Monday, March 17, 2008

Notes from a Black Pastor

Note: This originally appeared on the blog the Moderate Voice on March 15.

Well, considering that I am an African American pastor, I should say something about the whole affair concerning the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Barack Obama's church.

I have to state, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also have standing in the United Church of Christ, the denomination that Rev. Wright and Trinity belong to.

Now, that I've got that out of the way, when some of the early rumors were swirling about the church, I tended to think this was nothing more than falsehoods. I thought that a church that was trying to "uplift the race" was probably a good thing and even though I don't agree with Sen. Obama's views, I did affirm his spiritual roots at a church that was focused on social justice and helping the least of these.

Now that I have seen and read the sermons Rev. Wright has preached, my views have changed a bit.

Most African American preachers will inject social concerns into their sermons. Because of our experience with slavery and later segregation, we tend to see Christianity in a more prophetic role, where God is on the side of the downtrodden. While I mostly preach in predominately white churches (and I tend to have a more subdued style than most black preachers) I do tend to talk about care for the poor and about the fact that God loves and accepts all regardless of color or sexual orientation. I believe that as Christians we are called to strive for justice and I do try to make that point in my sermons.

That said, the sermons by Rev. Wright go waaaay over the top. He paints an America that I don't recognize and throws in falsehoods and a tinge of anti-Semitism that I believe shames all African American preachers.

There is no way you can explain away Wright's belief that 9/11 was basically "just desserts" on America, especially a few days after the event. Then there is his giving into dark conspiracy theories such as the one where the government gives black people the drugs. Or, his talk of Zionism as white racism.

There is just something wrong about what Rev. Wright is doing. It's not that he isn't patriotic enough as some on the right are yelping: it's that this man seems an inverse of the late Jerry Falwell: a mean-spirited preacher that uses the Bible to further his agenda.

How will this affect Sen. Obama? I don't know. This will probably blow over like so many other stories about slip-ups by surrogates. But then again this might have legs. As some have argued, this is not like John Hagee mouthing off his anti-Arab rants after having endorsed John McCain. McCain doesn't go to his church. (McCain should have denounced those remarks nevertheless.) Obama and his family have been part of Trinity for 20 years. As Shay over at Booker Rising notes: "If you've been going to a pastor's church for 20 years and he married you and baptized your children, you agree with most of what that pastor says."

I don't know if Obama agrees with what his pastor says, but it is going to look that way because of his long ties with Rev. Wright.

As Ross Douthat explains, Obama is going to have to do more than say this is just his "crazy uncle." He notes:

So far, Obama has attempted to laugh off Wright's penchant for inflammatory rhetoric, comparing him to "an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with," and suggesting that this is "what happens when you just cherry-pick statements from a guy who had a 40-year career as a pastor." But as Wright's America-bashing gets more airtime -- and as his Obama-boosting sermons put his church's tax exemption at risk -- Obama may have to go further down the road to explicitly disavowing his pastor. His connection to Wright isn't the equivalent of John McCain's going to Liberty University to make nice with Jerry Falwell. It's the equivalent of John McCain taking his wife and children, most Sundays, to Jerry Falwell's church. And the disconnect between Obama's studied moderation and his congregation's radicalism requires more of an explanation than he's offered so far.

Obama's rhetoric has been one of unity and hope. I take him at his word. But he will have to come to terms with his pastor's extreme views because, if he doesn't, we can expect the GOP to use Rev. Wright's sermon in commercials this fall.

Update: The United Church of Christ, Rev. Wright's and Sen. Obama's denomination has responded to the story, supporting the congregation. In the past, I would have agreed this was a smear, but no longer.

Update, Part Deux: Sen. Obama released a statement on Rev. Wright's comments. Hopefully, his handling of this situation along with Rev. Wright leaving the campaign, will allow this to blow over. Good for the Senator.

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