Obama_and_michelleThe heart of my post re: Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright was not about politics. It was about race and how we perceive race in the American Church. Because I believe we must learn to listen to voices that we do not normally hear well I suggested that we try to hear this story in a less condemning way than we are prone to hear it as white Christians.

In today’s issue of the Wall Street Journal there is a fine article titled: "Blunt Sermons Rooted in Black Tradition." The new pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Rev. Otis Moss III, the son of civil rights leaders, preached a sermon yesterday titled: "Why the Black Church Won’t Shut Up." He described how Jesus led the poor to Jerusalem, likening their plight to that of blacks under Jim Crow laws and the slaves who were shipped from Africa.  Said Rev. Moss, "I’m sorry we’re a noisy bunch but if I shut up, you won’t know my story." I believe, as I’ve indicated, that this is the heart of the matter. Black Christians I know, and this is a broad statement, generally wish we "knew their story" and shared in it by shutting up and listening to them sometime. The man who taught me this, back in 1970, was the late Harlem evangelist Tom Skinner, who really made me mad until I talked to him and shut up long enough to hear him out. Tom never made it in the white world because he would not stop saying the things that shook me up. He preached the gospel so powerfully and biblically but it didn’t matter. On the whole whites would not listen to him. And whites would not fund him either. I found this out over the next few decades. Tom was a flawed man, as some of you well know, but he was a good man and a real Christian. I will always thank God for his getting in my face at Wheaton College about my own residual racism. I have continued trying to work this out for 38 years!

I’ve already made it clear that Rev. Wright stepped over the line, at least in my view. But I do not condemn him quite so as aggressively as some because I understand that this is a certain kind of preaching rooted in both the Bible and shared experience. I disagree with Wright’s social gospel and his personal representation of America as evil. But I grant him the right to say these things and I suggest we need to ask: "Why did he say them?" This is the hard part for white Christians who are financially comfortable and strongly connected to our own story of success and the American dream as we’ve known it. This story has worked favorably for many of us and our children so we figure our black brothers and sisters need to stop complaining and get in line and make just it like we did.

200283349001But the strong biblical cry for justice and love for the poor pushes me to listen to Jeremiah Wright even if I reject some of his message very strongly. Comparisons to listening to evil men and biblical wisdom do not apply to this context if I read the Scriptures faithfully in their larger context. I would, to make my point, gladly sit down with Dr. Wright and listen to him with real respect. I would reserve the right to disagree and I would also try to listen to him very carefully, asking lots of questions in the process.

Trinity United Church of Christ issued a statement saying Wright’s "character is being assassinated in the public square because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe. . . . It is an indictment on Dr. Wright’s ministerial legacy to present his global ministry within a 15-or-30 second sound bite." I agree and think we should measure the man by the whole of his life, not just the offensive remarks. And I think I respond this way because of how I understand my Christian faith and what it leads me to do in this broken and messy world. This is really at the heart of being missional for me, which is the purpose of ACT 3.

I am submitting to you, my readers, that the simple thesis of white detractors  about this issue is this—what they see here is Louis Farrakhan, race-hatred and anti-Semitism. They do not hear the rest of this story. Writers Suzanne Sataline and Douglas Belkin, writing in the Wall Street Journal, say today that "Wright’s sermons may sound spiteful to some,

[but] they are rooted in the history of black protest and a Christian theology shared by some African-American churches." I am not promoting liberation theology but I am suggesting that we would do well to listen to the discordant notes that it plays in the wider Church and then ask, "Why do our brothers and sisters feel this way?" And, we should further ask, "What is the thoughtful Christian response, the response that seeks reconciliation as a higher goal than politically correct statements?" In my life and theology personal and social reconciliation is a much higher goal than political philosophy and the use of certain offensive language. This view is rooted in creation and redemption. I believe I am very deficient in my own views on many things and thus I continue to seek to adjust them as I try to learn and grow. I do not see how I can grow by listening only to white political conservatives.

Human_raceThus, as I have simply put it, this issue is first and foremost about reconciliation, not about who said what and why Obama is a really racist because his pastor uttered some unseemly and angry words in the larger context of ministry in a black social gospel experience. We’ve been here before and the discouraging thing is that we evangelical white Christians still have a long way to go. This is not to say that some of our black brothers and sisters could not learn to help us, without all the angry condemnations, but someone has to to take a first step for reconciliation to happen and I want to be a peacemaker and a reconciler, not a warrior for the cause. This is at the heart of my life’s calling and the central thesis for the book I am writing: Your Church is Too Small.

