Barack Obama and Racism: How Should Christians Respond

John ArmstrongRace and Racism

By now everyone has seen, or heard, some of the exceedingly provocative clips taken from Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons in which he advocates his Afro-centric black liberation views. Under normal circumstances Wright’s opinions would not much matter to a national audience, since there are a number of black pastors (and for that matter many white liberal pastors) who would agree with him about much of what he says in these sermons. But Jeremiah Wright happened to have been Barack Obama’s pastor and friend for the past twenty years.

Over the last 48 hours this has been the biggest political news story in the American media. I have tried to read and listen to this story quite a bit over the past few days. For some this proves once-and-for-all that Barack Obama is a racist. For others it proves nothing of the kind. One thing is clear here: To objectively confront the implications of Obama’s personal relationship with his pastor is an extremely difficult matter. It calls for both intellectual honesty and a kind of discussion that will be very hard for most Americans to have in the coming weeks or months. And this could all prove fatal to Obama’s campaign.

On the other hand the “race” issue was bound to become an issue in this campaign sooner or later given the long history of this struggle in our country. Cynics will wonder who started all of this but the fact is these videos were available a long time ago? I wonder why they just now became a “big” issue?

I have said this before and will say it again: I am not a fan of Obama’s political views. But I do not have a dog in this hunt. I truly don’t. I think this allows me to listen to this debate and then to try and ask a lot of questions. I try to hear what is being said by both friends and foes of Obama. My interest is that of a Christian observer/minister who cares about the soul of the nation. I care about how we live in the public square. I care about our neighborhoods more than who holds office. And I care about issues like honesty, civility, respect, love and justice far more than the agenda of the two major political parties. (I have also made clear some of the issues that I think are central to the moral fabric of this nation.)

I watched Senator Obama’s interview with Fox reporter Major Garrett very carefully last evening. I have spoken with several who also saw it. It seems that each one of us heard and saw something different. Some believe Obama was covering has back and dodging the questions. They were, in other words, very cynical about what he said and how he said it. I was not cynical at all. I felt he answered the questions quite well. I also feel the political fall-out from this could destroy him in the coming primaries or the general election. Here is what I see, at least to this point in the debate:

1. There is an undeniable close knit 20 year relationship between Dr. Wright and Senator Obama. Pastor Wright married Barack and Michelle, baptized their children, dedicated their new house and has been a personal "sounding board" for him during all this time. One of the offensive sermons was, in point of fact, a message in which Wright attacked Hillary Clinton in order to defend Obama as a black man who has known the hurt of real racism, something Wright says Hillary Clinton can not understand. The title of Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, admittedly comes from a sermon of Jeremiah Wright’s. Book
I also recall that Wright was one of the first people that Obama thanked after his election to the Senate in 2004 in the Illinois general election. Furthermore, Barack Obama clearly consulted Wright before deciding to run for president and prayed privately with him before announcing his candidacy last year. How can he now distance himself from this relationship? He cannot and that it quite obvious. But Obama’s answers showed respect for Wright last evening. He then added that he never heard the strong racially based messages that are being played for the national audience. There certainly is room for more questions here and I expect journalists will, rightly so in this instance, not let go of this story too quickly. If Obama is not letting on about what he actually heard, and how he responded to it when he heard it, this will hurt him very profoundly, perhaps even with many of his black supporters. But white Americans must understand that the level of trust for whites is very, very low in the African-American community. Often this distrust is based on a shared life experience, not simply on reverse racial prejudice.

