pick which states count. You go with what you have, and Obama has the numbers.
But, and as a Democrat, this is the problem. If Hillary continues this Quiotic quest, she won't win but she''ll so poisoin the waters that she could seriously damage the party's nominee without getting any closer to her goal. I wish someone could get through to her. It's time to give it up. She had a good ride, did her best, but the numbers are against her.

No wonder the Clinton campaign feels impersonal. It’s like a machine for the production of politics. It plows ahead from event to event following its own iron logic. The only question is whether Clinton herself can step outside the apparatus long enough to turn it off and withdraw voluntarily or whether she will force the rest of her party to intervene and jam the gears.

If she does the former, she would surprise everybody with a display of self-sacrifice. Her campaign would cruise along at a lower register until North Carolina, then use that as an occasion to withdraw. If she does not, she would soldier on doggedly, taking down as many allies as necessary.

And that would be unfortunate. We need to have a strong Democrat in November, not one wounded by the current fray, to stand with John McCain and have the kind of debate on issues this nation needs.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Public Preaching -- Sightings

Without mentioning the name, you can tell that Jeremiah Wright's presence lies behind today's edition of Sightings. Martin Marty writes about those preachers, all famous, who dealt with difficult public issues, and in which their parishioners likely didn't always agree. For instance, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. was a strong supporter of Walter Rauschenbush, even though their politics surely didn't mesh. Take a read and offer your thoughts.


Sightings 3/24/08

Public Preaching
-- Martin E. Marty

Public Pulpits by friend Steven M. Tipton of Emory is a timely, historically-informed analysis of "Methodists and Mainline Churches in the Moral Argument of Public Life." The "pulpit" is largely metaphoric here, because Tipton's accent is on policy-making and headquarters' involvements in politics, but these inform preachers. The book will provide background for discussions of the role of preachers and, yes, pulpits, in the political side of public life. (I prefer to hear political discourse in the lecture hall or classroom, where there can be give-and-take, while the sermon is in most ways monological.)

Preachers seldom have had it so good, or so bad, as they have it during the current campaign, as treated not so much by campaigners as by media commentators. So good? The commentators propagate the idea that preachers have enormous and spellbinding power. This implies that if a preacher says something, everyone will hear and, unless restrained, act upon what they heard, for good or evil. During a campaign, that means "for evil." They also never had it so bad because they have not gotten the point across, culture-wide, that congregants are smart enough to filter, discreet enough not to tear the sermons apart, and hungry enough that they want to hear "the gospel," messages of faith and hope and love as they try to put their week or part of their lives together.

If they would consult their friendly neighborhood historians of American Christianity—Protestantism in particular—they would get ample evidence. My students have heard that, were I to carve a Mt. Rushmore of twentieth-century preachers, it would include five: Walter Rauschenbush, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., and William Sloane Coffin. They all preached to many classes of people, including those powerful enough to get their names in print. Some hearers were alienated and walked away to receive sweeter messages (as some blacks now do, too, with the non-biblical "Prosperity Gospel"). Some did not. Start with John D. Rockefeller, who traipsed and slogged through the mud of the slummy West Side in New York, in support of the "Social Gospel" preacher Rauschenbush and his church and charities. His "Gospel" was near-socialist and we may presume that Rockefeller was capitalist. Yet they never broke. The magnate admired the preacher/theologian and stayed with him.

Next generation: John D. Rockefeller, Jr., admired modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick enough to basically fund cathedral-like Riverside Church in New York. We have records of the give-and-take contentions between preacher and hearer, often about the place of the businessperson, one of which Rockefeller was. When Reinhold Niebuhr was a Detroit pastor he had no notable members, but he challenged all on issues of labor; not all of them agreed with him, but they stayed and cried when he left. King was in his own pulpit briefly, but later he was in many pulpits, sometimes all but cursing racist America before he preached the gospel of reconciliation. His test: Who stuck with him when he radically criticized the Vietnam War? Many were conflicted, but stayed.

William Sloane Coffin, a man of legends, told various versions of how a "right-wing" friend raved about his pastor and beckoned Bill to church to hear him. They heard a sermon that had to be classified "left." How did this work? "Listen, he held my wife's hand during her last twenty-four hours and mine the next twenty-four. I'd show up even if he only read the Yellow Pages." We have a lot to learn about pulpit-pew transactions, so little understood within the sanctuaries and, for sure, beyond them "in public."

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
The March issue of the Martin Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum presents an essay by Jerome Copulsky, Assistant Professor and Director of Judaic Studies at Goucher College: "The Last Prophet: Spinoza and the Political Theology of Moses Hess." Commentary from Rabbi Shai Held (Jewish Theological Seminary of America), Leah Hochman (University of Florida), Jeffrey Israel (University of Chicago) and Ben Sax (University of Chicago) will be available on the forum's discussion board,where readers may also post responses.
Access the discussion board at:
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Not Everyone Ready to talk about Race

Barack Obama's speech, which everyone except right wingers like Sean Hannity, who for some reason has a special animus toward Barack Obama, felt was an important statement about race in America, called for the beginning of a conversation on the topic. Many of us believe it is a conversation we need to have. My denomination has made this an important part of its identity -- we are an "anti-racism, pro-reconciliation denomination."
But, as an LA Times article entitled: "Talking about Race: You first" points out, not everyone is ready for the conversation. Many want the issue to go away. They, mostly whites, wonder why minorities don't get beyond old slights and get on with things. Minorities, on the other hand, still feeling that a glass ceiling is present, feel that they're not being heard, nor will they be heard.
There is deep seated resentment and bitterness in every community. There is a willingness for all of us to act upon stereotype, to believe the worst about the other. It is a necessary conversation, but it won't be an easy one.

