The Obama Dilemma

On Saturday, May 31, Barack Obama publicly disassociated himself from the congregation (Trinity UCC Church in Chicago) that had served as his family's faith community for twenty years, almost half his life. He was wise to do it. He did it well. But, many will say, still, that he has not gone far enough. "He needs to 'disavow' that community and its leaders entirely!" many will decry. "He needs to condemn the pastoral style and practice of such leaders as Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Fr. Michael Pfleger!" will be their demand. They would be wrong. Because they do not know whereof they speak.

Some twenty years ago, I was executive producer of a television documentary program (produced by Oblate Media in St. Louis), entitled, Fire in the Pews. Among its voices was the much younger Fr. Michael Pfleger (he of the YouTube clip from Trinity UCC church in which he mocks in biting comedic style Senator Hillary Clinton's alleged sense of "entitlement" to the Democratic presidential nomination). When I was first introduced to Fr. Pfleger and his ministerial "style", he was the relatively new and quite young pastor of St. Sabina Church in Southside Chicago. Fr. Pfleger was a full-of-himself" firebrand then, even as he is today. But he was (and is) also a whole lot more.

Cut to another Southside location. Three years ago, the organization which I presently head, began to telecast nationally the preaching of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright from Trinity UCC Church in the same general Southside area of Chicago as Pfleger's St. Sabina Church. Throughout the nearly one and a half years we carried Rev. Wright as part of our Sunday, "America At Worship" series, we were always alert to the tendency in Rev. Wright's "style" to lampoon and occasionally excoriate ideas, trends, movements, and even individuals (including the president) whom his Black Liberation Theology vision of the world moved him to target. He could be, especially to those uninitiated, "over the top" if not "'round the bend". And occasionally we had to do some editing. It is not an unfair judgment on the part of us outsiders to describe some "Wright moments" as, at best, "questionable" and, at worst, offensive, uncivil and, for some, even racist.

Rev. Wright and Fr. Pfleger are not famous for their sensitivity to the "ears of the listener". They come right at you.

I can remember many occasions when hearing preaching from the pulpits of such places as St. Sabina and Trinity, I felt as though I were listening to "family stuff", overhearing close family members blowing off steam or caricaturing those whom they held responsible for their circumstances of injustice and discrimination. If challenged by outsiders, many members of these communities will usually respond with expressions like, "O, that's just talk." Or "Well, you know how Rev. Wright is." By the same token, I also frequently found myself listening to the bare content and being compelled to acknowledge that, while I find the style occasionally bordering on obnoxious, on the substance, the point being made was frequently not without foundation. The Black Liberation Theology preaching style is very frequently edgy, of "questionable" taste, and outlandish to "foreign" ears.

I'm sure that in my adult life I have been in perhaps fifty such circumstances and, while frequently feeling "out of place", I laughed at times at the raw comic truth of some of it, cringed at other parts, wept at even more parts, and was tempted to walk out at still other parts.

But, these men and their congregations, while they may be judged on style (which is highly relative to culture) as inappropriate for some tastes, are hard to beat when it comes to delivering the gospel goods they feel compelled to deliver, as it says in scripture, "in season and out of season." And the sharp edge of their message is frequently honed and wielded at their own congregations. They are scathingly critical not only of the white community, its political and economic hegemony and its tone deafness to the plight of others who are left out and are down and out. They are also brutally challenging to their own community's social and individual weaknesses. Parents who lack responsibility for their families, who will not work and will not discipline; people who sell and use dope and alcohol. They rail against dropping out, about neglect of their poor. These preachers and their communities are as hard on themselves as they are on the world at large which too frequently shows a complete lack of a moral compass with regard to these same issues. Few pastors with whom I am familiar are as demanding as these two are of their own people.

Wright and Pfleger the vanguards of these movements, but, were it not for the Obama candidacy; they would still be nearly anonymous outside their own Southside Chicago turf. They may suffer from the fact that they get very little negative feedback from the congregants who can so readily identify with virtually all of what they preach. They suffer from a lack of effective criticism. They certainly don't suffer from lack of ego. They can be arrogant and/or very clerical (which is never attractive in pastoral people). But they are "with their people," fully identified with their pain, their aspirations, their joys and their sorrows. They are not (as far as I know) shamelessly "cashing in" on their power or position. They are not without failings, but they are not without a heroic amount of dedication and courage.

So to ask Senator Obama to condemn these communities or their leaders, when he knows fully what they are and who they are, is unfair and misguided. He can see from his two-decades of lived experience that, viewed from the outside, there is some "ugliness" within the character of the Black Liberation Theology movement, especially when viewed "out of context" - the only vantage point people on the outside have. My guess is that he knows that this "ugly side" won't be addressed in places like Trinity and St. Sabina until conditions in the wider society undergo a deeper social conversion than has been the case so far. My guess is also that, if there is an Obama presidency, this issue will be addressed at least indirectly by him. He knows how crucial this circumstance is to his broad agenda of change, unity and hope for the entire nation.