On Friday, Barack Obama said, “It has been a rough couple of weeks.” Truer words have rarely been spoken by a politician.
Religion and politics shouldn’t mix. You need look no further than the campaigns of John McCain or Barack Obama recently for classic examples of why. By now, surely everyone has heard about Barack Obama’s pastor, the very wrong Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the fiery soundbites from a 2003 sermon that have made their way across all media platforms and the blogosphere.
You have probably also heard of the controversy with John McCain caused by the also-wrong Rev. John Hagee, who made eyebrow-raising remarks about Hurricane Katrina’s real purpose in the grand scheme of things.
One of my closest friends, my “adopted mom,” Linda, whom I have mentioned and linked before, wrote an article over at Huffington Post about the double standard in the coverage of the Obama-Wright and McCain-Hagee stories.
Back in 2006, Hagee had this to say about Hurricane Katrina:
“I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”
“In the Gospel According to John Hagee, God got fed up and hurled Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans in a raging fit of divine retribution.
“Trouble is, thousands of folks along the entire Gulf Coast suffered and died. Whole towns, innocent communities, were wiped out; folks who had nothing to do with Sin City, had never been there and never intended to go. Thousands of them lost their homes, their schools, their jobs. Their families. Many of them are still suffering, still displaced.
“If Hagee’s right about God’s direct and purposeful involvement, we have another problem. God’s aim is not so good. He hit the Ninth Ward, home of the city’s poorest citizens. Hit ’em hard. Nothing much was left of it but debris and dead bodies. God got middle class neighborhoods, too. But He missed the French Quarter; the black heart of Louisiana’s Sodom (or Gomorrah, take your pick) was left unscathed. And that makes no sense at all.
“Unless John Hagee’s a hate-mongering hot-head who uses the pulpit badly…and God had nothing to do with the disaster that struck the Gulf Coast. Sometimes you just can’t go along with every word you hear on Sunday morning. Pastors are human, they’re flawed like the rest of us–and sometimes they’re wrong.”
Linda goes on to criticize the media for giving McCain what she says amounts to a free pass on his association with Hagee. Hagee endorsed McCain, but McCain does not attend Hagee’s church. As Linda points out, McCain sought Hagee’s endorsement to impress the religious right, and even more importantly, to get their votes.
But since McCain himself says he doesn’t agree with everything Hagee says, it’s all supposed to be okay, right?
Wrong. It shouldn’t be okay. If Hagee preaches such messages of hate and intolerance, and dares to portray God as a vengeful monster — the same God who gave His only Son to die to wash away our sins — his judgment on who should be president should be seriously questioned.
Of course the media hasn’t ignored the story. Here’s an example of McCain being questioned about it on MSNBC:
Ever notice how McCain gets snippy with reporters when they ask him things he doesn’t want to deal with? It’s practically a trademark now.
McCain almost got a nice attack in at Obama’s expense, but not quite, when he said, “I didn’t attend Pastor Hagee’s church for 20 years. There’s a great deal of difference, in my view, between someone who endorses you, and other circumstances.”
But when you’re a candidate and you actively seek the nomination from someone with such incendiary beliefs, you thereby lend a level of credibility to what the man says: you are letting your supporters — and your opponents — know that there is value in what this man says; otherwise, why bother courting his endorsement?
An endorsement from such a man should be a negative. It should be the sort of thing no candidate in his right mind would even accept, much less ask for.
Meanwhile, Obama has taken a public beating for months now over the fiery language and attitude from the pulpit of Wright. I was disappointed when I heard black religious leaders suggesting that such remarks were normal in black churches as such things are said when they know ‘white folk’ aren’t around. I suspect these same people would refuse to allow the possibility that some white congregations might enjoy complete liberty to complain about black America when they know there are no black folk in attendance. And they’d be right to find problems with such an excuse.
If it’s inappropriate for some company, then in a church, where we are all supposed to be God’s children, it is inappropriate. Period.
And while I was disappointed that Obama didn’t deal with this a little sooner, I understood and sympathize with his position that he can’t just disown a man who has been that close to him for so long.
I have relatives in my family, many of them past the age of 70, who grew up in a time of Jim Crow laws. Segregation was the norm, along with the unfair and unjustified belief that blacks were somehow essentially inferior to whites. There are still parts of them that seem to believe these ideas. Maybe it’s because they were so bombarded with that message at such an early age. Occasionally, they will say something that reflects these racist feelings. I disagree with what they say, but I can’t pretend I don’t know them, and I think it’s wrong to completely turn my back on them because of their views. All I can really do is try to make counterpoints at those rare opportunities when they have a chance of making an impact. Still, I know that I am fighting a losing battle.