Easter, Preaching, the Racial Divide

I was in Starbucks this morning before heading out for church. I noticed the NY Times headline "Obama's Talk Fuels Easter Sermons." I will admit that I didn't address the controversy this morning. I spoke on Jeremiah 31:1-6 and Jeremiah's vision of restoration that calls forth celebration. But I was intrigued by the idea that some would use Easter, a Sunday that usually has high attendance, to address this most important issue.
What ever one did today in the pulpit, the article is interesting for laying bare our differing understandings of race, the pulpit, and politics. A number of Black preachers sympathized with Wright. The pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a church that has has had as members both the Doles and the Clintons, noted that the focus of his congregants was not on White racism but the Wright remarks. He noted that most Whites seem to have no idea about the Black struggle in our society. Leith Anderson, a leading White evangelical pastor, said that he wasn't going to address the issue today -- nor he said would most white evangelical churches.
Now, I've already confessed not to addressing the issue this morning, so I don't condemn anyone for not, but it remains an issue that we'll need to address.


A word for Barack Obama on his vision for America.

An Easter Sunday Reflection

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
March 23, 2008

By calling, or vocation, I am a Protestant pastor who just happens to write a weekly op-ed column. I try not to preach here; instead I try to wrestle with broader public issues from a faith perspective. I will admit that some columns are more “religious” than others, but I'm quite aware that this column isn't found on the religion page. Instead, it's on the Sunday op-ed page, which means the expectations are a bit different. Having said that, I'm going to make an exception today - oh don't worry, I'm not planning on sneaking in a sermon. Because today is Easter Sunday (at least for Western Christians - the Eastern Church follows a different calendar), I'd like to offer a spiritual reflection on the day.

Easter is, for Christians, one of the holiest and most joyous days of the year. There is, of course, another Easter, the public holiday, which is about egg hunts, chocolate bunnies, and brunch. That holiday is more of a rite of spring than a religious observance.

Like some of the Christmas observances, this Easter has pre-Christian origins. The name of the celebration comes from a Germanic goddess, whose festival came at the Spring Equinox. Like many Christian holidays it shares a history and observances. And so, we're free to pick and choose how and what we celebrate.
While I enjoy many of the aspects of the public holiday, it is the spiritual part that I choose to focus on here. Even more than Christmas, Easter is a definitive moment of Christian life. Indeed, Easter was central to the Christian faith long before Christmas was a major celebration. In many ways, Easter defines the Christian faith, for without it our faith would be limited to following in the ways of one who had died a horrible death. In the doctrine of the Resurrection, the central point of Easter, we are told that death doesn't have the final word. Whether you take the doctrine as a literal physical event in history or more spiritually, perhaps as a metaphor for God's vindication of Jesus' message, the point is that life has victory over death.
Christians aren't of one mind when it comes to the “hows” and the “whats” of the Resurrection, but we do understand, from conservative to liberal, that the resurrection is central. It is something we must address. But it's not just a doctrine to believe; it's, more importantly, something to be lived.
The Easter story is deeply rooted in the Jewish Passover. If we in the Western church followed the same calendar as Judaism, our two observances would coincide. The Passover, with its message of liberation and freedom from slavery, helps define the message of Holy Week. Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) remembers a last supper and an encounter in a garden. Good Friday takes us to the cross, where we watch as Jesus is executed because he is deemed a threat to the state. Dead and buried, the creeds tell us, he is raised on the Third Day in glory, God having vindicated him and his message of grace, love, nonviolence, justice, and peace. In the Resurrection death is put aside and life is embraced.
Holy Week has distinctly political overtones. Jesus died a politically defined death and Easter overturns the verdict. Those who choose to follow him are invited to take up the cross and live unselfishly in service to him and his cause. But we're not just called to a life of sacrifice; we are also called to embrace the fullness of life, to live life with joy and celebration.

If you are so inclined, won't you join me in celebrating the message of Easter: Life has triumphed over death, violence doesn't reign supreme, and life is something to be treasured and celebrated. In the words of the 8th century theologian John of Damascus, may we sing:
Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth its song begin!
The world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
Let all things seen and unseen, their notes of gladness bend;
For Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end.
This is my joy as I celebrate Easter. I share it with you in the hope that life and peace might be ours as human beings.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc ( He blogs at and may be contacted at or c/o First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.

March 23, 2008

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Our Easter Vigil

We come this night to remember Christ, laid in the tomb. We come in the hope that his call on us to live lives of justice, mercy, love, and grace is not at an end, but that God has justified and vindicated him. We come laying our lives before God, seeking to be made one in Christ.
We wait hereby his tomb, with a sense of expectancy, hoping that we might in just a few hours, shout:
Christ is Risen! Alleluia.
Image by He Qi

Math and Myths

If the nominating process was like a college basketball conference tournament, a team could go on a winning streak at the end of the season, get hot, and even though they don't have enough wins to win the conference, with a little luck and hard work, they could win the tournament. Georgia did that recently -- they didn't have a winning record in the conference, but got hot in the tournament and made it into the Big Dance.

