John Armstrong on Obama & Dr. Wright

kinnon —  March 15, 2008 — 13 Comments

John Armstrong’s blog is one that I always look forward to reading. He’s a wise and thoughtful writer and I particularly appreciate this post of his from a few hours ago, Barack Obama and Racism: How Should Christians Respond.

One of Obama’s strongest appeals has been his good sense of judgment and his ability to unite us as a people. This is both noble and commendable. If people question his judgment for keeping a very close kinship with someone who was asking God to damn America, which Wright says in one of these widely-seen video clips, then how will Obama respond? What will he say when the press, and the GOP, pours on the heat in the coming months? And if he wins election how then can he unite us? These are very hard questions for Senator Obama and will plague him I would guess. I pray he will find grace and wisdom. Again, he may be able to respond well in due time. He shows the ability to speak with candor in very convincing ways.

 

I said this in a comment on one of my posts earlier in the week. I find the myth of Obama very attractive. Like many I want the myth to match the reality. It never does. I do not believe Obama is a racist. (He’s a biracial man who was raised by his white mother and white grandparents.) I do believe the best of him – as far as one can believe the best of any politician.

Regarding his friend and former pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright – I do not believe most white Americans are in a place to understand the racial pain and anger that Dr. Wright allowed to enflame his sermons. We have never experienced that pain. I do not condone what he has said in the sermons that have been "discovered" nor do I condemn him for them. He is my brother-in-Christ. I have never walked a mile in his shoes.

I am not suggesting that his race gives him an automatic pass. This situation does, however, force me, as a white North American male, to recognize the power I put on by nature of my gender and the lack of pigmentation in my skin. And the casual, unthinking way I exercise that power and freedom speaks volumes about the world we live in. As a ridiculous but all to common example, I’ve never been stopped for a DWB – a Driving While Black. Would that all the people of colour I know be able to say the same thing. May God have mercy on all of us.

UPDATE: After pointing to John’s post and adding a few of my own thoughts I went off to bed last night. I woke up early this morning thinking about this and spent the first hour of the day reading the news (from multiple sources) and thinking about this issue. Here’s what I’ve come to:

I think Barack Obama still has a good chance of winning the Democratic nomination. But assuming he does win, I believe the rhetoric of Dr. Wright will insure he loses the national election. No matter his denunciations and denials, Obama is too easily tied to his pastor. (And to what is unfortunately easily read as a Black separationist 10-Point Vision of the church.)

For Obama to suggest he never heard the sermons is a little disingenuous. He certainly must have at least heard about them. I was an active congregation member from the time I was 26 until the last 18 months – a little more than 25 years. I know the active lines of communication that exist in churches. I may not have heard all the controversial sermons preached in those congregations – but I certainly heard about them. And my church experience is in both predominantly white and predominantly black churches. If, as Obama states, he was an active and connected member of Trinity United Church of Christ then surely he was aware of his pastor’s impassioned turns of phrase.

When one adds the two degrees of separation from Louis Farrakhan for Barack Obama, I’m afraid there is much too much ammunition for his opponents in the national election. And trust me, they won’t spare any of it.

The respected conservative writer, Victor Davis Hanson, says this,

 

…if one were to collate the reverend’s views on what his congregation should think of the United States, and, further, his writs against Americans as “selfish, self-centered egotists who are arrogant and ignorant” with Michelle Obama’s own astounding statements that hitherto she had no pride in the United States, and considered America “just downright mean," and Americans “guided by fear" and (in the words of the New Yorker profiler) who summed up her views as ‘we’re a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents’ the echoes are eerie.
 
  Without sounding dramatic, I think his campaign has seriously underestimated the effect of the Wright tapes on the average American voter (again, the problem is not just the transcript, but the delivery, most notably its fury and coarseness), and the senator’s own abject inability honestly and forthrightly to explain the close relationship of the Obamas to Reverend Wright, apologize for such a lapse of judgment, and move on. His advisors are culpable here, and apparently in their spin have no clue that they are making things worse rather than better.