My real problem with Obama in this situation was his claim that after having attended the church for so long, he had never heard Wright say such things. That doesn’t hold water if it’s true that the tenor of this sermon is consistent with Wright’s preaching style, even if he doesn’t typically call for God to “damn America.” Either Wright was completely out of character on this one single sermon — the one that happened to get videotaped and sent everywhere — or Obama wasn’t paying much attention.
Obama himself has since come out to better explain those earlier remarks. At least, that’s what politicians call it. He told Fox News earlier this week that he has attended in the past when Wright made “provocative” remarks:
“He will talk about the failure of fathers to look after their children in ways that, sometimes, people might be taken aback by. He can use street vernacular in his sermons in ways that people wouldn’t expect to hear.
“He has certainly preached in the past, when I was there, about the history of race in this country in very blunt terms, talking about slavery and talking about Jim Crow. The problem -â€“ and I’ve pointed this out in my speech in Philadelphia -â€“ was, where often times he would error, I think, is in only cataloging the bad of America and not doing enough to lift up the good. And that’s probably where he and I have the biggest difference.”
Obama adds that he goes to church “not to worship a pastor but to worship God.” Makes sense. But if the pastor himself is delivering a message that is distracting and doesn’t match your own beliefs, there comes a point at which it can interfere with your worship of God. Apparently, for Obama, it never reached that point. I’m not as patient as he is, apparently: more power to him.
This morning on NBC’s Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked Obama what had changed between the time that Obama stood by Wright the man, even if not everything Wright the pastor, and just this past week when he severed ties. Obama said:
“I thought it was important for him to explain or at least provide some context for some of the things he had said previously. But when he came out at the press conference at the National Press Club, not only did he amplify some of those comments, and defend them vigorously, but he added to it. He put gasoline on the fire. And what that told me was not only was he interested in using this platform to continue to make statements that I fundamentally disagree with and that offend me, but also that he didn’t have much regard for the moment that we are in right now here in the United States, where we can’t be distracted or engaged in this divisive, hateful language. Instead, we have to bring the country together to solve problems.”
I think that Obama tried as any of us would, to defend someone he has respected. But he seriously miscalculated not only the pastor’s agenda, but the swiftness of the pastor’s wrath.
Meanwhile, some have argued that Wright has every right to be that angry, that bitter. Having the right to feel a certain way is one thing. Having a responsibility to rise above it, it seems to me, is something of which a pastor should not lose sight.
Obama says his vision for the country is much more hopeful than some of the black elders who grew up in a more racially-charged America.
Think about the irony there: a politician has the hopeful vision and a pastor has the bitter one! Could you have ever imagined such a juxtaposition of point of view? It’s almost a joke, only no one’s laughing.
Regardless of how oppressed black Americans have been from day one, (and no one in their right mind would seriously argue that blacks in this country have not been oppressed over history), regardless of the prejudice, hatred and unfairness that has been focused on them, anger and bitterness should not be the rule of the day.
Far be it from me to point out what a pastor should know very well. But in delivering a message filled with what some consider hate and anger, Wright seems to have forgotten some of the Bible’s teachings:
“19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Despite the bitterness apparent in some of what Wright has had to say and in those who have come forward to defend him, the Bible says this:
“15See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”
A Christian need look no further than the story of Christ’s crucifixion for an example of how to deal with those who have wronged us. As he was dying, Jesus prayed to the Lord, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
A preacher should know better. But somehow, if that preacher happens to be Jeremiah Wright, it’s all good, because he isn’t really angry. He isn’t really bitter. He’s just preaching “Liberation Theology.” And as we all know, once the “style” gets an actual name, like “Hellfire and Brimstone,” it’s a style none of us are supposed to question.
He’s a man of God, after all, so he must be right, he must know what he’s talking about, and damn anyone who dares question his remarks.
But if that’s true, then we shouldn’t find any problem with what Hagee said, either, should we? Hagee must have known all there was to know about Katrina’s “real” purpose for being, too.
Before you get too riled up over that suggestion, there is at least a little good news to report: Hagee has now retracted those remarks, after coming to the shocking conclusion that he might not be on the same mental page with the Almighty after all:
“As a believing Christian, I see the hand of God in everything that happens here on earth, both the blessings and the curses. But ultimately neither I nor any other person can know the mind of God concerning Hurricane Katrina. I should not have suggested otherwise. No matter what the cause of the storm, my heart goes out to all who suffered in this terrible tragedy. There but for the grace of God go any one of us.”
A nice little display of compassion…instead of all the hate. How Christian of him.