The nominating process isn't however like that. Hillary Clinton may be getting hot and there may be some buyers remorse among some white Obama supporters due to the Wright affair, but the math says that it's almost impossible for Clinton overcome Obama's lead in delegates. She would have to take every contest from here on out by sizable margins. She may indeed win Pennsylvania and a few other states, but can she win enough by enough of a margin? No. Even here advisers privately concede as much. At the end of the day, Obama will be ahead in states won and delegates won. Her only hope is for the Super Delegates to overturn that lead and hand it off to her. Now that's possible, but extremely unlikely. To do so would be for the party to say to the African-American community that they don't count. I don't think they'll do that.

So why continue? Good question. Why are we continually told that things are closer than they really are by the media, perhaps this is a myth that dies hard. The Clinton's do have a history of pulling upsets, but is that going to happen this time. The only way is for Obama to say or do something so incredibly stupid or that something that disqualifies him in the eyes of everyone across the board. Will that happen? I don't think that's likely.

And that's why Bill Richardson finally broke to Obama. He knows it's time to do the math and put aside the myth. It's time for the party to come together behind the candidate who has the nomination well in hand, get ready for a sane convention, and spend money on the November campaign rather than on bloodying the eventual winner. Is the Clinton campaign ready for this? It doesn't seem so. But I think you'll begin to see major players in the Super Delegate pool start to make their voices heard. The player that has yet to be heard from is Al Gore.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Richardson Endorsement Video

Bill Richardson gave a rousing and at times humorous and affectionate endorsement today of Barack Obama. The event was held in Portland, OR -- a state in which I grew up. Listen, watch, and enjoy!

Richardson Endorses Obama

Sometimes endorsements come at just the right time. Barack Obama has had a tough couple of weeks as the Wright issue emerged and Hillary Clinton began to regain some momentum that was lost in February. Today, however, as we observe Good Friday, good news came to the Obama campaign.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a friend of the Clintons, a member of the Clinton administration, a person of experience and well regarded around the world, gave his blessing to the candidacy of Barack Obama. This is an important embrace, for Richardson brings his gravitas as foreign policy expert to the fold. He is likely a top candidate for VP (I was thinking Kathleen Sebelius, but considering recent events, Richardson is likely the leading candidate because of the foreign policy angle). Richardson is also Hispanic, which gives Obama a sense of credibility in that key area of the country. Besides, in the Fall, New Mexico will be a battle ground and Richardson will be an important voice in the Mountain West.

Richardson based his decision in large part on the way Obama handled the issue of race and his relationship with Jeremiah Wright. That speech moved him and suggested that Obama has the integrity and ability to handle difficult issues. His message to the party is an important one. It's time to come together and rally around the candidate that is leading and get ready to take on John McCain.

He concluded:

My great affection and admiration for Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton will never waver.
It is time, however, for Democrats to stop fighting amongst ourselves and to prepare for the tough fight we will face against John McCain in the Fall.

The 1990's were a decade of peace and prosperity because of the competent and enlightened leadership of the Clinton administration, but it is now time for a new generation of leadership to lead America forward.

Barack Obama will be a historic and a great President, who can bring us the change we so desperately need by bringing us together as a nation here at home and with our allies abroad.

I know that all Democrats will work tirelessly to get him elected.

It is my distinct honor and privilege to introduce to you the next President of the United States, my friend, Barack Obama.

You may read the entire text by clicking here.

So, we rejoice in the good news.

Reflections for Good Friday

The idea of "Good Friday" is a paradox. In reality there is nothing good about the day. It is a day of desolation, despair, and death. We hear the cries of dereliction -- "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" (Mk. 15:34-35). We also hear words of forgiveness (Lk:23:32-34) and concern for the other (Jn 19:26-27). We watch as those closest to Jesus, his friends and followers disappear (though a few, mostly women, remain nearby).

So, what is good about this day? The good of the days must be seen with hindsight. It is the perspective of Easter that makes it good, for we know that God had not abandoned Jesus, that his message of liberty, love, and grace was vindicated. We could argue about the "nature" of the resurrection, whether it's a historical event or metaphor, but to argue the point misses the point (there is a place for scholarly discussion) but not on this weekend. We come today to consider a life given, hoping to find in this event the presence of God and hope for the future.

For a number of years I participated in an ecumenical Good Friday service that focused on the Seven Last Words of Christ (yes these words are taken from the four gospels in a conflated sort of way), but the words reflect our hopes and dreams, fears and concerns as we approach Easter.

The final word is an appropriate one: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." (Lk 23:44-49). This is our position this day. We come as God's people, wrestling with the things of life, and viewing life through the lens of the cross, it is appropriate to commend our spirit to the care of the Father.

See my sermons on these words as published in A Cry from the Cross: Sermons on the Seven Last Words of Christ, (CSS Publishing Co), 2008.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Perils of Publicity -- Sightings

The adage is that all publicity is good publicity -- but sometimes the issue is more complex. This is especially true for two denominations put in the spotlight by their affiliation to Presidential Candidates. Both the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and the United Church of Christ have been in the news and exposed to more attention than usual. Mitt Romney's candidacy is over, so the attention is off him, but the same is not true of the United Church of Christ, where Barack Obama has membership. You all should know about his pastor by now -- so the question is -- what is the effect?
That is the question Daniel Sack, a UCC pastor and staff member at the University of Chicago Divinity School asks in today's edition of Sightings.