For Obama’s part he produced a three-and-a-half minute response on video that has appeared on the Net today. I could not find this video morning and would thus welcome someone informing us all where it can be viewed. I did visit Obama’s campaign site a
nd watched several videos on faith. It seems to me the man believes in the Christ of history. He has also embraced, as many black Democrats have, a social gospel message.

Does this mean that Obama is not a real Christian? This is where I think the problem comes for a large number of white evangelicals. They cannot conceive of a Christian who holds some of the views Barack Obama clearly holds; e.g., abortion, gay marriage, etc. If you read The Audacity of Hope51wt8hf6vol_aa240_
you will see his views clearly stated in one well-written chapter. He admits his own struggle with these tough moral issues rather candidly but comes down on the wrong side, at least so far as I am concerned.

I will keep on saying this—I profoundly disagree with Obama politically. But I also accept his confession of faith as it is and thus I will treat him as my brother in Christ. Even if he were not a Christian I would still treat him with love and civility because he is made in the image of God. Furthermore, he is not a lawless or God-hating man, but a public servant elected by the people of Illinois. In this case he is my U. S. Senator whether I approve of him or not. (I guess I am old-school here. I can respect people that I simply do not completely agree with. I remember my parents teaching me to respect John F. Kennedy, as our president, even though we did not want him to be president. I also felt the same for Jimmy Carter, who is loathed by many evangelicals who once voted for him. Yet, right or wrong, Carter clearly provides a completely credible profession of faith.) Even if Obama was a non-Christian I would pray for him, show him human respect and try to trim the angry diatribes I hear Christian make against him continually.    

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  1. Adam S March 17, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Another good post.

  2. Jim H. March 17, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    John – Just how much hostile, anti-American, racist hatred are you suggesting Christians should “listen to?”
    You say, “This is a certain kind of preaching rooted in both the Bible and shared experience.”
    Please explain where “preaching” loony conspiracy theories and racism is biblically rooted?
    It really sounds like you are still struggling with the racist and more conservative views of your younger years, but please be more cautious about projecting it onto all other confessional or theologically conservative Christians.
    You are soundling alot like the gullible, guilt-ridden liberals who thought we should “dialog” with the Soviets, as they lied to us and their own people for decades.
    I don’t think Jesus would have any problem boldly speaking out against someone like Wright, or questioning Obama about the veracity of his claim that he was never present when his pastor of 20 years made racist, intolerant and un-Christian statements.

  3. Anthony March 17, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Mr. Armstrong – Judging by some of the responses you received on your previous post about Barak Obama, and Jeremiah Wright, I sense that many people tend to confuse genuine listening with uncritical support. This is sad, as my own experience has shown that I have been able to gain people’s ears when I demonstrate they have mine. Moreover, through the kind of listening I believe you are talking about and that I am advocating, I have become more effective a critic of those positions that I disagree with and that I see as falling short of the Truth.
    I think that in engaging others, Christians need to first uphold the reality that people are persons made in God’s image, before they move onto criticize them as agents of whatever beliefs or ideologies they espouse. In doing this, I am able to look at what prompts people to make their assertions or claims, where those assertions have valid roots or concerns, and where I think they go awry in their analysis of how to deal with the problems or issues they are attempting to redress or solve. A generally wrong belief, conviction, or ideology for that matter, may yet have many aspects that are true, but are wrong in the conclusions they come to, or the connections they make in various parts of their analysis. When I have spoken with people with whom I differ, and demonstrated that I understand their position, and that furthermore I can even affirm them in some areas, but furthermore show how I come to different conclusions while even using some of their assertions, it often produces at lest a respect for my position and sometimes it changes minds, which is not a common experience.
    Having said all this, I want to acknowledge another dimension of engaging people who hold beliefs or ideas that are opposed to ours as Xians, and that is that ideas are not just mental phenomena. Ideas are spiritual realities that can have a potent influence on the shaping of our lives. When ideas oppose the revelation of God in Christ, they are not just wrong intellectually; they are realities that seek to establish strongholds in our thought lives and in the collective thought life of societies. This being the case, I can understand why some people would want to stop their ears against error, but I don’t think that this is what we are counseled to do in the Scriptures. It is as Paul says, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” This being the case, we have to be careful not to capitulate to fear when engaging others, moreover we have to be very careful not to employ their weapons in the battle for Truth. As I mentioned in my previous comment, I think this happens when we capitulate to the world’s categories for dividing up experience, categories the are often embedded in the culture wars between left and right.
    Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and that fact that it is coming, that it will be consummated at his return means that we can listen to others without fear or ultimate threat. Yes, we must be cautious and discerning, but we must engage, and true engagement in part requires the kind of listening I believe you are talking about.

