As you know from an earlier post, I found Barack Obama’s speech yesterday to be a helpful addition to the continuing conversation on race in America. Senator Obama named realities that are rarely named by politicians, noting that we have come far but still have a long way to go. Personally, I think it reads better as a letter than comes across as a speech, and I hope that folks will go back and read it.
As I have waded through the responses to this speech I have noticed two responses. Many agree with my contention that this was an important statement on race in America. However, many others suggest that Senator Obama didn’t deal with the issue at hand — a repudiation of Jeremiah Wright. His political comments, these people say, were and are unforgivable, and Obama should wash his hands of this man who has been his pastor. Obama refused to do that, denouncing the speech while continuing to love the man, which (in the eyes of these critics) makes him suspect at best, and morally weak among those politicos who believe that one should do anything possible to avoid controversy.
There is an old saying in the church that we “hate the sin but love the sinner.” I have generally hated that saying because I find that few are able to truly carry out that mandate, separating the sin from the sinner. And yet, that is exactly what Senator Obama is trying to do in this case.
For Senator Obama, the politically “correct” thing to do would be to cast his former mentor and pastor aside in the wake of his desire to get elected. Yet, the Christian thing to do is to never cast aside anyone as outside the possibility of God’s grace and transformation. The Christian thing to do is to pray for those who differ with us, embracing them with the love of Christ. The Christian thing to do is to hate the speech but love the speechmaker.
What Obama attempted to do yesterday was to acknowledge all the messy realities of human relationships. The sum of Jeremiah Wright is not found in a few political comments made from the pulpit or in his pushing on the injustice he sees in the American way. He, like all of us, is more complicated than that, reflecting a chaotic mass of contradictions. Yes, he sees injustice in the American system, but he served that same country as a Marine. Yes, he pushes on the notion of white privilege, but he embraces white folks that visit his church, offering counseling, prayer and grace.
What Senator Obama clearly learned from sitting under the teaching of this man is demonstrated in his speech yesterday — a willingness to confront those he loves with truths at odds with their beliefs, while always maintaining respect, dignity, and love. What Senator Obama learned was that in God’s kingdom, we never write someone off for political expediency. Brother Wright likely made comments that were far outside the mainstream along the way, but Brother Obama saw them for what they were, in a context of one who demonstrated real love.
I once was a member of a conservative church in which the pastor was known throughout the community as a fundamentalist leader. Publicly, he would make comments that caused the hair on my neck to rise. And yet, the people in his church never saw that side of him. Why? Because when it came to the practical realities of counseling a divorcing couple in his office, the rhetoric quickly flew out the window in the face of human brokenness and God’s grace. He was present when babies were born, and when old folks died. He held hands with the sick, visited those in prison, and walked in the way of Jesus. His life reflected more than his rhetoric, and given what Senator Obama has said, it is probably very likely that Pastor Wright’s life did the same.
A pastor is more than a professor or a teacher offering information. A pastor becomes part of the family, laughing with us in the good times, and crying in the bad. Those who critique Senator Obama on his unwillingness to cast aside his pastor simply don’t understand the nature of that relationship.
I wonder if they so easily cast aside their grandmothers when they say things they don’t agree with.