Sightings 3/20/08

The Perils of Publicity
-- Daniel Sack

They say in this age of celebrity that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Thanks to the current presidential campaign, two American religious groups will find out if that's true.

The now-suspended campaign of Mitt Romney thrust his religious tradition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, into an unexpected spotlight. The Mormon church is one of America's fastest-growing but least-known religious communities. Many Americans had heard rumors about the church—about polygamy, special garments, and baptizing the dead—and assumed that it was a secretive cult. Romney's campaign, however, led them to take another look. The candidate himself talked little about his church, but other Mormons used the opportunity to shed light on their tradition, depicting the church as normal, with unique beliefs but not cult-like. They most likely did not convince the most dedicated anti-Mormons, but did introduce their church to a genuinely curious country.

The United Church of Christ now finds itself in an unaccustomed and more complex situation. The snowballing campaign of Barack Obama, member of a UCC congregation in Chicago, has thrust the denomination into the rumor-driven blogosphere and gotten it into legal hot water.

With its roots in Boston Puritanism and early German immigrant communities, the UCC is well-rooted in the American Protestant mainline. It was the established church in much of colonial New England; soon dwarfed by faster-growing denominations, it retained the aura of establishment, often the most socially prominent church in many communities. Its membership included lawyers, judges, governors, and two presidents. As such its every gesture was reported in the press.

Like all of the mainline denominations, however, the United Church of Christ has seen its stature decline in recent decades. Its membership has dropped and its social prominence has faded as other churches have taken the spotlight. Despite its long heritage and rich diversity, the UCC has seemed less newsworthy in comparison to televangelists and megachurches.

Again, like all of the mainline denominations, the UCC has worked hard in recent years to reclaim its place on the stage. At its biennial General Synods the denomination passes statements on ethical and social issues, including everything from marriage to the Middle East. Those resolutions generally get press coverage, however, only when they lead to conflict within the church. In recent years the UCC has been more active in shaping its own message, with an advertising campaign showing it as a welcoming alternative to exclusive denominations. One new initiative reaches out to scientists. Several years ago, after Spongebob Squarepants was attacked by some evangelical groups for supposedly promoting homosexuality, the denomination's president was pictured greeting the animated porifera. The UCC markets itself as "people of God's extravagant welcome."

Its suddenly most prominent member represents that image. Ever since his appearance on the national stage in 2004, the UCC has proudly claimed Obama. He belongs to Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the denomination's largest congregation; Trinity's recently-retired pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has long been Obama's mentor. The new senator was a keynote speaker at the denomination's fiftieth anniversary celebrations last summer. While Obama is not a cradle UCC member—he joined Trinity in his mid-twenties—he exemplifies the UCC's self-image: young, intelligent, progressive, and multi-cultural.

As with the Mormons, however, having a member run for president creates both opportunities and challenges. Reporters investigating Obama's membership at Trinity have discovered the congregation's strong Afrocentric identity ("Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian"), leading some in the blogosphere to tag the church as racist and extremist. Others have focused on short excerpts from Wright's sermons which appear anti-American. Some have connected Wright and Farrakhan to UCC resolutions about the Middle East conflict, calling the entire denomination anti-semitic.

Recently the United Church of Christ has learned that it is under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is concerned that the denomination may have engaged in electioneering by inviting Obama to address last summer's General Synod, thus endangering its tax-exempt status. The UCC insists that it was exercising its rights to free speech, adding that Obama was not yet a declared candidate when they invited him.

The IRS investigation is just beginning, and there will be a lot more written about the Obama-Wright-Farakhan connection. For the moment, however, one conclusion stands out: In our intensely mediated world, publicity is hard to control. Religious organizations may welcome the attention generated by prominent members, but in a day of twenty-four news cycles and anonymous blogging, that attention creates as many challenges as opportunities.

Daniel Sack is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and administrator of the Border Crossing Project at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The March issue of the Martin Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum presents an essay by Jerome Copulsky, Assistant Professor and Director of Judaic Studies at Goucher College: "The Last Prophet: Spinoza and the Political Theology of Moses Hess." Commentary from Rabbi Shai Held (Jewish Theological Seminary of America), Leah Hochman (University of Florida), Jeffrey Israel (University of Chicago) and Ben Sax (University of Chicago) will be available on the forum's discussion board,where readers may also post responses.
Access the discussion board at:
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Strength for the Journey -- Review

Diana Butler Bass. Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community. Foreword by Phyllis Tickle. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2002. xix + 293.

We read memoirs for two reasons. We read them so as to get to know an author better. Indeed, memoirs take us deep into the psyche and experiences of an individual. We’re especially intrigued by famous figures or authors we’ve been reading. We also read them as a way of getting to know ourselves better. Sometimes as we read another person’s story, we see a mirror image of our own, and that mirror enlightens us as to who we are and where we’ve been.

