Yesterday, Barack Obama arrived late to a Philadelphia podium to give a speech that, if he failed to exceed expectations, could have effectively ended his political career. The issue of the day was being spun as: “Will he or won’t he put a sufficient amount of distance between himself and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor for twenty years, his spiritual mentor, who has been shown on videotape saying outrageous, offensive and in some cases just plain untrue things? Will he both reject and denounce the man who led him to Christ, officiated at his wedding, and baptized his children?” The political class loves a good pile-on, and it was hard to see how this was not going to balloon into a ruination of a colossal order.
I watched that speech with considerable interest, tinged with skepticism at how he could find any kind of wiggle room here. I must admit that there are several components to this scenario that interest me intensely. For one, although Obama was not my first choice among the Democrats, I’ve been leaning his way since the race has narrowed. For another, I’m a preacher myself, and I have, I daresay, as much familiarity as anyone with the kinds of rhetorical flourish to be found within this calling; and I’ve heard many preachers, black and white, resort to hyperbole and provocative overstatement while in the process of trying to wake their hearers out of the complacent stupor that is, unfortunately, often found to be part of the human condition. I also know that within Christianity, much more than within the caricature of it to be found on the political stage, there is a higher value placed on maintaining relationships than there is on denouncing wrongdoers. It’s the love thing; a Christian who is well taught, will seek the path of reconciliation.
So, I’m maybe more willing than some to take Obama at his word when he says that the few inflammatory snippets that have been replayed endlessly in the last few weeks do not present the core teachings of the Rev. Wright, and are in fact taken from sufficiently rare moments that Barack either didn’t happen to be there to hear them in those moments, or (more likely) knew enough to pay little attention to the more extreme expressions, setting them aside and concentrating on the beneficial points of those and other sermons: that all of us are equal (hence denunciations of perceived enforcements of inequality), that God cares for the poor and wants us to do the same (amidst colorful laments of failures to do so), that because love is paramount, institutionalized indifference is hateful and wrong.
As a preacher, I’ve often worried that at those very moments when I’m speaking most directly and forthrightly about the responsibilities placed on us by God’s love for all people, the message may come across as harsh, demanding and unforgiving. Why? Because when we shine the light of God’s indiscriminate love on our own imperfect actions, we fall short. From those to whom much is given, much will be required. The harshest words of Jesus himself are reserved for those who, having received the blessing of good things from God, refuse to pass them on to others. In this light, is it any wonder that the nation which is blessed above all other nations in the modern world has a high calling to meet, and is it any wonder that a preacher might feel it only right to point out where we fall short?
Now, it seems more than likely to me that the expressions of Rev. Wright allowed not just this kind of contradiction to come forth, but also became a vehicle for some deep personal anger, something that has no place in the pulpit. That anger, and the factual distortions that became part of its expression, Obama has rightly condemned. But he was also right, in my view, and courageous as well (since we Americans love clear-cut, either/or choices, and hate nuance and subtlety) to point out, in addition to where some of that anger may have come from, and how it represents more than one man’s experience, that there is much more to the man than the anger, and therefore there is and should be much more to the relationship between the two men than denunciation. He repudiated his pastor’s extreme statements, but not the man himself.
So Barack Obama set about to give us a moment’s pause for a historical review, setting his pastor’s experience in a greater social context, putting his own experience at a different place in that context — a context that all of America shares. He chose not to make excuses for his pastor or himself, or for America for that matter, but to lay out the problem we all find ourselves in, caught in the contradiction of our history, knowing we can be better and do better than that. And he did what few politicians — especially those not already safely seated in their high office — dare to do: he took a chance that, just maybe, we can get beyond sound bites and twenty-second clips and simple yes/no answers, and think about where we are, how we got here and how we can unite together as one people to do better, to change. He bet on our intelligence, and he asked us to change. He had the audacity to hope that we can change.