Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama, Wright and RELIGION... Whoops, we've sort of skipped that one... Why understanding Obama/Wright may not have THAT much to do with race...

Millions upon millions of words have been uttered or typed about Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama. We've dissected Wright's statements. We've parsed every word Barack Obama has said about the man. We've examined its impact on elections.

We've talked about white guilt, black bias, generational differences and their correlation to perspectives on racial equality, black vs. brown, black vs. women, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Sister Souljah, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton on Arsenio fuckin' Hall and when someone finally tore the last "coloreds only" water fountain from a wall in Mississippi.

Racist this and racist that. Inequality, history, bigotry and "do you think Obama could sufficiently distance himself from Wright if he called him a black-robed Klansman and proceeded to beat the shit out him with a lead pipe--if, and this is an important 'if'--the pipe was painted red, white and blue?"

We're a nation obsessed with race because a black candidate belongs to a church that had a preacher who yelled "GOD DAMN AMERICA!" and who unleashed a verbal shit-storm in whitey's direction. Racism, reverse racism, how could anyone possibly go to a church where someone isn't preaching racial harmony the "nice" way? "I'm offended, I'm impressed, I'm confused, I'm worried that Barack might put Louis Farrakhan on a postage stamp if he wins."

Barack gave the race speech. It was pretty good and it made a lot of sense. Now it's the Greatest Speech Ever Given by Anyone in the Whole Wide History of All Things. Either that or it's the Dumbest Pile of Crap Ever Spoken in the History of the Universe. Some say it was Another Example of Smooth Vote-Grabbing Technique and others argue the speech as nothing short of An Unnecessary Comment on an Issue Better Left Alone Forever.

Obama's speech was less than an hour long, if I remember correctly. If you added up all of the reaction pieces to it and read them aloud, you could fillibuster the Senate long enough to kill every civil rights bill ever passed. Strom Thurmond wouldn't have needed the phone books. I mention Strommy-Boy intentionally. Because I'm obsessed with race issues right now.

I went stopped at a 7-11 this morning for a Big Gulp and there was a black kid putting gas in his Toyota. I couldn't stop staring. I couldn't stop thinking about the black experience, white privilege, if he'd worry my grandma and what they might be saying at his secret black church when white guys like me aren't around.

Last night, I fell into a weird self-induced palsy. I was listening to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" while reading Ann Coulter's criticism of Obama's speech. I just started vibrating.

God damn YOU, Jeremiah Wright! God damn YOU for opening this can of worms! Thanks to your little outbursts, I have to think and write about race very god-damned day! Why can't we just go back to the way it was before Jeremiah Wright showed up on YouTube? Why can't we go back to those carefree days of yestermonth, when America wasn't a nation so racially divided?

Thanks to Jeremiah and Barack, we have been forced to examine race from every perspective with the kind of intensity and acumen only available to us during Presidential elections. In other words, we get to turn it into a bizarre game played by TV talking heads. (Why won't CNN issue scorecards for home viewers and some kind of system to distribute points? Bob says Buchanan is winning by 2, but I have Gergen up by 3!)

We want to know about Barack Obama. Therefore, we must know about Jeremiah Wright. Thus, we must come to terms with race.

I think a good discussion on race makes sense. It's probably overdue. However, I don't think it's the best way to understand the Wright/Obama relationship. Before we begin investigating the possible race-based motives behind the hacking of Obama's passport info (current odds are 7:1 that the State Dept. employees are white lackeys of The Man), I think it's critical to mention one little thing.

The Wright/Obama thing isn't really a race thing.

No, I'm not kidding. Yes, it is partially about race. You can even say it's 50% about race, although I think that's generous. If you strip away pure politicking, the Obama/Wright mess is really, in very large measure, about religion.

Our reaction has been, predominantly, focused on race. That, kids, is a mistake. An error in judgment. It's the "good television" issue and it avoids the very real third rail of religion.

We didn't get lucky. We couldn't have just one of the R's on the table. We have to deal with religion, too. I'm not just talking about this whole "black church" notion, either. That falls back on the race side of the discussion.

