Tuesday, March 25, 2008

How could he sit there for over 20 years?

I’d like to begin answering the nagging questions regarding Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Senator Barack Obama.

First question: How could Barack Obama sit through over twenty years of that stuff?

I’ve heard the question from Pat Buchanan, Bay Buchanan, Elisabeth Haselbeck, Tucker Carlson, Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews, and of course Sean Hannity.

Answer: Barack Obama could sit through 20 years of that stuff because it was worth sitting through! It was not hate, was not anti-American, was not anti-white. It was confrontational; it was prophetic; it was loving, biblical, Christ-centered, God-focused, and ministry-minded.

I have watched or read longer segments of several sermons, including those that have been publicized. I listened to two full versions of the sermons that contain the most “offensive” comments that have come to light. These messages convey exactly the OPPOSITE of what the short snippets are trying to convey. In a nutshell:

1. Rev. Wright DOES NOT preach hate. EVERY sermon I listened to, watched, or read was LOVING, biblical, Christ-centered, God-focused, and ministry-minded.

2. Rev. Wright IS NOT anti-American. I don’t agree with all of his political views, but his full sermons demonstrate that Rev. Wright clearly loves America. And like the Old Testament prophets spoke out against their beloved (and God’s beloved) Judah and Israel, Rev. Wright is committed to calling The USA to be what God wants us to be. Sometimes he speaks with humor, sometimes with anger, often with humility and always with love.

3. Trinity United Church of Christ is not a racist, Black separatist, Black nationalist or Black supremacist church. They have white members! They are part of a 95% white denomination. I will talk about their Black Value System in a later post.

4. Finally, please consider how these issues came to light. Someone bought the videos from years and years of Rev. Wright’s sermons. They culled through them and looked for the most “incriminating” statements. They sliced and spliced them and put them up as reflections of his “hatred.” This was deliberate misrepresentation. Rev. Wright does sometimes throw out a line that makes me cringe, but I have never sat under a preacher who doesn’t. I hope that our own beloved pastor isn’t judged by every comment he makes that I don’t agree with.

Explore for yourself below.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper has posted complete audio versions of the two controversial sermons. Commentator Roland Martin also provides slightly edited transcripts at that site.

Audio: The 9/11 message from September 16, 2001:

Audio: The “Confusing God and Government” message from April 13, 2003. This one does get harsh, but it is also a biblical, redemptive, God-centered message:

Video excerpts (longer than the ones originally circulated) of these messages can be found here and here.

Other video of sermons and the church can be found a these two sites, here and here:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

To My Readers (Both of You)

Tony Campolo has a theory about that idea that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes. According to Mr. Campolo, the reason a whole life can be captured in a few moments is that most of us haven’t fully lived much. Those moments when we are fully alive –fully in touch with God, ourselves, and our fellow humans--are few. We spend a lot of time simply existing, pursuing worthless aims, or pursuing nothing.

What if rather than our whole lives or the truly alive moments, only the disastrous moments were seen? And what if even for those of us who have tried to live Christian lives, only the bold, well-meaning mis-steps were seen? And what if they were not seen only in our mind’s eye, but were flashed up on a screen for the entire world to see? What if only the foolish things we have said (effectively or not) in the name of Jesus were seen?

For the last 10 years I have taught adult Sunday school at my church. I have a great desire to move folks in my class from wherever they are in their love of God and neighbor to a deeper level. To do so, I walk a line between provoking and reassuring. I actually walk pretty gingerly. But not gingerly enough for some. At least one long-time Christian has called me on the phone to challenge my provoking. After a lengthy conversation with me and another with the pastor, this person stopped coming to my class. He does still attend church with me. We serve our congregation together, we serve each other’s families, we break bread, and pray together. But he felt that I had crossed a line that threatened him. I think that view says as much about his faith as mine.

Though I try to provoke in my class, I know my congregation. They don’t like controversy, even Gospel-born controversy. They like comfort and confirmation of what they have always believed. But you could probably string together videotape of the provocative things I have said or suggested or questioned and you could make a great case for how anti-Christian (or anti-American) I am. And with a video camera, I could have done the same for the pastor of every church I have worshiped in, including the current pastor. String together all of their bad moments (or good moments taken out of context), and you can outrage anybody who wants to hear and see it. This is the problem of the Youtube age. And perhaps what grieves me most is the continued appetite that even my Christian brothers and sisters have for focusing on the perceived ugliness—as if they know nothing of imperfection, inadequacy, humility, compassion, or forgiveness.

So here I serve in a tiny, quiet, largely ineffective Sunday school class of a largely ineffective congregation in Nashville, the city of churches. And while a friend of mine is running for president (I haven’t spoken to him in 30 years; God only knows what I said to him back then that might be used against him today), I am not his spiritual mentor (yet!) I didn’t officiate at his wedding or baptize his children. The man who did is not as restrained in his Christian conversation as I am. Because of that lack of restraint he has probably had more than one person walk out of his assemblies never to return.