Diana’s husband, Richard, told me that of all her books, his favorite was her memoir, Strength for the Journey. It’s possible that is because he figures into the story, but I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t the newest of her works – it was published in 2002 – but on Richard’s recommendation I purchased a copy and put it on the “to do” shelf. Finally, feeling the need to read something just a bit different, I picked it up and began to read. As I read I quickly saw parallels between our stories. To be honest, I already knew that our lives and stories overlapped at points – even though we didn’t meet until last year. But we’re about the same age, have lived in similar places, and likely our paths crossed even if we hadn’t formally met. So, as I read Strength for the Journey I saw my own story in her story.

This is the story of a person born into the church, who never left the church, but who at important points along the way struggled with her faith and her church. Like many of us who are of this generation (Baby Boomer), her journey led away from the church of her birth to a different one. The stories begin with her earliest memories of church life as a Methodist living in the Baltimore area. During her teenage years she moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where her family joined a conservative Bible church, one that emphasized an inerrant Bible and a wrathful God. From there it was off to college, seminary, doctoral studies, and finally a job in the academy. We read of her travels, her first marriage, its failure, and a second marriage that has sustained her journey. In the course of the chapters, we learn of her struggles to come to grips with her own faith and vocation.

That story is linked to a series of congregational studies. Diana began her life a Methodist, turned conservative Bible-believing Evangelical, and then in college found herself amongst the Episcopalians. It is her experiences in a series of Episcopal congregations across the country that forms the foundation of the book. We learn about her faith journey and about these very different churches. For the most part she names the names of people with whom she had positive interactions, and left unnamed those with whom she didn’t – though a few clergy are so mentioned, but not all. This is more celebration of the journey than expose.

My story is similar, in that I started out in the Mainline, verged to the Evangelical side, and then returned to the Mainline. As similar as this trajectory is, the stops along the way are different. She started out Methodist, but I began my life as an Episcopalian. She became a conservative Evangelical, while I spent my time with the Pentecostals. Her journey led to the Episcopal Church of my birth, but I ended up with the Disciples. All of this means that while our journeys are similar, there are significant differences as well. But our church experiences aren’t the only parallel tracks. We both attended Christian colleges, though mine was both smaller and perhaps a bit more moderate. We both attended Evangelical seminaries – she went to Gordon-Conwell and I went to the more moderate Fuller Seminary. As I read her decision to choose Gordon-Conwell over Fuller, I wondered if things would have turned out differently for her had she joined me – unknowingly of course – at Fuller. My own journey was has proven to be challenging at times, but my movement from Evangelical to Progressive has been more gradual and less heartrending.

Let me give an example of how our differences in context shaped us – interestingly, it is the issue of women’s place in the church. Diana had significantly more of a struggle with the issue than did I. Part of this is due to the fact that she married a man whose views on this issue were very conservative. It is also likely due to the fact that I had spent time in a denomination founded by a woman and then went to a seminary where women’s issues were paramount. While I may have been a chauvinist at points in my life, my ideology on this issue never hardened. On the issue of homosexuality, our struggles were closer in nature, but for different reasons we have come to a similar point, although the way the issue is being handled denominationally is different.

The stories of the churches are interesting, because we see a denomination in the midst of change. The Episcopal church of my youth was an establishment church, even as it remains to this day. But some are more so than others, and in this journey we encounter old line traditional congregations struggling with modernity. We see churches struggling theologically, especially in congregations influenced by Evangelicalism. We encounter churches, like Santa Barbara’s Trinity Episcopal Church, a church that is led by an openly gay priest. Trinity has become over the years a safe haven for all manner of seekers. It has a high church liturgy together with a strong social justice emphasis. Seekers are welcome. And though it is by definition an establishment church its participants run the gamut from the homeless to the wealthy.

Santa Barbara is one of those places were our stories overlap. Diana had been a student and then later a professor at Westmont College, facts that placed her in Santa Barbara. I came to Santa Barbara to pastor the Disciples church there, just as she was leaving for Memphis. I was introduced to her – not personally but intellectually – through her Sunday columns published in the local paper. Because of her time in Santa Barbara, I know Westmont and three of the churches that she participated in. I know pastors that she knows in those churches – and so her stories of these churches resonate with me.

An interesting factor in this book centers on the reasons why she became an Episcopalian. I think this factor goes to the heart of how we choose our faith homes. For most of us, it isn’t about structure or even theology. Often it is, as it was for Diana, the liturgy and the spirituality of the place. The structure is secondary, and even the theology can be secondary, though she would struggle theologically, because the Anglican tradition is not generally biblicist nor uniform. She struggled early on with its inclusiveness – “How could you have a church with no ‘uniformity of belief’?” (p. 86). But this struggle was softened by what she was experiencing in worship.

We learn in the course of her journey that church people can be gracious and loving and accepting of us. We also learn that churches and their people can be narrow, mean-spirited, and self-centered. There are churches that are open to renewal and others that are not.

On this score, I’ll simply reflect on her experiences at the one church in her journey that I know the best – Trinity in Santa Barbara. Trinity is a large, growing, influential congregation, that two decades ago was nearly dead. It was an establishment church that no longer attracted large numbers of establishment types in a community where spirituality is often non-institutional in nature. But, even during the most difficult of times, a remnant was there to continue the practices of faith. When Mark came, however, he brought a sense of openness to the Spirit that enlivened the old stone building. New things began to happen and the church burst open with faith. What is important to note is that it grew not by becoming more conservative, but by embracing a an open spirituality, allowing people to be seekers and in their seeking find a home that provided context and substance. They embraced Taize and the labyrinth. They served the poor and pursued biblical literacy. She speaks of a biblical vision of God that stirred her heart.