Wright's stupidity may be about race, but Obama's relationship to Wright is a matter of religion. It's about the way different people approach faith and their relationships to churches and church leaders.

Before I went race crazy, I sort of touched on some of this. Since then, I've been shocked. The race frenzy has been amazing to behold, but no one is really talking about religion and how different people approach their faiths. This is at the CORE of determining the significance of the Obama/Wright relationship and it is being IGNORED.

I really am amazed. So many people think the relationship between Barry O. and Jerry W. is a critical aspect of understanding a potential POTUS and his outlook on the world, but no one is talking about that pastor/congregate relationship in terms of Barack Obama and HIS religion.

I'm not talking about "his" faith in terms of Christianity (notice how that "secret Muslim" shit has disappeared?). I'm talking about Barack Obama and HIS relationship to the faith of Christianity, and to his particular church.

Many people are aghast that Obama would belong to a church that had a pastor who said crazy shit. They can't figure it out! They can't understand WHY anyone would go to a church that consistently offered perspectives that are so out of the mainstream!

I mean, really. Would you go to a church for 20 years if you had to listen to someone tell you that you could only have sex if it was for procreation and that birth control was sinful? Would you worship somewhere that taught you that members of your faith were the only chosen people who could expect a happy afterlife? Would you go to some crazy church where pastors told you it was important to nuke Iran in order to usher in the return of Jesus?

Would you keep on going to some church where the pastor told you that your gay cousin was going to burn in hell for all eternity because pictures of Brad Pitt raise his steeple?

How could anyone spend 20 years in a church that's been populated by numerous pedophiles in positions of authority?!? How could any sane person maintain membership in a church that preaches the destruction of a competing religion through whatever means necessary--including violence--Sunday after Sunday?

Hmmm... People do that. Week after week. Why?

Well, there are a few reasons. And a lot of it might be the same reason Barack continued to hang out in a church led by some guy who was jumping around hollering "God damn America!"

Now, if you're Dick Morris, you argue that Obama's involvement with Trinity was purely pragmatic. Jeremiah Wright's church has big influence on the south side of Chicago, so Barack found an empty pew. It was political networking from a young organizer and future politician who recognized the non-supernatural powers of Trinity.

I'm sure Obama considered the positive mojo that was coming his way by virtue of membership at Trinity United. He ain't stupid, after all. However, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'm ready to accept his explanation of how he came to be a member of the church.

Even more importantly, I believe his explanation of his relationship to religion. In his own words:

And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.

Just in case you skipped over that, read it again. Carefully. This is Barack Obama explaining his Christianity. His individual relationship to the concept of faith and to the church. This is Barack Obama explaining why we should be looking at the Wright controversy in terms of religion instead of perseverating on race to the exclusion of all other considerations.

Today, on the way to work, I was driving across an overpass that spans a busy chunk of interstate highway. There was a guy standing there on the little fence-protected sidewalk. He was carrying a large wooden cross. He wanted every car headed westbound on I-435 to see the holy cross on Good Friday. That guy has a certain outlook on religion. He has a relationship to his faith. It's wildly different than my own. It might be different than yours. It's probably different than Barack Obama's.

There are stalwarts and true believers in every denomination. There are Catholics who never miss a mass and who make confession (and follow through with penance) regularly. There are Jews who really do keep kosher every single day. Some of them listen to every word their pastor, rabbi, or priest says and accept it as True. There are those who listen to those same leaders and funnel it through their own faith and understanding. There are those who listen and then storm out of church or temple, fuming.

Then, there are those who don't fall into the hardcore category. They have faith, but they have questions and they aren't necessarily willing to compromise their sense of reason and right because someone at the pulpit says so. They share much in common with the stalwarts who believe there is a difference between the voice at the pulpit and the voice of God.

There are cafeteria Catholics who get birth control prescriptions filled and who'll skip mass for the Steelers/Browns game. There are Jews who occasionally have a cheeseburger. There are fundamentalists who don't really buy into the whole "speaking in tongues" thing and who don't have a problem with a "gay lifestyle" even if their denomination's hierarchy says they should.

