This column appeared in The Chapel Hill Herald on April 4, 2008.
IDENTIFYING WITH OBAMA’S PASTOR
I have tried to imagine what it must be like to have been Obama’s pastor and to be accused of possibly de-railing his candidacy for the Presidency.
I think I would be angry and defensive. Why should Obama be held responsible for anything his Pastor has said? I would hate for anyone to be blamed for any offensive remark I have made from the pulpit. This is a classic illustration of guilt by association.
The media’s understanding of this controversy has revealed an astonishing misunderstanding of the Church, especially the history and context of black congregations in this country.
After the Civil War, one of the first things African-Americans wanted to do was to leave the balconies from their owner’s churches where their slaves sat. They needed a place separate to themselves where they could be free to vent their anger and frustration about the way they were treated. Their Church became a genuine sanctuary where they could support one another and speak out against the injustices they suffered. They lived lives of desperation, discrimination, and fear. Their struggle for survival-first as slaves and later under segregation__ has been beyond the ability of most white people to ever imagine. African-American citizens of this country have every right to be resentful and for many good reasons.
Should we not acknowledge that also for good reasons there are people in predominantly white congregations who are disappointed and angry about what our country is doing today? Such as fighting a pre-emptive war and losing the respect of the world! Some members are no doubt frustrated by their preacher’s refusal “to tell it like it is.”
Furthermore, the press has succumbed to the temptation of right-wing talking heads to highlight several offensive statements and repeat them ad infinitum. There has been virtually no attempt to inform the public of the good things that have occurred under the Reverend Wright’s ministry.
Yes, at times he has spoken with anger and exaggeration, as has any preacher worth his salt. But let us not forget that he is this same Pastor who positively influenced this remarkably gifted young man. Mr. Wright should be given considerable credit for Obama’s vision of a new and different America. It was he who suggested the title of Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope.”
During my own ministry there were times when I said inflammatory things from the pulpit. Ironically, some of these statements were about race. Yet, most of the people in the congregation were willing to “put up with me” despite what I had said. Indeed, some of them would shake my hand at the door and say, “Pastor, I don’t agree with what you said today, but you’re my Pastor, and I believe in freedom of the pulpit.” I daresay there have been times when Obama said something similar to Pastor Wright. Is it a matter of integrity for one to leave the congregation if you disagree with what your pastor has said?
We tend to think that the role of the pastor is primarily just that, to be a pastor, to provide comfort and hope. A professor in my seminary said something that I always remember: “Your task is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” That is to say, the preacher not only has a priestly role; he or she has a prophetic role. This requires the courage to speak out against injustices, to speak truth to power, and to voice unpopular judgments despite the consequences.
I especially like the fact that Obama compares his relationship to his pastor as a dear Uncle. Faith congregations are properly described as extended families. We even call each other sisters and brothers. We also speak of feeling at home in our places of worship.
There is a word you seldom see in the press which is basic to a Christian’s commitment. It is the word “covenant.” When you join a church you enter into a binding covenant with every member of the congregation .You promise to practice love and forgiveness. You weather good times and bad times together. When you leave a church in anger, you are breaking this covenant. It is generally far better to voice your grievances and try to find mutual understanding and reconciliation and remain there. I commend Obama for making it clear that the Trinity United Church of Christ where he was baptized is still his faith community where he will continue to worship if he becomes President of the USA.
It is a vestige of racism that we persist in calling Obama a black person when, in fact, it is more accurate to recognize that he is bi-racial, having been born to a white mother. We are still prisoners of the segregationist mindset that legally judged anyone to be black if they have one black grandparent!
I thought Obama’s address was masterful. I believe he put the racial issue in proper perspective. We all want to rise above it. I think his promise to move us toward a “more perfect union” is heartening.
I would add one thing further that he did not mention. Contemporary white Americans are often quick to disclaim any blame for the slavery practiced in an earlier period of our history. They strongly resist any talk of reparations or attempts to bridge the economic, educational, or opportunities gap.
However, the truth is that those of us who prosper in America today are inheritors of a culture built on slavery. Surely we have a moral obligation to help those who remain behind to move upward toward a more level playing field.
I never thought I would live to see the day when a man judged to be black would be taken seriously as a potential candidate for President. I feel a great sense of pride about our nation’s response to Obama.
We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. If you have not read the full text of Obama’s address, I hope you will.
Robert Seymour is the Minister Emeritus of the Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at Robert-Seymour@hotmail.com
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Posted 4/6/2008 by Vic