In the increasingly bitter struggle between Clinton and Obama, you can be assured that the Clintonites will hang on to this story like our one year old spoodle hangs on to her toys. It may be enough to lose Obama the nomination – but if it doesn’t, it will certainly be enough to provide the GOP with all the tools necessary to defeat him. Even with as unattractive and awkward a candidate as John McCain.

Dr. Wright’s rhetoric is the ultimate Obama myth-buster. And for those of us who long for reason to hope, it is profoundly sad.

UPDATE 2: I’m not sure this helps. There’s also good discussion happening in the comments.

UPDATE 3: To those of you who think this is going to pass, read this post from Doug Groothius (a regular blog read of mine – even though I often disagree with him) who links to this post – which is an example of what will be used constantly against the Obama campaign. She repeats these no standard talking points – the no-flag-pin-in-lapel (true) and the no-hand-over-heart-POA (I believe it’s false).

kinnon

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

13 responses to John Armstrong on Obama & Dr. Wright

  1. Bill

    Thanks for the thoughtful post and update. A lot of us in the UCC are struggling to come to terms with Wright’s sermon excerpts as they have shown up on the web. I find deep resonance with your statements about coming to terms with the power I put on everyday as a white male and I’m bracing myself for the pain and disappointment of watching my nation descend into a racist fight I thought we might have worked through as the election approaches. Wright crossed a line. I can understand some of Obama’s hesitancy, on a personal level, to break with someone who has been both friend and pastor. That’s tough to have to do so publicly. Though Wright did Obama no favors, the attacks that will come as the election progresses were going to come anyway, I’m afraid. That makes me sad.

    Peace,
    Milton

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  2. Milton,
    I was ordained in a predominantly African-American congregation in Pittsburgh. I have seen and experienced my brothers and sisters of deeper pigmentation humiliated solely as a result of that pigmentation. It made me angry.

    I was in South Africa for the first time in 1996. The spirit of Apartheid was still alive in the church. I found myself beginning to hate white African Christians because of the way they responded to black Africans – and to the African-American Christians with whom I was traveling. The man who ordained me, an African American pastor leading that trip, confronted my anger and called it for what it was, sin. God had given him the grace to be a reconciler and he was able to see a move of reconciliation taking place – where all I could see were the vestiges of the old system.

    I truly wish that that had been the message of Dr. Wright. One that acknowledged the pain suffered by Africans at the hands of Europeans – but was willing to forgive as he had been forgiven. (I should note that Africa, like Europe, is not a monolith and there were many African peoples engaged in selling other Africans into slavery. The evil of slavery was not pigmentation specific.) But again, I have not suffered the prejudice that our African American brothers and sisters have – nor have I experienced the prejudice that our sisters of all hues have experienced. I am a white male. At this point in history I have automatic power simple because of that. It will not always be so.

    Milton,
    Thanks for writing – and for all the great writing you do at your blog. Your transparency is a real blessing. And someday I hope to enjoy your fabulous cooking.

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  3. It’s true that Wright handicaps Obama but don’t forget the McCain has Hagee AND Parsley hung around his neck.

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  4. We are only beginning to deal with the issue of race in this election. Rev. Wright will be forgotten by November, and new issues will arise. What I foresee is that now that a bi-racial American has risen to the point of being a legitimate candidate for President, it will change the nature of the race question. I welcome that as a Southern white male who has grown up with the race issue in my face all my life. That doesn’t make me a white supremacist, but rather a realist about race. I have found that all too often the race question has been used a convenient excuse to avoid deeper issues of how Americans are to relate to one another. More than anything it is a disservice to people of color who want the same opportunities that I have had, and yet are denied them because the race question forces them to play to that issue.
    If Barrack Obama is to be a healer, then he must be one in reality, not merely in his rhetoric. The myth of Obama is the purveyor of hope is greater than the man. Nothing has shown me that he is what his rhetoric suggests. That worries me, because it makes me wonder if we can truly know who this man is. His race is not an issue with me. His politics is. His economics is. His judgment of people is. His character under fire is. I know many African Americans who have my highest respect. They are men and women of dignity whose service to their people, their churches, and their communities are models to me of the highest standards of human endeavor. Time will tell whether Barrack Obama deserves to be in their class of people. Pardon me if I remain skeptical a little while longer.

