Julie and I caught part of it on the progressive talk radio station on our way to brunch. While the topic was ostensibly a response to the extreme statements made by his former pastor, the recently retired Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in the speech Senator Obama went beyond these comments to discuss the history of racism in the United States, and his own experience as the son of a black Kenyan and a white Kansan.
What I was most impressed by was how Obama spoke to the complexity of the issue. How often do we get to hear a public official, or even a potential President of the United States, get up and say "the truth is complex and all sides have legitimate concerns and make good points"? And yet Obama showed courage by speaking honestly and with nuance on a topic that too often gets reduced to sound-bytes and polarizing rhetoric. He rejected the extremism of Rev. Wright's comments, but affirmed the experiences of black Americans that they were born out of, and refused to reject Wright as a friend and mentor. He acknowledged that comments like Wrights (or like those of Geraldine Ferraro - who insinuated that Obama's success was a kind of affirmative action based on his race) were based on the real struggles of minorities and women in generations past that have allowed both him and Senator Clinton to reach the level they have. But he also pointed the way forward and declared that we are not doomed to live forever in that place - that change is possible and our divisions are not set in stone.
He also acknowledged the frustration hard-working, lower-income white Americans feel when affirmative action appears to give a hand up to someone not much worse off than they purely based on race, while they have to fight for every inch up the ladder. It takes someone with a lot of fair-mindedness and intelligence to recognize this and say that these concerns are real and legitimate, while at the same time pointing out, as Obama did, that blaming economic problems solely on race perhaps distracts us from dealing with the real source of the problems - e.g. greed, corporate corruption, special interest politics, etc.
Another thing that really stood out to me is that Obama also admitted that it is possible to listen and learn from a pastor or spiritual leader without having to agree with everything they say - a truth that is still too difficult for many American Christians to grasp in my experience. Obama affirmed that relationships trump ideological agreement - that you don't have to give up on a community simply because you disagree with some of the things some of the people say some of the time. (A principle Julie and I tried to live by in our previous church until it became obvious that those we disagreed with did not feel the same way - that for them agreement did trump relationships.)
He concluded with a call to live up to Christ's command to care for others as we care for ourselves. In his words:
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
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