The Common Good

Healing the Wounds of Race

Sojomail - March 20, 2008


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- The Dalai Lama, reacting to accusations by Chinese officials that he has had a role in fomenting pro-independence riots in Tibet in which scores have died. He has said he may resign as the spiritual leader of Tibet if protests are not nonviolent, though many accuse the Chinese police of committing the worst atrocities.(Source: The Washington Post)

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Healing the Wounds of Race

It has simmered throughout this campaign, and now race has exploded into the center of the media debate about the presidential race. Just when a black political leader is calling us all to a new level of responsibility, hope, and unity, the old and divisive rhetoric of race from both blacks and whites is rearing its ugly head to bring down the best chance we have had for years of finally moving forward.

And that is indeed the real issue here. A black man is closer to possibly becoming president than ever before in U.S. history. And this black man is not even running as "a black man," but as a new kind of political leader who believes the country is ready for a new kind of politics. But a new kind of politics and a new face for political leadership is deeply threatening to all the forces that represent the old kind of politics in the U.S. And all the rising focus on race in this election campaign has one purpose and one purpose alone—to stop Barack Obama from becoming president of the United States.

Barack Obama should win or lose his party's nomination or the presidency based on the positions he takes regarding the great issues of our time and his capacity to lead the country and the U.S.'s role in the world. He must not win or lose because of the old politics of race in the U.S. That would be a tragedy for all of us.

The cable news stations and talk radio are playing carefully selected excerpts of the most potentially incendiary statements from Rev. Jeremiah Wright's fiery sermons. Wright is the retiring pastor of Barack Obama and his family's home Trinity Church in Chicago. Obama, while affirming the tremendous work his church has done in his city and around the nation, has condemned the most controversial remarks of his pastor. But the whole controversy points to the enormous gap in understanding between the mainstream black community in the U.S. and the experience of many white Americans. And that is what we are going to have to heal if we are ever to move forward.

Here is what I mean.

There is a deep well of both frustration and anger in the African-American community in the U.S. And those feelings are borne of the concrete experience of real oppression, discrimination, and blocked opportunities that most of America's white citizens take for granted. African Americans across the spectrum of income and success will speak personally to those feelings of frustration and anger, when white people are willing to listen. But usually we are not. In 2008, to still not comprehend or seek to understand the reality of black frustration and anger is to be in a state of white denial - which, very sadly, is where many white Americans are.

The black church pulpit has historically been a place of prophetic truth-telling about the realities that black people experience in their own country. Indeed, the black church has often been the only place where such truths are ever told. And, black preachers have had the pastoral task of nurturing the spirits of people who feel beaten down week after week. Strong and prophetic words from black church pulpits are often a source of comfort and affirmation for black congregations. The truth is that many white Americans would indeed feel uncomfortable with the rhetoric of many black preachers from many black churches all across the country.

But if you look beyond the grainy black-and-white clips of the dashiki-clad Rev. Wright and the angry black male voice (all designed to provoke stereotypes and fear), and actually listen to what his words are saying about the U.S. being run by "rich white people" while blacks have cabs speeding by them, and about the U.S.'s misdeeds around the world, it's hard to disagree with many of the facts presented. It's rather the angry tone of Wright's comments that provides the offense and the controversy.

Ironically, a new generation of black Americans is now eager and ready to move beyond the frustration and anger to a new experience of opportunity and hope. And nobody represents that shift more than Barack Obama. There is a generational shift occurring within the black community itself. This shift is between an older generation that is sometimes perceived to be stuck in the politics of victimization and grievance, and a younger generation that believes that opportunity and progress are now possible—not by ignoring, but by being committed to actually changing the facts of oppression and discrimination.