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  5. I disagree that the comments of one’s preacher, and one’s close relationship with him, will have much affect on Obama’s public perception. Getting into this debate highlights: 1) Obama is Christian–which the Right wants to deny, 2) Obama regularly attends church, and 3) Obama is friends with his pastor.

    I think all these points will help him, not hinder him as they point to what Americans admire and respect.

    (Also, huge irony in that not one of Huckabee’s sermons made the headlines.)

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  6. An additional thought after dinner. Regardless of Barrack Obama’s race, he is a politician. The complexity of this reality is pointed out by Glenn Reynolds at link to instapundit.com. It means that to be a successful politician, meaning one who wins elections, that you have to be willing to compromise virtually your principles. This means that even if he believes in his preacher’s anti-Americanism, that he has to disavow it in order to win the election. In other words, people and principles are expendable. It sure seems like this is backward. That the people we need to elect are people who have integrity, who stand by the people who influenced their principles, and find a way to persuade the public that their principles are worth following. Yet, what this really means is that what you believe matters, and that the process will force a begrudging acceptance of the general principles held be the majority. Sure beats any other system. The system eschews radicalism, and embraces the great golden mean. And from my point of view that is why there is little difference between Republican and Democrat, Obama, Clinton (either one) or McCain, or even the Bushes.

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  7. I think (and I’m typing this before coffee and after an exhausting weekend … so, please be kind 😉 ) that an enormous part of the problem is that we are still looking for a messiah and/or a king.

    You know, back when this country was founded it was not a forgone conclusion that we would be a democracy. We think now, and are taught this sense of historical inevitability. But that is not true at all. If you read any of debates and writings surrounding the Constitutional Convention, you’ll find a substantial following for monarchy, particularly in the New York and southern delegations. In order to achieve a presidency and a republic there were compromises (among them, allowing slavery and the supremacy of states rights).

    I make that statement only to say that we’ve been longing for a king/messiah ever since. But maybe that longing goes back even further in time to the OT … I dunno …

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  8. Sonja,
    As in the problems with the church and our desire for king-like leaders, people suffer from that same desire outside of it. And I hear you echoing the words of God to Samuel in 1 Samuel 8.

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  9. I find it interesting that Jeremiah Wright is only coming up now. I lived in Chicago for 8 years, and he’s reasonably well-known, and the website of the church SAYS they’re afro-centric.

    I have heard many people – good people – say almost exactly what Dr. Wright said – mostly African-American or Latinos (and some white people) in urban areas, mostly working at non-profits, and a good number of them Christians. Hell, if you circulated some of the things I’ve said, I could never run for President. One of my old roommates attended a black nationalist church for a while – and it was a really good thing for her.

    Of course, African-Americans are not monolithic in their views – neither is any other ethnic group – but if you run in activist-y, urban ministry circles, people will say some stuff that would make your average, middle-class white person HIGHLY uncomfortable. I’m sure that I say things when I’m with my friends that would make you very twitchy, and I have heard people who have devoted their lives to racial reconciliation go OFF in private because it is such tremendously frustrating work – especially in the evangelical church.

    All that to say, Jeremiah Wright – not that crazy. (Not politically helpful, but definitely not crazy.) How much sense he makes depends a whole lot on your own experiences of the world.

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  10. Christy,
    Both my wife and I were ordained in a predominantly African-American church in the northern US. I feel like I’ve heard more sermons by people of colour than I have those of us a little more pasty white. Perhaps because they’ve stuck with me more. The pastor who ordained me, was the one eight years before that who had opened my eyes to my own inherited privilege because of my lack of melanin.

    I have seen my African-American friends treated like crap because of their pigmentation. It is disgusting. I have zero doubt that race is still a huge issue in the US – and, though to a lesser degree, in my own country, Canada.

    But the Jesus-ministry is one of reconciliation and love, not separation and hate. At a human level, I completely understand my brother-in-Christ, Dr. Wright’s anger and frustration. Racial injustice is a weight too heavy to bear for many. But. There are those who have born it with dignity and love. MLK Jr is one great example. And I’m sure he went off in anger sometimes in private. He was a human, after all.