  4. LK March 17, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks for your thought-provoking analysis of these situations… As a white, middle-class, well-educated woman, I find it easy to intellectually identify with racial struggle, but cannot pretend to appropriate discrimination.
    There is a big difference between tolerance and love, and we must work hard to live in community with those who are different than us. To befriend people in poverty before we make judgements about it. To reject white privilege in favor of racial reconciliation.
    Thanks again.

  5. kelley March 17, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Jesus never based any of his teachings on race and niether should a Church.
    Rev. Wrights words do not refect a true inspiration of Christian values and beliefs. Quite the contrary, he instead speaks of racial indifference and seperation, resentment toward groups of people based on their race, and disrespect toward his own country. I have read the Bible and I don’t recall Jesus teaching any of these things.
    Let’s face it, especially in today’s time, it is so very important to hold true to word of God. God is about love not hate, forgivness not resentment. The ultimate message sent by the Trinity Church is very contradictory to the one that should be taught using the name of God in the house of God.

  6. Phil Wyman March 17, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    I love this post, and will go back to read the others. I am not sure how calling us to truly listen can be perceived as some kind of comprise of faith.
    In my humble, but well experienced opinion those who refuse to truly listen are Christians whose faith is too weak to stand the test of differing opinions, or people whose pride is too large to be disagreed with – either way, it is not the way of Christ.
    Suzanne Sataline from the Wall Street Journal wrote the story about myself at the same paper. I am highly respectful of her opinions, and found her to be a cogent voice of reason speaking to the evangelical church from outside our faith. Your observations, and questions connected to her quote are worth our time considering.

  7. Gene Redlin March 18, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Martin Luther King in his I have a dream speech which many young children memorize said this:
    The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
    Now the question is where does Rev Wright and his ministry fit in to the dream Dr King espoused. Or is he causing the black community to distrust the White community amplifying the differences between us?
    This is a big part of the problem in this kind of black church. They take us backwards into a suspect past.
    I don’t believe Rev Wright represents the black church. He is an exception, not the rule. I attend many black churches. Mostly Apostolic and Pentecostal. I NEVER hear this kind of rhetoric. NEVER. It’s always encouraging, faith filled and hopeful. Never condemning or victimized.
    Maybe it’s the SPIRIT behind what’s coming from the platform that unifies or divides.
    What Spirit is that? I’ll let you judge.
    Seems like Martin Luther King knew.

  8. George C. March 19, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Hi John,
    I found this on youtube the other day after commenting on your blog. It
    seems that Obama has denounced the racist statements of Mr. Wright. I
    still believe that Obama should not be looking to someone like this for
    spiritual leadership, but in my mind at least, I now believe Obama to
    simply be misguided rather that cowardly regarding this situation.
    Up until this whole thing came to light I honestly had nothing but the
    highest regard for Sen. Obama. I do not agree with what I know of his
    politics (he is off enough on some major issues for me to not feel an
    obligation to know his stance on them all), but adding his response in
    the video to what I have seen of him in other interviews, I really wish
    his politics were better. He has more appeal as a person than any of the
    candidates that have run since I have been able to vote (Clinton vs. Bush
    vs. Perot) and while I will vote for Mc Cain, I would probably be willing
    to campaign for someone like Obama with better politics.
    Again, it is a pleasure and a blessing to have you sharing your thoughts
    through your blog.

  9. Nick Morgan March 19, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    John, this is a very good and thoughtful post. Probably one of the few “sane voices” in the midst of all the heated debate, rhetoric and vitriol coming from the far right and the left. Keep up the good work for the “Kingdom of God and His Christ” and His Body the Church catholic. God bless!

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