Then, there are those who don't belong to a specific church or denomination but share beliefs common to one or more. Then, there are the atheists. And the pagans. And the neo-paganistic druids. And the agnostics. Fuck the agnostics.

I don't want to argue about who's right and who's wrong (Except with respect to the agnostics. They're just narcissistic and/or cowards). I don't want to compare the merits of one outlook to another. I just want it recognized that one person's understanding of religion may be radically different than that of another.

Barack Obama doesn't sound like someone who believes his church has all the answers. By his own admission, he still has questions. He's still looking for answers. His Christianity isn't an exercise in gathering and following absolute political truths from his pastor. He's not there to follow the instructions of Jeremiah Wright to a tee.

He's just like the people who keep going to John Hagee's church even though Hagee is certifiably nuts. He's not unlike the Rod Parsley congregates who keep showing up every Sunday even though they have their doubts about the miracle healing prayer cloths he sells to the desperate.

Would you keep going to a church if you don't believe in everything the church leaders say? If you go to church every week, you probably are doing just that. You might be one of the stalwarts who never disagrees, but the odds are that you don't necessarily put the words of the person at the pulpit on par with the word of God.

Put simply, Barack's religious convictions aren't altogether different than those held by many others. It just so happens that his pastor is a little more fucked in the head than most of the other ones holding services on the weekends. Isn't there something in the bible about casting stones? There are few thousand people who might want to look that up, based on what I've seen lately.

Aha, you may say, there is a difference. The mellowly-presented anti-birth control stance of the Catholic Church isn't quite as radical as "God damn America". There's a difference between a biblical stance against hot girl on girl lesbian action and "the chickens have come home to roost". The protestant pastors who seem to have some questionable viewpoints aren't quite as "out there" as Uncle Jeremiah. It's not right to compare Wright to Billy Graham. It makes more sense to compare him to Fred Phelps.

People say they can understand someone sitting through sermons with which they may have minor disagreements but that they can't believe Barack Obama would nod along with Jeremiah Wright for many years. Most people, they argue, wouldn't keep going to a church that preached white supremacy or that consistently supported some other completely reprehensible world view. Why would Barack hang out with Jeremiah spouting all that nonsense?

That's an interesting argument. It's also one of the more sensible. Where do we draw the line between church statements that are tolerably questionable and those that are utterly reprehensible. Does damning the gays fall on one side of the line while "God damn America" falls on the other?

I do have an opinion about why we're drawing the line in a spot that puts Jeremiah Wright on the wrong side while leaving Pat Robertson in the clear.

Culturally, we're a lot more accepting, in political and social terms, of crazy clergy who keep their preachin' on the conservative side. That's a natural byproduct of our nation's history and traditional religious biases. When Barry Goldwater's progeny married the children of the religious right, U.S. culture sort of collectively decided to let some brands of crazy slide a little more.

There's another factor at play, too. We're suffering from a lack of context. Jeremiah Wright has been preaching and speaking for decades. I doubt he's gone more than 48 hours in the last 20 years without giving a presentation or preaching a sermon. We've seen nothing but excerpts. Snippets of the guy at his very worst. Based on what I know, Trinity United and Jeremiah Wright have done a lot of good things in Chicago. That doesn't excuse the lunacy, but it might help put it into perspective.

There may be enough good in that church to justify repeat visits even if some days are batshit crazy. The church may function as a community that's diverse enough to accept the idea that members can disagree with a pastor's politics.

(Not to get back on race again, but there is also a difference in how the majority interpret the behavior and commentary of black churches vs. those of white churches.)

But this isn't just about politics any more than it's just about race. Their both factors, but focusing on them at the exclusion of the individual religious experience itself is foolish.

I'm not a traditionally religious guy. We'll have an Easter egg hunt at the John Brown estate and the loveable giant bunny will make his presence known, but I won't be attending services. Just for this post, I decided to be a non-heathen for a few minutes and I dug this up in the bible. I thought it was pertinent, considering Hillary Clinton's White House ambitions... In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Paul wrote:

As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

By the way, I just tossed that out there because I couldn't bear the thought of writing a long post like this without finding some way to piss off Hillary Clinton supporters.