But it is amazing to me how little tolerance we have for controversial statements, when so much of our Christian story and the mission of God are built upon them, especially charges against the government: Moses to Pharaoh, Nathan to David, Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, Esther to Persian King Ahasuerus. Think of the prophets, especially Jeremiah, Micah, and Amos. Remember John the Baptist--who was beheaded, Paul of Tarsus—who was beaten, imprisoned and probably martyred, and remember Jesus Christ, who was crucified.

Speaking truth to power. Often ugly truth, often crudely couched truth. Not like the ginger provoking I try in my Sunday school class.

But the sharp truth comes with many risks:

1. Sin taints everything so none of us is gonna get it right every time. Our judgment can be clouded –perhaps not every time, maybe not even most of the time, but sometimes. So what we see to be true may not be true. It might also BE true, though our hearers don’t see it as so. Every vessel (save One) is so tainted.

2. The louder we speak the more potential damage we can do. More people will walk out. We can overstep, or mis-state. We can hurt many people when we intended to hurt no-one.

3. We will be misunderstood. It’s inevitable. Anger can be misunderstood as hate. Criticism can be understood as hate. Subtlety can be lost. The speaker’s style can interfere with the hearer’s ability to hear the truth. And someone will miss the forest for the trees (especially if the trees have been chopped down and handed to you one by one like firewood).

4. In the midst of preaching the truth, error can slip in. It likely will.

But there is an opposite side to risks of sharp truth telling. And if we take the Christian Gospel seriously, this is a risk we must take. Otherwise, we’re wasting our Christian time, and betraying the Gospel. When we proclaim the sharp truth:

1. The Gospel might be revealed.

2. People might begin to follow Jesus

3. People might be moved to love God more deeply and and to engage in one another’s lives.

4. Ministries might arise that transform congregations, local communities, our nation, and the world.

5. We might take the time to actually listen to one another before reacting viscerally and immediately.

6. Lies—personal and societal might get exposed. Ungodly practices might be challenged and godly practices championed.

7. Healing might occur between races, genders, ideologies, and classes.

8. People might be shaped into the image of Jesus and communities might begin to reflect the reign of God.

Still when we take that risk, there will be people standing around ready to round up every mis-step, mistake, foolish move, or weak moment. And when they string them up on Youtube they will ignore the hours and hours of truth we have spoken, of good we have done, of Gospel we have preached and lived.

But the joke is on them: the Word of God will not return void. Though many will be misled, though our words be distorted, or taken out of context, though we might lose earthly opportunities for ourselves or our loved ones (who might be running for President), our lives will speak for themselves.

I can’t help the thought that if my little church began to take more of those risks we might begin to look a little like Trinity United Church of Christ, and in the eyes of God, that would be movement in the right direction.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Note to Geraldine Ferraro

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept. Geraldine Ferraro

I know how it sucks to be a white man in America today; I’ve raised three of ‘em, and I’m helping to raise four more. And I think I have some clue of how hard it is to be a woman of any color. My mom and my sister are women of one color. My wife, my daughter, and the mother of my grandkids are women of another color. I have lived with all of them.

So I wake up every morning and thank my very lucky
stars that I am a black man and not an unlucky white man or an unlucky woman of any color. We black men don’t know how good we have it in the US of A.

In fact, we should have tried this running for President thing a long time ago. With our great luck, it’s so easy! See, we thought people just liked a few of us, like Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Denzel, and that Michael Jordan. We thought it was just Tiger Woods (unless you are actually a golfer) or OJ Simpson (the football and actor OJ, not the murderer OJ). But we should have caught on when the Beatles and Elvis wanted to play our music or even back when Al Jolson started putting on blackface. America loves the black man.

Why didn’t we put up Martin Luther King to be President; people loved him (except the ones who beat him, put him in jail, fought him in the courts and political venues, and killed him). Or Jesse Jackson--we should have made him President, we’re so lucky. Or Al Sharpton or Alan Keyes. Or Dennis Haysbert or Morgan Freeman--they’ve already played the President on TV and the movies.

I guess our luck made us stupid. Until now. We finally caught up with how much the USA is enamored of us black men. I mean, a majority of people in a majority of states are voting for the black man—and even people who don’t vote for him (or in the states that count—not just those ones that don’t), people come out in droves to see him.

Of course they do; he’s the black man, and America loves the black man. I am so very lucky!

Hawaii's version

My "hometown" paper, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published a Hawaii version of my article. I have a great history with the Star-Bulletin. My first teenage job was delivering the paper at Schofield Barracks. I began saving money with that paper route.

But even before that, when I was in sixth grade and my dad was in Vietnam, I wrote Dad about a conversation I'd had with my teacher, Mr. Waite, and my best friend, Ted. Dad wrote a letter to the editor from Vietnam, and the Star-Bulletin published it. The letter, which was a challenge to Strom Thurmond's words (and the prevailing notion) that Black people were good at sports but not at academics. That was 1970. Now I'm writing the Star-Bulletin from out of town.