Friday, March 21, 2008

Ed Kilgore on Obama and His Church

I have known and admired Ed Kilgore for many years. He is a great political thinker--and also an Epicopalian. I thought that his remarks on Obama's church ad faith to be very insightful. His main point is that criticism of Obama for not leaving his church reflects a very consumerist vision of the church that is alien to the very Catholic view that the church is an organic community:

But the Wright controversy also touches on religion, and in a few brief references in his speech, Obama hinted at an alternative approach he probably considered, and might even return to in the future.

Here's what Obama had to say about Trinity UCC Church and its pastor:

The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS....
Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children...I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.

On one level, this is a statement of racial solidarity. But on another, it's an argument that the church is the embodiment of the community it serves, with all its imperfections, which Obama bluntly describes. This is a very old, very "Catholic" idea of the church as an organic expression of "the people" as they happen to exist. It is likely to be baffling to those white Protestant Americans who think of church membership as more of a matter of consumer preference, doctrinal agreement or family heritage (none of which seem to have been major factors in Obama's original "conversion" at Trinity UCC) and who also probably don't understand why Obama didn't just choose a different congregation the first time he heard something objectionable from Wright's pulpit.

The difference in perspective, which Obama indirectly alludes to, is the unique community leadership role played in this country by the African-American church. In Jim Crow society, the church was often the only strong institution in many African-American communities. It had to play a social and even political role, and it's no accident that it supplied most of the leaders of the early civil rights movement, along with its anthems and martyrs.

Kilgore further observes that the sermons of Rev. Wright need to be placed in their appropriate prophetic context:

But there's another important thing to say about Rev. Wright that's as much about religion as about race. In his offensive comments about America, he wasn't just making an inflammatory political statement. He was overtly adopting a prophetic stance. "God Damn America" isn't just a profane and angry set of three words; it is quite literally an invocation for God to chastise what Wright considered a wicked society, much as his namesake, the Jewish Prophet Jeremiah, called on God to bring his own people back into obedience by subjecting them to the wrath of the Babylonians.

The prophetic stance has a very old history in Protestantism, and in fact, is the implicit and sometimes explicit foundation for the current political radicalism of the Christian Right. While conservative evangelical pastors have so far as I know avoided calling on God to "Damn America" (though Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson came very close to it when initially blaming 9/11 on the country's sinful ways), the phrase may well be in the back of their minds as they describe America as a depraved country that casually kills its children by the millions, persecutes Christians, and seeks to destroy the family. Those conservative commentators who have expressed so much shock and outrage at Wright's words need to look around at their comrades on the cultural barricades.

So while the saga of Barack Obama, his church and his pastor is most definitely about race, it's also about the inherently uneasy relationship of Christian believers to "this world." As a politician who has shown a remarkable degree of depth in weighing into the usually shallow waters of debate on the subject of religion and politics, Obama might want to address this subject more directly at some point. I don't know anyone better equipped to, say, compare and contrast Wright's prophetic stance to that of Martin Luther King, Jr., who moved and changed America instead of damning it--precisely what Barack Obama says he intends to do as president of the United States.

Read it all here.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I agree with a comment I found here on the web.

That statement could easily be twisted to sound rascist but it is not to me.

I believe this country would be well served by any black candidate who had the skills to serve as president. And, it would be better served than a white person with the same skills.

The United States needs to begin to regain our credibility in the world community. An electoral majority in America that is willing to select a black president would send a clear message that we are ready to make a big course change.

Half of America now embraces fascism and torture. We need a leader that can lead us out of this dark path. I believe Barak has the charisma necessary to convince people that peace and justice are the better choice.