My cynicism reared its ugly head yesterday. I avoided listening to Obama's speech until this evening. I'll admit I was afraid to listen to it. I've come to appreciate Obama's leadership and call for change, but I was afraid that the controversy surrounding the quotes from pastor Jeremiah Wright's sermons would push Obama take the business-as-usual, pansy-assed approach of distancing himself from controversy in the name of political expediency that dominates the world of politics today. I wanted to believe that he would offer something different, but my cynicism honestly expected that he wouldn't.
I just finished watching the speech. While I'm not normally given to tears by speeches from politicians, I'll acknowledge a lump in my throat by the end of this one. To my utter amazement, he forcefully disagreed with the statements that have been played over and over again, denounced the shallow sound bite analysis of relationships and issues, beautifully named his dilemma and the nation's real struggle with racism, AND stood by a man who has obviously had a powerful influence on him. That is exactly the kind of change in leadership I think is necessary to move this country in a different direction.
I don't agree with Obama entirely. His strong denouncement of Dr. Wright's statements was too forceful in my opinion. I'm not offended by what the pastor said. I think he was making some important points. I also understand that preaching good news in a prophetic manner sometimes requires saying things that make people uncomfortable. I would not consider myself a follower of Jesus Christ if that were not the case. I have no doubt that Dr. Wright has said things with which I would disagree. I've never met a preacher who didn't. I might also choose to say some of the same things in a different way, but I have never ministered in a context like his, nor have I ever had the guts to speak as prophetically as he, often to my own shame.
A few years back, Jeremiah Wright preached at my PhD school, Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. I did not attend. I was in the dungeon of PhD coursework at the time, trying to keep my head above water and believing that I didn't really have the time to go to any of the events during that week's conference. I regret that I didn't hear him. The reports I received from fellow students afterward were glowing, full of rave reviews and deep appreciation for the messages he brought. In recent months, the Black Church Studies Program at Brite selected Dr. Wright to be the recipient of an award in honor of the contributions he's made in the course of his ministry. The award will be given at a banquet at the end of next week.
In the past few days, Brite has received numerous phone calls and e-mail criticizing the seminary for honoring Dr. Wright. Some of the messages have expressed hatred and bigotry in shockingly candid language and tone. The seminary's administration has taken the courageous step of affirming the decision to grant the award and has posted a statement on the website further honoring Dr. Wright's accomplishments. I have not always had positive things to say about my PhD school, but their handling of this situation has deepened my sense of pride in having studied there.
I understand why Obama used such forceful language to distance himself from the ideas expressed. I'll even admit that I think doing so demonstrated his ability to be leader for all of the people in this country and to help us move toward healing the pain and suffering of racism. Nothing has made that more clear to me than the angry response leveled at Brite. The pain is deep, and the solutions will not be easy. It is a deeply complex problem that requires both the prophetic word of ministers like Jeremiah Wright to rouse us from our numbness and indifference and the authentic conviction and courageous diplomacy of a leader like Barack Obama to help us see a way forward.