I’m a believing Christian, and I see the hand of God in everything that happens on earth, if for no other reason because I believe that he created everything and set into motion the natural processes that cause things like hurricanes. But when a hurricane forms, I cannot warp my thinking enough to convince myself that God has spun it into existence just to “go after” someone. Or after even a group of people. Like blind hatred, hurricanes don’t discriminate, so I can’t believe they would be God’s weapons of choice.
Some things just happen. For no real reason.
Let’s move on to that National Press Club meeting in which Wright appeared, promising to “go after” Obama if he is elected.
Wright suggested that reporters should get to know the black church’s traditions, which have been around longer than this country, but have remained largely invisible to the mainstream. (Which is not surprising given the ‘we say things we want to say when we know they aren’t around’ defense.) He defended the “liberation theology” style, though he prefers to call it tradition, saying that it frees the oppressed.
Think about the argument over the N-word: those who use it claim that it removes the damaging sentiment from the word. Then think about Michael Richards’ tirade in which he used it numerous times. Was the word any less offensive? How long must the word be used in the “good” way before the “bad” connotation is gone?
By the same token, how long must a theology that is designed to “liberate” take before the congregation is liberated? How long does the removal of oppression take? Or is it possible that after the tradition of resentment over past treatment, it’s hard to see past that resentment, so it gets a style named after it to justify the continuation of the practice itself?
In talking about the possibility of reconciliation, Wright quoted Dr. William Augustus Jones during the press conference. The quote about chickens coming home to roost in regard to 9/11 was from someone else, too. But he used the quote in a manner that makes it clear he agrees with it, so who said it first isn’t quite so important.
Wright explains that Jones wrote, “one’s theology, how I see God, determines one’s anthropology, how I see humans, and one’s anthropology then determines one’s sociology, how I order my society.”
Following this theory, he adds this, which may be more of a quote from Jones, or Wright’s own postulation:
“Now, the implications from the outside are obvious. If I see God as male, if I see God as white male, if I see God as superior, as God over us and not Immanuel, which means “God with us,” if I see God as mean, vengeful, authoritarian, sexist, or misogynist, then I see humans through that lens.
“My theological lens shapes my anthropological lens. And as a result, white males are superior; all others are inferior.
“And I order my society where I can worship God on Sunday morning wearing a black clergy robe and kill others on Sunday evening wearing a white Klan robe. I can have laws which favor whites over blacks in America or South Africa. I can construct a theology of apartheid in the Africana church and a theology of white supremacy in the North American or Germanic church.”
“To say ‘I am a Christian’ is not enough. Why? Because the Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride beneath the decks on that slave ship.
“How we are seeing God, our theology, is not the same. And what we both mean when we say ‘I am a Christian’ is not the same thing. The prophetic theology of the black church has always seen and still sees all of God’s children as sisters and brothers, equals who need reconciliation, who need to be reconciled as equals in order for us to walk together into the future which God has prepared for us.”
Trouble is, Wright’s notion of reconciliation seems to require blacks to reconcile with the worst-possible image of the white man.
I’m white. I don’t belong to the Klan. I don’t feel superior to blacks. I wonder why white people like me fit in. There are whites who have supported efforts for equality: we don’t all hide klan robes in the backs of our closets. So why aren’t we referenced?
And there are blacks who sometimes do the wrong thing, too. Some blacks can be just as discriminatory as some whites, or asians, or hispanics, or any other group. Where are they in Wright’s scheme of reconciliation? Why aren’t they mentioned?
When Wright said, “Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them,” I wonder if he really meant all. It appears he means the best of one and the worst of the others. Is that the path to any kind of reconciliation for any group of people?
When you rely on sweeping generalizations of peoples based on past wrongs, you are by definition being unfair to the individuals in both groups. And unfairness doesn’t strike me as a particularly Christian approach to bringing people together.
If you have a message of genuine reconciliation, you don’t speak of it only then “they” aren’t around. You invite “them” in. You treat “them” as if they are as welcome as anyone else: you demonstrate through your actions that you believe that everyone is truly equal, truly brothers and sisters in the eyes of God.
The language he used in this speech just doesn’t seem to indicate that real reconciliation is at the top of the agenda. You can view the world as black and white, or you can accept the fact that there is a little black, a little white, and a whole lot of gray in between. When I see someone who is a Christian only willing to believe the former, that makes me, as a fellow Christian, wonder why.
And there’s one final point worth mentioning. Remember, after pointing out Hagee’s retraction about the Katrina foolishness, when I said that some things just happen?
There are some things, on the other hand, that do seem to happen for a specific reason. Perhaps one of them is Wright’s appearance at that NPC meeting, which seems intended to have hurt Obama. It has been reported that the event was organized by a longtime Clinton supporter.
Somehow that little tirade seems to make a lot more sense, now, doesn’t it? Even if Hagee’s suggestions about Katrina still don’t.