A more biblical vision of God – not as a vengeful and distant Father – richly plumbed for its paradoxes began to heal our wounds. We called it the love and justice year. As Mark explored these twin characteristics of God, we discovered that God’s love justified us, it made us right. And doing justice was God’s love. We had all been, in the theology of Martin Luther, justified by love and made right by mercy, and we were to be God’s people in the world. Broken, sinful, and welcomed. Healed, redeemed, and sent on mission. Gathered around the table, dispersed into the world. Two sides of the same thing. Journey inward, journey outward. God’s love
and justice. (p. 218).

Readers of this book will in the end discover that her journey proved to be the foundation for the important books she we write concerning Mainline renewal and faith practice. In the final chapter, an epilogue that brought her journey up-to-date, she talks about learning of intentional Christian practice. A member at that point of one of the most historic Episcopal congregations in the nation, Christ Church of Alexandria, she notes that it wasn’t the establishment nature of things that determined her faith. The fact that George Washington or Robert E. Lee had sat in its pews was of little ultimate importance. It was instead, the faith of the spiritual pilgrim that warmed her heart.

Diana’s message is clear – there is hope for the Mainline, even churches deeply rooted in their establishment roots. It isn’t the judicatories or the theological statements that make for renewal, for true renewal is local and grass roots. Your experience of Diana’s book might differ from mine. My story parallels hers in such a way that I was drawn into it spiritually and emotionally. With that confession made, I believe that this is one of those memoirs that will prove spiritually enlivening for all who read it.

And to Richard I say – you’re right, as good as Diana’s other books are, this is my favorite as well.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Rhetoric of Jeremiah Wright in Historical Perspective

Ed Blum, a professor at San Diego State University and author of the recently published book -- W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007), of which I have written a review for the March 15 issue of the Christian Century -- addresses the historical pedigree of Wright's speech. Over the course of the last two centuries, Black writers and activists from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King, have issued prophetic denunciations of racism, using the idea of America's Christian nationalism as a lever in the conversation. Blum sees Wright in this long tradition. It's not a word we like to hear, but it is a word that has a history and a context. I think you'll find this analysis intriguing! Click here to read.

Responses to the Obama Speech

How you view yesterday's speech will depend on how you view Barack Obama. If you don't like him; if you're uncomfortable with a person of color as President; if you just can't get beyond Jeremiah Wright; then probably yesterday's speech won't go far with you. If you like him, if you think the time is ripe for a non-white President, or if you are able to separate him from Wright, then you probably heard the speech differently.

My sense is that the American people are all over the place. I also recognize in comments in the news and in personal conversations that race remains an issue for this nation. Many people want to think that we got beyond race in the 1960s, but that's not true. We may bury it, suppress it, etc., but it's still there and Obama's candidacy has surfaced this issue. White America didn't care much one way or another about Jeremiah Wright or his church until Obama came along. Now its an issue.

In the interest of furthering the conversation I'm trying to post responses I think are helpful. Time has posted six short responses by political scientists, including a couple from Pennsylvania. Some of these observers see this as a crowning achievement, others think he is unelectable and can't get beyond the issue. That race will bring him down. That may well be. We'll have to see. Click here to read their views.

The Chicago Tribune posts a piece by Shawn Taylor, an African American woman married to a white man raising a bi-racial child who happens to have been a member of Trinity UCC. She talks about the complex issue that is race and how it is addressed in that church. Yes, Wright goes off on occasion about White America, but she makes a good point -- if the message was "hate whitey" then having White friends or being married to a White man wouldn't happen. It is a piece that gives an inside view of the issue -- worth reading. Click here to read.

Here is an article on the Bloomberg news that addresses the parallels to JFK's speech about Catholicism. The response here is that Obama's task is much more difficult and complex. Indeed, a quote of Ralph Reed shows that for the Right Obama must essentially condemn his own community. He must become as some Blacks fear -- culturally White. This is also an interesting article that can be read by clicking here.
Maureen Dowd sees this event as an important step of removing Obama from the saintly pedestal, and invest in him a bit more "gray," which in the end may be more helpful. She accuses him of being naive about Wright and Tony Rezko and how those relationships taint his efforts. It's a challenging piece, but is an interesting viewpoint.
The conversation has begun and will continue for the foreseeable future. Again, how Obama's campaign fares is unknown.

Hillary's Days as First Lady

Hillary released her White House schedules, which total about 11,000+ pages. That's a lot of paper, but what they reveal is that she probably was more active than your typical First Lady, but most of her activities, after the failure of the Health Care Initiative, were largely ceremonial. It's not that she didn't do anything, but to say that these 8 years make her the "experienced" candidate may be stretching things. The truly "experienced" candidates -- Dodd, Biden, and Richardson -- never got out of single digits.
For more -- read here.