Have a happy and/or soulful Easter.

Save an egg for John Brown!


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1 comment:

  1. It's a great point, John. And it's true. There is just some crazy shit that people are more want to listen to than others.

    That's why my parents left the Catholic Church, I suppose. Which, looking back, was a good thing. My experience was much better in the church I grew up in than any of the many experiences I've had in Catholic Churches (my entire family is Catholic, after all).

    And I bet being a mixed kid in white dominant America left Barack wanting something that looked more like a genuine black experience. And given the broad variety of wht the "black experience" in America may look like, a church pew was probably one of his safer bets.

    It's true, too. Listening to some preachers say that homosexuals are going to hell is as lunatic to me as is hearing God Damn America. Preachers, in general, are not the most thoughtful lot. That's not always true. Some church leaders and theologians can be fairly thoughtful people beyond just defending the faith. It's the defend the faith against all reasonable comers part that bugs the shit out of me in conversations with such folks. But since so many church leaders inherently try to block off their experience of the world to maintain virtue/purity, they often have very little real notion of what the unpure world looks like. That goes for professors, too, by the way. And most people who live in safe cocoons of suburbia and "safe people", as Dar Williams would say.

    What shocked me, John, is that I found nothing about Obama's speech shocking. And then the shit storm hit. So it came at me by surprise.

    And I think the deal is that because I have taken such an unsafe, throw the bowlines off, route for life, I don't find much shocking, anymore. I was pissed off at Wright. But I've heard a million dumbass radicals and black radicals sound off similarly. They piss me off. But they don't shock me, anymore (I lost my temper pretty seriously with that asshole in Illinois talking about the murder of some Israelis may be worth a better deal for Palestinians).

    There's definitely race stuff, here, to talk about. What bothers me is that we have such a hard time doing that in a mature way that is not about getting our man elected rather than having the honest conversation.

    As someone who conducted a race dialogue during President Clinton's race initiative, I can testify that even under more ideal conditions, that is still very hard because people have such strong feelings about the matter.

    But what has fucked up this conversation and the religious conversation, in the past, has been that we both shut down those conversations in public with all kinds of bullshit political correctness and we get so scared about having those conversations more honestly when we get the chance.

    And, then, in the background, we spend all this time trying to impose one another rather than trusting our consciences to sort things out, better, and coming to terms with the futility of not trusting peoples' consciences, which dictate what people do, as a matter of fact, completely independent of our wishes otherwise, good and bad, in a way that leaves everyone mistrusting each other.

    I was thinking about it, today, John, and I think that as much if not perhaps more than the hate, what blocks up our most important forward movement - I talked about the Israeli/Palestian peace talks because the stupidity that prevents that ugly chapter in our history from coming to a close has always symbolized for me how ugliness in the human soul can constantly overwhelm what everyone knows in their heart to be the more decent solution - is fear as much as hate.

    We have this fear that if people like Jeremiah Wright or Barack's grandmother or Rush Limbaugh (his firing, I'm sure, is one the recent events that would spur conservative anger with the double standard; do liberals call for Jeremiah Wright's firing, conservatives ask? No. Then why did they pressure, successfully, for Rush Limbaugh's firing for more innocuous statements? Good question. And my question has always been, did any of the firing or pressuring or political correctness or any of the rest rid anyone of racism? Obviously fucking not, unless our brains have just been devoured by racist zombies), if these people can speak honestly what is on their minds, then the world will just go to Hades in a handbag. But the naughty little truth as all of these people, and all of us, have all kinds of ugly, nasty, mean-spirited, assanine, foolish, bullshit thoughts running through our heads. Our entire fucking lives. And that goes for the smartest of us as well as the dumbest of us. We just don't like to admit all of that bullshit. But all the pressure and the repression and the harranguing and the bullshit does is make it all go underground. Whites are pissed off because when they have said the same kinds of things Jeremiah Wright has said, their kinds gets fired for it. Jeremiah Wright, on the other hand, gets a cushy little minister's job with what appears to be a fairly well-furnished, luxurious church.

