One thing is certain about Barack Obama’s speech on Monday morning about his relationship with Dr. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor for twenty years—nothing is certain!
1. We do not know the full nature of their private relationship and never will. Personally, I do not think we need to know about their friendship, in every detail. This has even been the legal position of America for many years regarding pastors and the private life of their parishioners.
2. Jeremiah Wright said some hateful and seriously wrong things. Everyone, generally speaking, agrees with this assessment unless they are radically to the Left. The question here is “context” and “hermeneutics.” What did he mean? Why did he say it? What do we make of his ministry in the larger picture of things?
After watching this story for hours now I conclude that we will never agree on Wright’s ministry, and thus Christians ought to exercise both charity and righteous judgment in the process. We must not pit one of these against the other, which we must admit is our human tendency. Surely we can agree on this point. Yet this is where the debate grows the fiercest at times.
3. Is Obama telling us the whole truth? If you watch Fox News you will hear one argument, questioning Obama’s legitimacy and suggesting that he is insincere and should have pulled away from Jeremiah Wright many years ago. And if you watch CNN you will hear another angle, suggesting his speech was honest, fresh and even turned over a new opportunity for conversation about race and racism. (It should be obvious that my hopes are for the second, but the reality is that I am concerned we will not get this in many of our churches and private conversations. One thing is sure: race and racism is being discussed and it should be, especially by Christians.) I may be proven wrong in time but I feel Obama has told the truth, at least in the big picture. What is questionable is why he waited until now.
My educated guess is that he hoped this would never become an issue. He took a calculated political risk and it was a huge mistake. For some this places serious questions on his ability to lead a nation while for others it is seen as strength of character since he rejected Wright’s views without rejecting him as his friend and spiritual mentor. This is seen as impossible to one point of view and completely normal to another. Simply put, I agree with the latter view.
4. Almost all pundits, left and right, felt that his speech of Monday morning was very well written. (He wrote it personally, we are told. I believe he is bright enough to have done this entirely on his own, a rare quality in this time.) Only far right critics, like Rush Limbaugh, trashed him as the candidate of race. I found myself being moved deeply by watching him live. Then I wished this speech could have been given by a Republican as well as by a Democrat. (It was the GOP who was the party of freedom for blacks for more than century. Only in the modern civil rights era did this all get changed radically.) The last five minutes of Obama’s speech, when he laid out his political philosophy for how he would govern, I disagreed almost totally.
5. His speech, to my mind, was an eloquent plea for understanding in a new era of black and white relationships in America, an era that has the real potential to move us beyond the one his pastor lived through and I experienced as a young white boy in the old segregated South. My hopeful (prayerful) side says, “If we work for reconciliation in good faith, and if we hear the story Obama told with some measure of openness, we might actually make even more progress toward racial reconciliation in this great country.” I truly believe that John McCain and Barack Obama, if they run against one another, will not make race an issue. I do not expect McCain, or his campaign with his knowledge at least, to use dirty tricks to re-open the Wright-Obama story with new twists. (The press is another story, as always.) I fully expect that some pundits will keep this story alive. I am praying it provides a platform for discussion that moves us forward, not backward.
The most amazing comments on this whole twenty-four news cycle came from the very lady I quoted on Saturday about John McCain, Peggy Noonan. She appeared on ABC this morning, along with the black commentator Juan Williams. Both Peggy and Juan are Christians. I always listen to them very carefully. Amazingly, Juan was a little harder on Obama, and especially on the political fallout of all of this, than Noonan. Peggy Noonan spoke of the speech itself as one of the finest moments she could recall in recent American speech-making. She felt it was a powerful address in both written form and in delivery. (Pollster Frank Luntz radically disagreed on Fox last evening, showing I think that he is less objective in his analysis of political speeches than he lets on. He is the “go-to-guy” for Fox on how people actually respond to speeches. I listened to him and thought, “I heard an entirely different speech!” If you go back to my opening statement in this blog you will get my point here.) Noonan said the speech made her proud of Barack Obama! (I seriously doubt she would vote for him.) Now, for those who do not recall, Peggy Noonan was Ronald Reagan’s speech writer. She is a biographer of John Paul II and a devout Catholic Christian with a very conservative Republican view of governance. And Juan Williams is one of the sharpest black voices among those who are generally non-partisan on Fox News. He is the author of one of the finest books about the civil rights era that I know, a book that properly roots the whole movement in Christianity.
So, what can we conclude from this debate?
1.Obama should never be called a Muslim again.
Those vicious rumors were terrible and believed by far too many Christians. No one in their right mind should use such a description of his personal faith given what he has affirmed and his relationship to the Christian Church publicly.
2. Obama will likely harmed by this politically with the so-called “Reagan Democrats” and Independents when the general election comes.
3. Obama may be harmed by this in his own party when super-delegates question if he is electable.
4. Obama could still be shown to be covering up a great deal if proof is found that he sat through the several offensive sermons Wright gave. This would destroy him politically, more than likely.
5. The discussion about race will go on. We are at one of those moments when Christians can try to listen and turn down the heat or simply stir up more anger by how they talk about this issue. I encourage a “cooling down” while we listen and pray.
Like him or not, Barack Obama is a most amazing political person. Only now, in this time in our history, could such a person rise to this level of national discussion about the presidency. (The fact is that either the gender or color line will be crossed by the nomination of a candidate by a major party who actually has a chance to be elected in November. This was going to happen in time and this makes these events a part of our history in a major way.) Even if I do not agree with him (or Clinton) on a number of political positions, I will pray for him and her and listen to them both with respect and civility. I hope you, if you are a Christian, will do the same. I think we can coarsen our society over this issue or we can enlighten it by how we respond. We can be salt and light in our speech or we can create more anger and deep resentment. In reality I expect both to happen, to varying degrees, but I am doing what I can to foster the second, at least among Christians. This is a strong part of my missional strategy for the whole Church so the only way you can understand me is to factor this into this debate.