2. In one sermon the pastor called the United States the number one killer in the world and held the country, and white leaders in particular, responsible for things like the AIDS epidemic, 9-11, Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and apartheid, the Palestinian plight, and even the killing of innocents to bring down Castro & Libya. And this was not just one sermon, or one address given at Howard University, but several sermons and in several contexts. I have previously defended Wright for preaching a gospel that speaks of personal faith and the living Christ. He clearly also preaches the social gospel. Most evangelicals do not see how one can preach both messages, especially most white evangelicals. But the question Obama must now face is this: “How do you explain sitting through such incendiary sermons with your family?” (He said last night he did not personally hear these kinds of sermons, as I noted above, and this could make or break him if it is shown that he did hear any of them.) At a minimum we do know that Obama continued having a spiritual relationship with Wright despite such rhetoric, which was known. This is apparently why Obama canceled having Wright give an invocation when he announced that he would run for the presidency in 2007 in Springfield, Illinois. Looking back now it seems that he should have made it clear many months ago that he personally loved Wright but that he was in no way in agreement with this particular kind of message.

3. 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.

4. Obama’s candidacy is significantly based on his crossover appeal as the, so-called, agent of real change. That means he had amassed appeal to both Republicans and Independents. Is this appeal fatally compromised by these connections to Jeremiah Wright and his Afro-centric liberation theology? And how can Obama hold on to the “high ground” of being the less divisive candidate while having a very close long-term spiritual relationship with such a radical preacher? Alan Colmes, on The Hannity & Colmes show on Fox, tried to link John McCain to Rod Parsley and John Hagee because McCain has uttered a positive sentence or two about these fairly strong right-wing fundamentalist ministers. The comparison, to me at least, falls flat for one primary reason—McCain has not sought their counsel again and again and they were never helping shape his life for the past twenty years as his pastor.

5. Obama’s fresh appeal to the youngest voters, and the so-called "latte liberals," has been rooted profoundly in his sincerity and honesty, which will now come under withering attack. Dreams_book
This will include a mixture of racism and bad stuff for certain but it will also impact many people are not inherently racists at all. Is Geraldine Ferraro divisive and a racist? I do not think she is at all nor should she be seen this way in light of her comments this week but she was forced out of her alliance with Clinton by a bogus debate about her honesty regarding the role both gender and race play in our nation. So, how does this play out in the bigger picture? Remember, Jeremiah Wright leveled a broadside on “whites” in general and on European culture and people in particular. His comments are very inflammatory. Virtually all who have commented, including most liberal media pundits, have agreed on this point. If the shoe was on the other foot and the pastor was a white racist saying blacks, and their actions, were the cause of God’s judgment on America I have no real doubt the candidate would be driven from the field in a heartbeat.
6. One Obama supporter, writing on a blog spot, gave a pretty objective response to what transpired this week and thus concluded: “Of all the incendiary things one can say about race and society and country where is an Obama supporter or surrogate who now has the moral high ground to accuse the opponent’s surrogates for being divisive? What is disheartening here is that Obama has forever ceded that high ground to Clinton/McCain.” I think this is a good question coming from an Obama supporter. The Senator may be able to explain this in time but he had better be very straightforward or he will be flawed beyond repair.

Having said all of the above my primary concern over the past few days is not really about Obama, Clinton or McCain. I do care about who the next president will be, as a citizen, but I care much more, as a Christian, about what the Church of Jesus Christ is in America. I care with all my soul about its mission of reconciliation and hope. I thus urge you, if you are a Christian, to consider the following:

1. The Church is still one of the most racially divided places in American society. White Christians seem to care very little about addressing this problem and are thus satisfied to proclaim, “This is all about reverse racism and we are not racists. Cross
We may have been in the past but we are now beyond that problem. These radical blacks need to stop their bigotry against us.” This is a classic half-truth but when it presents itself as the whole truth it becomes a dangerous untruth that further divides me/us from my/our black brothers and sisters.

2. I listened to Jeremiah Wright very carefully in the various clips on You Tube. In fact, I watched them several times. There are nuances here that many whites can not and will not try to hear. Some of what he said has the ring of truth to it. And some of it sure sounds like anger and bitterness rooted in pain and frustration. A great deal of it presents a vision of America that will divide us further and does not honor the true greatness of our common national experience. But, and this is important, there is enough truth in what he says to make me uncomfortably sad and broken, thus I pray: "God heal our land."

