Why Not Write Jeremiah Wright Off?

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.

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4 thoughts on “Why Not Write Jeremiah Wright Off?

  1. Pingback: barack speech
  2. Thanks Jay for your very thoughtful comments. Thanks, also, for your witness and ministry.

    I’ll add that I admire Sen. Obama for not repudiating Jeremiah Wright. I’ll even go so far to say that Rev. Wright has said nothing for which he needs to be forgiven. If one were to take the time to listen to his more controversial comments in context one would find that Rev. Wright is a pracitioner of something that is largely absent from the predominantly white church. He is a prophet. He is a practioner of prophetic speech. As you know, and as anyone who has ever read the books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, Micah and the other prophets of Scripture, their speech is often unpleasant, difficult to hear, and unwelcome.

    Prophetic witness is rarely heard in congregations populated by white, middle-class people. When they hear it they are offended. And when they hear sound or video bites taken out of context for political impact, they become offended and fearful.

    I think it is a good thing that Sen. Obama has been formed by Trinity UCC and the ministry of Rev. Wright. However, I fear that America is not yet ready.

  3. don’t mean to post too much on your blog, but it is always good to hear what other united methodists are saying.

    rev. wright has nothing to apologize for. a big time pastor here in indy was quoted in the new york times on sunday about what it means to pastor to a US senator–he pastors to Senator Richard Lugar–and his statements are very dissapointing and lacks prophetic courage.

    anyways check out my blog for a longer explanation of this. would love to hear your thoughts.


  4. Campbell professor speaks on real meaning of Christian unity

    BUIES CREEK – When Barack Obama refused to denounce controversial pastor and mentor Jeremiah Wright recently, he was doing something that reflected the Bible’s teachings about the nature of Christian unity, according to Steven Harmon, associate professor of Christian theology at Campbell University.

    As Campbell’s Staley lecturer for 2008, Harmon used the analogy in the third lecture in the series, “One Life With Each Other: The Theology of Ecumenism,” to illustrate the spiritual meaning of Christian unity as explained by scripture.

    A specialist in patristics, or the study of church fathers, and ecumenical theology, Harmon is the author of several books, “Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision,” and “Every Knee Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought.” His research interests focus on ways in which Baptists and other evangelical Christians may find resources in post-biblical early Christian tradition for contemporary faith and practice.

    “Christian unity is no easy unity,” Harmon said. “We are members of one another, but we can be angry and disagree with each other without turning it into a sin.”

    Paul’s letter to the Ephesians illustrates the theology involved in ecumenism, which is the quest for greater visible unity among the currently divided Christian denominations. Though drawn from different backgrounds and nationalities, the members of the “body of Christ” have been called by God, redeemed and forgiven through his spirit. They are not just members of a church or a denomination, but of a “fellowship” that is directed by God.

    Harmon added that the cross of Christ unifies all believers into one body. Baptists and Catholics may differ in their worship practices, but they should tolerate each other in “love” or they will forge divisiveness.

    “When Senator Obama said Wright was like family to him, that he couldn’t disown Wright because he was a part of him, he was precisely right. Baptism creates a new family that takes precedence over the relationships we have with the families that include parents, siblings, spouses and children,” Harmon said.

    A graduate of Howard Payne University, Harmon received both master of divinity and doctor of philosophy degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Harmon has pursued additional graduate studies at The Catholic University of America, the University of Dallas and Westfˆilischen-Wilhelms UniversitŠt in Munster, Germany, as well as sabbatical study at Duke Divinity School. He is vice chair of the Doctrine and Interchurch Cooperation Commission of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), a member of the BWA delegation to conversations with the Roman Catholic church, a member of the Order Commission of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA and a book review editor for the journal, “Perspectives in Religious Studies.”

    Harmon has served as an adjunct professor at Southwestern and Howard Payne and as a visiting professor at Duke. He has also served as pastor and interim pastor of Baptist congregations in Texas and North Carolina. In the fall, Harmon will join the faculty of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

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