Barack Obama represents that hope of dealing with the substance of the issues of injustice while at the same time articulating the politics of hope, and even the possibility of racial unity. Obama's attraction to many who are white, especially a new generation, demonstrates the promise of a new racial politics in the U.S. But to be a leader for a new generation of black Americans, Barack Obama had to be firmly rooted in the black church tradition, where the critique of white America, the sustenance of the African-American community, and God's promise for the future are all clearly articulated. That's why he began attending Trinity Church, where he was converted to Jesus Christ in the black liberationist tradition of, among others, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

So it would be a great tragedy if the old rhetoric of black frustration and anger were to now hurt Barack Obama, who has become the best hope of beginning to heal that very frustration and anger. Obama has never chosen to talk about race in the way that Rev. Jeremiah Wright does on the video clips that keep playing, and indeed has never played "the race card" at any time in this election. It's been his opponents that have, especially the right-wing conservative media machine that wants the U.S. to believe he is secretly a Muslim and from a "racist" church.

This most recent controversy over race just demonstrates how enormous the gap still is between whites and blacks in the U.S. - in our experience and our capacity to understand one another. May God help us to heal that divide and truly bless America.

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It’s Not About Him Now—It’s About Us (by Jim Wallis)

It was an amazing day, and, we may look back to conclude it was a historic day. Before Barack Obama's speech yesterday, after the now infamous statements from his former pastor; the issue seemed to be a test of him. But after what may go down as one of the most significant addresses ever given about the history and future of race in America, the issue may now be a test of us. The examination of a candidate was transformed yesterday into an examination of a nation.

Engaging with "A More Perfect Union" (by Brian McLaren)

We have many places for people to react and practice opinion-giving and other forms of punditry, but what we seem to lack is space for people to have a more generous and generative kind of intelligent shared reflection and consideration. So I decided it might be worthwhile to offer some commentary on the content of the speech along with questions for conversation so that people could download the text, make copies of it, and read it through together - stimulating potentially constructive dialogue about a truly important subject.

For Whites Only: Things to Consider When Entering the Race Conversation (by Sondra Shepley)

It would be easy for progressives to smugly say "tisk, tisk" to the rightwing talk show hosts and pundits that have conflagrated Rev. Wright's most divisive remarks as a way to undermine the most viable black presidential candidate in our nation's history. However, I am not convinced that the Christian peace and justice movement has enough solid ground to stand on to convince America that they have moved much beyond the superficial and politically correct discussions that dominate the discourse.

Exorcising Racial Demons: Part I (by Melvin Bray)

If properly understood, Senator Barak Obama's remarks yesterday at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, constitute one of the most significant and honest public addresses ever made on America's 400-year struggle with race. Had we heeded DuBois' 1903 prophetic warning, The Souls of Black Folks, it may have found voice in the 20th century. There is a conversation America has, literally in some cases, been dying to have. That conversation is not in favor of any particular presidential candidate. Please don't relegate and dismiss it on those grounds. However, it is unlikely that we would be so inescapably confronted with such issues outside of a person of color experiencing some measure of success in a bid for the highest elected office in the land.

Exorcising Racial Demons: Part II (by Melvin Bray)

As a person of color in America, I have been constantly asked to honor, even celebrate, white men and women of historical and contemporary note, over and apart from less-than-honorable, glaring, even odious aspects of their public lives. Isn't it time all saw fit to afford one another the same grace, instead of holding one another completely hostage to our shortcomings? In post-racial hope, can we be that vulnerable with one another?

A Giant Religious Rummage Sale (by Becky Garrison)

When I interviewed Phyllis Tickle for Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church, she reflected on the seismic changes she sees occurring in contemporary Christianity. "Evangelicalism has lost much of its credibility and much of its spiritual energy as of late, in much the same way that mainline Protestantism has." Lest anyone find this news so depressing they want to run for cover, Phyllis offers some much needed historical and hopeful perspective. "About every five hundred years, the church feels compelled to have a giant rummage sale."

Da Nukes Gotta Go (by Rose Marie Berger)

Of course, spiritual and religious leaders have long condemned the inhumanness of nuclear weapons. As Douglas Roche points out the current Sojourners magazine (Sleepwalking in a Nuclear Minefield, Sojourners, March 2008), "Nuclear weapons and human security cannot co-exist."