Anger and the Black Community

The thing that put off so many whites about Jeremiah Wright's sermons was the anger they expressed. Whites aren't used to hearing such things expressed, especially when they see the words addressed to them. They don't understand why things like slavery and Jim Crow keep getting brought up.
In an essay today in the LA Times, an African American woman named Erin Aubry Kaplan addresses these very questions and helps us understand, if we're willing to listen, why Blacks are angry and why they feel the need to express it. She confesses to being "black and mad" and that this anger is part of her heritage, passed down generation to generation.

Watching all this unfold, my blood started boiling. What I think Wright's critics really don't like is the fact that he is mad. Although I don't necessarily share all of his analyses or his stridency, I recognize his rage as a general anger about the conditions of black Americans, who he says still deal constantly with racism. This is exactly what most other black people I know believe. Unlike Wright in the pulpit, most of us don't come off nakedly angry -- we'd never survive that way, emotionally or otherwise.

But what for us is ever present nonetheless strikes white people as outrageous. Nothing makes them more skittish than realizing that there are angry black people in their midst -- and an angry black man is most alarming of all, especially one running for president.

Obama, she notes, was put in the position of distancing himself from that caricature. She also notes that in his day, Martin Luther King, a person everyone wants to set up as the "model" Black preacher, was considered angry and demanding and off-putting by many whites.
So, what Obama has done is bring out this issue of anger in the Black community and resentment of that anger in the White community. Kaplan concludes:

Obama addressed black anger head-on Tuesday: He said it was not always productive. But the anger is real, he continued. "It cannot be wished away."

It's that kind of risky honesty that Obama has skillfully channeled into a broader movement of discontent and hope in 2008. If we can keep our racial neuroses in check, it is that kind of honesty that just might transform us all.

I think that the Kaplan essay could prove helpful in our quest to understand the issues set before us. To read the entire piece, click here.

Obama's Lincoln Moment

That is the title given to a column in today's LA Times written by media columnist Tim Rutten. He compares favorable Obama's speech to Lincoln's "House Divided" speech during the 1858 Senatorial campaign.
Rutten makes a number of excellent points in this must read column. One of those points concerns the stature of a speech that could have been merely damage control, but which may become a speech of a lifetime. In this speech, as Rutten points out, Obama speaks of the divide between black and white and the need to move forward. He also notes Obama's theological interpretation of America's original sin that stained the Constitution, a document he has taught and loves.

Obama did what he had to do, unequivocally repudiating Wright's extreme rhetoric. But what was truly radical about his analysis was his implicit demand that black and white Americans accept the imperfection of each other's views on race. Embedded in such acceptance is the seed of that "more perfect union" toward which this country -- unquestionably great but itself imperfect -- must strive.

It was a concept that Obama subtly invoked near the beginning of the speech by pointing to the fact that although the Constitution "was stained by the original sin of slavery," the "answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution -- a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time."

Indeed, Obama has called us to get beyond the status quo and continue the journey toward perfecting that union that binds us together as a nation.

An Unfortunate 5 year Anniversary

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. It really doesn't matter if things are going better now than a year ago, that security is better in Iraq than it was a year ago due to the surge, at least not in the fuller picture. Yes, violence is down from a year ago and life is returning to something nearing normal. But the real question isn't how are things now, but should we have gone in to Iraq in the first place. George Bush, of course, continues to defend this decision. John McCain, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, and others continue to make the same claims.
Where are we 5 years later? Saddam is out and that's a good thing. But, there still isn't a truly functioning government in Iraq. What we have is a government that is paralyzed by religious, ethnic, and tribal rivalries. We have an entrenched Al-Queda network that wasn't there before the war. We have ethnic and religious minorities under severe duress (Christians were protected by Saddam). Violence is still common, security ebbs and flows, and no real political solution is in place.
Could things have been different had the Pentagon and the President had decided to prosecute a war that was fully manned and well planned? That's possible. Could security have been imposed immediately, rather than letting things spin out of control? Most likely. Did the decommissioning of the army undermine security? Most certainly. Has the "de-Baathification" policy remove important managers and technicians from daily life? Very likely.
All of that being said, the question goes back to whether this was a worth-while enterprise. I think that the decision made in 1991 to not further prosecute the first Gulf War should be seen as a clue. Would Iran be the rising power if Iraq hadn't been destabilized? Would Afghanistan be in the place it's in if we had stayed to finish the job? Is military expansionism the best means of achieving our goals in the world? I think that the answers to all these questions lead to the conclusion that the Iraq War was a mistake then and it is now.
But, we are in there. We broke it, so how will try to fix it? Long term occupation, along the lines proposed by John McCain is not going to work. Our long term presence will only further exacerbate the problem. So, we need to find a way to disengage quickly, orderly, safely, while helping the Iraqi's get back on their feet and take responsibility for their lives.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Speech on Race and Politics -- Video

I have added this You Tube version of the speech for your viewing and comment.