    If we are to experience racial reconciliation, it will not be at the hands of Afrocentric people such as Dr. Wright. Nor will it be at the hands of Eurocentric people who look like me. It will be at the hands of those who hear and believe St. Paul’s words that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female – for we are all one in Jesus Christ. We. Are. All. One. In. Jesus Christ

    Obama’s campaign has been one identified by the audacity of hope. Might I suggest that Dr. Wright’s rhetoric has caused us to experience the audacity of hope deferred. And my heart is sick.

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  11. Bill –

    On one level, you’re right. And it was late, and I left part of my comment in my head – I don’t necessarily think that Dr. Wright’s approach is terribly helpful, and no, it probably doesn’t do a whole lot to further racial reconciliation, and it’s probably an irresponsible use of the pulpit.

    However, on a practical level, we are NOT all one in Jesus Christ – Sunday morning at 11 am is still the most segregated hour of the week. It is my experience that we can’t get to what should be until we deal with what IS.

    And what IS is that Dr. Wright is a tremendously well-educated man, with an influential, large congregation that includes the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama. Clearly, he is articulating something that resonates with his congregation or they wouldn’t be there. Putting aside the Presidential campaign, I wish we in the U.S. would spend more time asking, “What is this about and why do a couple thousand people go to hear this every week?”, rather than immediately condemning it.

    My experience is that Galatians 3:28 is all very well and good, but we’re not one big happy family by any stretch of the imagination. In my experience, cross-cultural,cross-class, cross-gender relationships only work when there is space for all the ugly to show up – the resentment, the anger, the visceral distrust. If there’s not space for that, it all goes underground and submarines our relationships and our churches. I’ve seen it happen over and over again – much better to get it all out on the table, even if the table gets messy. Too often, I’ve seen Christians pull out love and Bible verses as a defense against really engaging with pain, fear, and anger.

    I know in my life, I get tired of being told that what I have to say is only valid if I am always well-behaved. My life experiences have left some deep scars and wounds, and I bear some deep resentment and distrust towards the church. Sometimes I handle it well, and sometimes I don’t. I’m not always fair or full of love, and one of the reasons I left church is because there was no space for me to be honest about just how deep my anger went. Now that I’m used to telling the truth about myself, I’m not sure I ever want to go back. The self-censorship required is exhausting.

    Long comment, I know, but I think if we’re to make any progress on racism or sexism or any other ism in this country or in the church, we have to figure out how to hold where we want to be in tension with where we actually ARE.

    Peace.

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  12. Christy,
    I’m sorry that it looks like I’m promoting a gospel of being nice and not being real. If you read elsewhere on this blog, you’ll see I’m rarely accused of being nice – even by my friends.

    Racial reconciliation is incredibly hard. Those of us who are pigmentallly challenged need to be the most gracious as we recognize how our pigmentally challenged forbears wreaked much havoc on the lives of our darker skinned family members. However, it becomes a warped form of paternalism to not expect those family members to forgive and reconcile – and move forward – as Obama suggested in his speech today.

    Thanks for commenting and I do appreciate your wisdom, experience and perspective. I’m up to my ears in work or I would attempt to be a little more cogent.

    May this be a season of all of us experiencing the Presence of Our Risen Saviour – You, Me, Barack Obama and Dr. Wright.

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  13. “However, it becomes a warped form of paternalism to not expect those family members to forgive and reconcile – and move forward – as Obama suggested in his speech today.”

    I actually agree with you on this point, but I don’t feel like I have the credibility to tell anyone else that they need to forgive, when I don’t know if I have.

    (And probably some of the seeming differences in our perspectives is that I expect ALL preachers to be full of shit with large egos and a tendency to love the sound of their own voice. It’s hard to be very shocked when your expectations are already that low.)

    And I didn’t mean to give the impression that I think you’re all about group hugs and rounds of kumbayah. I don’t know your precise religious location, but if you’re ordained, you’re probably a lot more theologically orthodox than I am, so I would imagine we approach things from different directions.

    So, to summarize our points of agreement – racial reconciliation is a good thing, and also hard and messy.

    Peace.

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