How Wrong Was Rev. Wright? (by Troy Jackson)

Wright's comments seem at best incomplete and untimely. At worst, they imply that God is vindictive, vengeful, and bloodthirsty, even during a time of tragedy--that the judgment of God is appropriately meted out through the tragic deaths of innocent people through terrorist acts of hatred and evil. On Sept. 15, 2001, Rev. Wright was wrong. His words failed to connect with the pastoral needs of a nation in mourning. Throughout his career, however, Rev. Wright has been "right" more often than not. He has followed in the traditions of Hebrew Testament prophets, challenging his nation to live up to its own creeds of justice and opportunity for all - including African Americans, other minorities, and the poor.

Why America Needs the Uncensored Prophetic Voice of the Black Church (by Adam Taylor)

Most coverage fails to capture the competing narratives and self-definitions of the U.S. that coexist depending on one's race and social location. While I'm uncomfortable with some of Dr. Wright's overly provocative rhetoric, and disagree with some of his claims (like his suggestion that AIDS was a creation of the U.S. government), I still vehemently defend the prophetic tradition that Rev. Wright has advanced over the course of 36 years of ministry. I agree with the Rev. Otis Moss III, the new Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, that we do a grave disservice by boiling down over 207,000 minutes of Dr. Wright's preaching into a handful of 30-second sound bites, most taken out of context.

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Jim Wallis talks with Tony Perkins (Family Research Council), Harry Jackson (High Impact Leadership), and Sammy Rodriguez (National Hispanic Leadership Conference) about the broadening evangelical agenda. Watch it.

Putting Rev. Wright's Preaching in Perspective (by Diana Butler Bass)

The attack on Rev. Wright reveals something beyond ignorance of basic dynamics of Christian community. It demonstrates the level of misunderstanding that still divides white and black Christians in the United States. Many white people find the traditions of African-American preaching offensive, especially when it comes to politics. I know because I am one of those white people.


The Cost of War: Click here for the full series

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Holy Week this year brings with it a sobering coincidence. As the church prepares to remember Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection, the nation is marking five years of war with Iraq. In response, Sojourners has released A Call to Lament and Repent for the sin of this war – signed by Jim Wallis, a number of Red Letter Christians and Sojourners board members, and nearly 25,000 friends and supporters.

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I think it is significant that Holy Week falls on the same week of the fifth anniversary of an unholy war. Why? For two reasons: First, because too many pastors and churches - from the run up to the war until now - have waved the flag before the Cross. In doing so, they missed the "Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven." And second, because it presents an opportunity for reflection on what the Cross accomplished for all of humanity, and for repentance for the sins that have been committed against the people of Iraq at the expense of our own ignorance and idolatry ...

What Might Have Been (by Duane Shank)

Five years ago today, on March 18, the British Parliament debated whether or not to support the pending U.S. attack on Iraq. It was already clear that the Bush administration was determined to attack, and desperately needed support from the U.K. That morning, Sojourners placed an ad in five major British newspapersThe Guardian, The Independent, The London Times, The Telegraph, and The Financial Times.

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My own involvement was in the form of bearing witness to the intricacies and fallibilities of the Rules of Engagement I encountered in my 14 months in combat. Many other panelists offered corroborating evidence and shared similar stories of inadequate training in the use of deadly force, and some explained the troubling, but verifiable, cases in which such restrictions were utterly ignored or outright rejected.

'War is Always a Defeat for Humanity' (by Alexia Kelley)

The late Pope John Paul II warned before the invasion of Iraq that "war is always a defeat for humanity." It's impossible to calculate the damage done by war to the human spirit. As faithful citizens, we continue to seek justice that is the foundation of all peace.

The Weakness of War (by J. Daryl Byler)

"Can I forgive the people who killed my husband?" ... The young Iraqi woman who asked the question saw it as the litmus test of whether "peacebuilding" is just nice talk, or whether it holds promise in an Iraq that has fractured along ethnic and religious lines, and where thousands of families have lost loved ones as a result of the U.S.-led war.

'He May or May Not Have Been the Bomb-maker' (by Marianne Kehoe)

He may or may not have been the bomb-maker. Did it matter, now that I stood in front of his body, still connected to tubes and vents and drips, but a body that had already breathed its last? No, it didn't really matter. I stepped to the bed and laid a hand on his still-warm forehead and prayed. I had always wondered if I would know what to say. And as I opened my mouth, I realized I didn't need to know what to say. If ever the Holy Spirit interceded for me, it was then.


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