Obama's Speech on Race and Politics

Today Barack Obama gave a speech for the ages, a historic statement on the issue of race in America. It was a speech he had to make in large part because of incendiary statements in sermons given by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, but also because the election cycle was in danger of becoming polarized along racial lines. It was a speech that has important political implications. The long term effects will not be known for sometime, but the speech has given the nation an opportunity to talk about race, something we'd rather not do.
I only caught the final minutes of the speech this morning, but it was interesting to listen to the pundits discuss it. By and large people were impressed by its tone and substance. They saw it as a historic statement, perhaps the most important speech on race since Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream Speech" nearly a half century ago. There were a few that suggested that this wasn't enough, but what they were asking him to do was throw his pastor under the bus. If he did that he would have lost all support in the Black community. He criticized the tone and substance of sermons that were divisive, but asked that his pastor be seen in context and in light of the wonderful work of ministry he has done over the years. Jeremiah Wright is much more than the clips that are on constant loop across the internet.
This evening, I finally sat down and read the text. I do believe it has the possibility of bringing the nation to the table for an important discussion. Whether it will empower his campaign to victory, no one knows at this point.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the speech. The first is a statement about why he stayed a member and the influence his pastor had on his life:

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to
the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and
seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth - by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

He points to the contradictions in the speech, noting the divisiveness of the words, but pointing out that never in his presence had Pastor Wright denigrated anyone of another race.
He also spoke of a change of generational values, and a recognition that in Pastor Wrights words there was the sense that things could not change, but Obama said that his own life story is a sign that change has happened.
And yet, as he notes, we have reached a racial stalemate, one that an election cycle by itself can't overcome.

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

The message of the speech is this -- we must come together and have this discussion, so that we can work on creating the more perfect union promised in our founding documents.

Old Letters on Iraq

With our nation standing on the eve of the 5th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, I thought I would reprint the letter I sent to my Congressional Representatives. The same letter addressed here to Senator Feinstein went as well to Senator Barbara Boxer and Congresswoman Lois Capps. It is dated August of 2002. Notice that there was deep concern then about the direction of our foreign policy -- stated by GOP stalwarts.
August 20, 2002
The Honorable Dianne Feinstein
U.S. Senate
11111 Santa Monica Blvd. Ste. 915
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Dear Ms. Feinstein:

I am writing to you out of a growing concern about the current direction of American foreign policy. I write as a citizen and as a local pastor to convey my concern about the President's rhetoric regarding a change of the regime in Iraq. We are already deeply engaged militarily in Afghanistan and pursuing other counter-terrorism projects here and abroad. We have virtually no support from our allies and experienced foreign policy people such as Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger counsel against the proposed action in Iraq. Finally, the situation in Israel/Palestine continues to spiral out of control making the region extremely unstable and dangerous. Therefore, I believe that any thought of military action in Iraq at this time seems not only inappropriate but dangerous.

I am very aware of the nature of the current regime in Iraq, but the proposed action not only seems counter-productive but possibly contrary to international law. There does not, at this time, appear to be a credible alternative to the current regime nor any plan for restoration of the country in the aftermath of war. We have yet to invest much more than military involvement in Afghanistan, will this be our policy in Iraq as well?
Finally, we must take into consideration the effect that war will have on the Iraqi people and on the American men and women who will likely die or be wounded during what will surely be a prolonged and dangerous war.

Therefore, I ask that you would take every possible action to oppose the possibility of military attacks on Iraq, especially without wide support from our allies. I realize that there are those who believe it unpatriotic to stand up against the President at this time, but if we are to be true to our constitution, then this we must do!
Sincerely Yours,

Dr. Robert Cornwall

A New Leg in the Journey

Last night I waited four agonizing hours -- well, really just three. I knew that Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan was discussing my future. Troy is 3 hours ahead, so as the evening wore on, with my stomach tossing and turning -- yes I was anxious about my future. Would they hear the call or not. Just before 8 PM PDT, the phone rang and the word came, the church council had voted unanimously to call me as their pastor. I must still receive the approval of the congregation, which I will meet in a couple of weeks.
And so a new adventure begins. I will leave behind a congregation I love to lead one I do not at this point truly know. I've been searching for biblical analogies for where I've been and for where I'm going. No analogy is perfect. But I'm picking both Moses and Joshua, knowing full well that both images have their problems. For nearly four years I've been pastor of the Lompoc church, leading them through the wilderness, and like Moses, I won't see them traverse into the promised land. Someone else will receive that call, and that person (whether female or male) will be the Joshua for that congregation. At the same time, as I move to Michigan, I become Joshua for them. They too have been in a four year wilderness journey, finding themselves and their calling. The parting of ways here will be with tears and the joining together there will be with anticipation at what will be.
I'm sad and I'm excited, normal emotions I suppose, as we make our journeys in life.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Jeremiah Wright in Context

Diana Butler Bass wrote last Friday on the God's Politics blog a piece that helpfully puts some context into this controversy over Jeremiah Wright and his sermons, sermons that have in the minds of some, seriously wounded Barack Obama as a "post-racial" candidate.
She writes:

As MSNBC, CNN, and FOX endlessly play the tape of Rev. Wright's "radical" sermons today, I do not hear the words of a "dangerous" preacher (at least any more dangerous than any preacher who takes the Gospel seriously!) No, I hear the long tradition that Jeremiah Wright has inherited from his ancestors. I hear prophetic critique. I hear Frederick Douglass. And, mostly, I hear the Gospel slant—I hear it from an angle that is not natural to me. It is good to hear that

That is not, of course, comfortable for white people. Nor is it easily understood in sound bites. It does not easily fit in a contemporary political campaign. But it is a deep spiritual river in American faith and culture, a river that—as I had to learn—flows from the throne of God.

Perhaps this controversy will help us all hear the cries of those who find themselves on the margins.