    And the truth is I have no issue with Jeremiah Wright keeping his job. In fact, though I am not convinced that Jeremiah Wright is the greatest exemplar of the dude he's claiming to preach on behalf of, I'm a big believer in sticking by people, even when they're shitheads, which may reflect Obama's religion or maybe just his sense of decency.

    I do think conservatives are concerned about some serious matters of race and how we deal with it in America, but I also think that they are concerned about politics - is Obama just the nice smile on a radical agenda? I sure fuckin' hope not, but I have to say that his economic talk doesn't convince me of that - and I think they see a double standard, rightly, that would have been harsher with whites, in a comparable situation.

    It's all a fucked up legacy of our tendency to try to substitute swift, certain justice on issues that have needed more honest discussion and argument, as far as I'm concerned. Including an open sharing of peoples' less attractive qualities.

    But we're too scared to do that. So we just keep tripping over ourselves and looking like goddamned fools while we do it. I've been feeling kind of melancholy this week thinking about it. But finally I hope I've made some peace with the fact that there are things we can have more influence over and there are things that will not budge very easily, no matter how stupid, in the short term, even as they must budge, in the long term, if we're ever to get anywhere with them.

    This race discussion just demonstrated itself to be exactly one of those things.

    Wright didn't force shit. Forcing this matter is what got us into this mess. He just got people pissed off. And, luckily, we had the sense to talk about it, some. I hope we keep it up, frankly.

    In the meantime, it would help an awful goddamn lot, really, if we would take off our blinders and look at these kinds of issues, honestly and genuinely, from the perspective of people other than ourselves and not just ourselves. That is the problem with the conservative reaction, from my standpoint. They only see this situation from one direction. And a slice of life isn't the same as the whole of life. And especially when it involves people getting hurt or potentiall getting hurt, it seems to me that we owe it to one another to get the whole picture or something closer to the whole picture.

    The more I think about this shit, John, the more I realize just how arrogant and shortsighted we are.

    This race conversation actually opens up a can of worms that I think is good for us, in that respect.

    By the way, an excellent book just came out on this issue that I just saw at Borders that I thought you would be interested in. It's called Typecast: On the Arts and Sciences of Social Inequality by Elizabeth Ewen and Stuart Ewen, a husband-wife professor team. They write in a Stephen Jay Gould vein that I very much appreciate. They're a little over the top in their left-wing sanctimony, at the end, I think, but it's a good read and an interesting history.

    I have to say, John, that I really appreciate being away from all that shit before writing anything important. There's just so much bullshit in the academy and everywhere that passes for wise reflection (Shelby Steele's reflections on Obama demonstrate that problem well), and especially on politics. Holy shit, are we fuckin' idiots when it comes to trusting politicians to know more about fixing problems than they do.

    I don't know myself, much of the time. But I am far more convinced, today, that there is far more posing, out there, than honest, thoughtful, thorough, workable answers. There's too much bullshit in the conversation to get anywhere workable, much of the time. That might explain why things look so shitty, these days, on so many fronts.

    I'm sure we will forcibly rectify the situation, tomorrow. Things are gonna change. I can feel it.
    And, when they don't, it will be because they can't change - our biology, the system, God has ordained it - and it won't have a damned thing to do with anything we've done to fuck up the situation. If you listen to everyone, these days, we are far too infallible for all of that. Other people may be fallible. But nobody is fallible enough to admit it out loud.

    By the way:

    "Fuck agnostics"

    Exactly. Ah, the joys of repression and cowardice. May they always be with us.

    Reason I call myself a soft atheist is because I know I have more in common than everyone, including Christians and religious people who get their panties all in a twist when you tell them you don't believe in God, than what I regard as a technicality - that I don't believe in the existence of a supernatural being - would suggest. That and I'm hardly a "in-your-face-you-fuckin'-religious-ignoramus" type of atheist, though I thought that many times, as I have thought most people are ignoramuses, many times.

    All of us are ignoramuses, is the truth. We're just all so ignorant, we don't like admitting it.

    Talk to you later, dude.