My mind went back to William Wilberforce this morning. England ended the slave trade and never had the war that we fought. Blacks and whites are not, therefore, divided from each other in the U.K. they way they are in America. It seems that we have never recovered from our past and one wonders how we can begin to repent and move forward? I suggest this must begin in the Church. This is one reason I find so many young Christians want Obama to win since they see hope in the fact that a black man could bring the national healing that we so desperately need.

What grieves me even more is that most conservatives have no capacity to “hear” what Wright said, both the good and the very bad. As a Christian I need to learn to listen in a way that respects and honors people and the truth even if I do like how it is delivered or by whom. When Barack Obama said last night that most of what he heard from Pastor Wright was about family, faith and being a better Christian person in the world I tend to think that he was telling the truth. I have not heard scores of Wright’s sermons but I do not think what we’ve heard in the last few days in these You Tube segments is the normal sermon fare given at Trinity United Church of Christ. (Again, I disagree with a great deal of Wright’s more liberal theology so I am not speaking about agreeing with him on every point at all.)

3. There is a strong tendency in this whole debate to insist that Barack Obama should have left this congregation and his pastor if he was not himself guilty of racism. This is a kind of “guilt by association” theme and it is playing very large right now with white Christians. I simply do not agree with this conclusion. An interested blogger put it this way in a post that I came across on March 14:

As a racist preacher’s daughter, now an adult, I can only say that it is reductive and simplistic to make an association between a member of a church and the pastor. So are you ready to condemn all 10,000 members of Trinity Church of Christ as racist bigots?

People choose to attend churches for reasons that go far beyond the pastor himself. Churches are complex organisms and pastors don’t walk around with big badges saying I’m a racist, I love Louis Farrakhan, etc.; they preach three times in a week and the things they say, especially in such a large congregation are rarely, if ever, heard by everyone. So I think everyone should calm down and realize that Obama is not a bigot because his pastor is and that his decision to remain in this church 20 years isn’t necessarily a bad one.
Thank goodness there were good and generous people in my church, I would hate to have been left with only those who agreed with my Dad.

Those comments speak a lot to my point. I think those who believe Obama should have left Trinity miss a number of important points including the fact that he loved this pastor as an “uncle.” (This was the way he expressed it last night when I watched him.) Jeremiah Wright is the man who led Barack Obama to confess his faith in Christ and then counseled him as a young man. I have had many who counseled me with whom I strongly disagree. Some of them have even made outrageous statements, at least in my view. And some of my friends hold positions, politically and religiously, that are very different from my own. Must I “leave” them to prove that I differ with them?

The whole argument seems to be that you must leave a church because you disagree with the pastor. This is at the heart of a very real problem in conservative churches. We choose our church affiliation based upon complete agreement with the pastor. If we then think he is wrong we must leave. In fact, we expect this to happen and thus multitudes follow this practice and move from church to church. If this is true then I do not understand why white Christians stay under many of the pastors they follow in many of our more conservative churches. The fact is that such a decision is ultimately between them and God. I have sat under pastors who held views that I found very unacceptable but I did not leave the church simply for that reason.

4. I fear for our political future if this kind of debate becomes the center of another election cycle. Who will want to run for office if this continues? I desire to hear an honest debate about the vision these candidates have for America. In our system of government the people decide who will lead them. We are a country of laws. But when this kind of racially charged debate becomes central we are in real danger of more division and potentially more lawlessness. Yes, Wright’s words do create racial division, at least I think they do. But so do the words of Bob Jones IV, John Hagee, Pat Robertson and many others. But responding to Wright’s words in this present inflammatory context can only fan a much bigger flame of hatred and division before a world that is lost and confused. Cooler heads and more Christ-centered hearts need to prevail. I am praying for such and hope that many of you will commit yourselves to this approach in the weeks ahead. What is at stake here is much more than who will be our next president. What is at stake here is the role the Church will really have in an increasingly non-Christian country. Will we be able to speak both justice and mercy to a dying civilization that needs to hear the Word of Christ much more than this kind of rhetorical debate?