Many people who don't like Obama are using the fact that for many years he was a congregant in the church where Jeremiah Wright preached. The fact that he may not have been present when the most "problematic" words were offered is actually irrelevant to what I choose to offer today. So is the fact that many of the words in question are well within the prophetic tradition. Yesterday Devilstower showed how much milder those words are than those offered by Jesus of Nazareth. I would be tempted to provide a parallel using texts from the Hebrew bible.
Let me instead take a slightly different path, which I invite you to explore below the fold.
When Mohandas K. Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western Civilization, he said
I think it would be a good idea.
And I think the way we tend to find the single thing, or even collection of things, on which we focus, out of context, to prove our case for or against political and other figures is a demonstration that Gandhi may be quite correct in challenging our assumptions of how civilized we actually are.
More relevant to the topic at hands are the insights of my spouse, Leaves on the Current. She listened to the remarks of Tony Perkins to the effect that one could not sit in the pew for 20 years hearing words like those of Wright and not have it affect them. On the way to dinner last night she told me she was tempted to respond that both Perkins and she both knew people who had sat in the pews for 50 years hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with it having no discernible effect on their behavior.
We unfortunately are still doing our politics in the fashion of "gotcha" journalism, seeking to find one thing to use to disqualify a candidate with whom we disagree or to force the candidate to distance from a supporter for whom we can similarly find such a gotcha.
A persistent pattern of words and behavior should be questioned. But words, especially sermons, are meant to challenge, to provoke, to make us uncomfortable, less morally sedentary. As such, they need to inspire, to comfort, to challenge, to provoke. One who preaches must balance the mixture of such approaches and a gifted preacher uses words in so many words that it becomes easy to lift them out of the total context of his or her ministry.
St Paul, in Romans Chapter 12 tells his readers to "hold fast to what is good." While I am not a great fan of the Pauline writings, I apply this standard to his work. And in the same chapter we also read "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all."
To listen to a sermon is not necessarily to agree with all that the preacher says. And if an offensive statement in a sermon is grounds for rejecting the preacher and removing oneself from his presence, our churches should be emptied out, or else we should be condemning all those who stay, because beyond those words which we do condemn they find moral uplifting and comfort and challenges to live more loving and fulfilling lives.
On the one hand we are told that speeches, especially by Obama, are only words. On the other we are admonished that the words of Jeremiah Wright are supposedly so horrific that Obama's failure to leave his church somehow demonstrates a moral failing on his part. These two ideas are obviously contradictory. And while we might reject some of a person's words, to reject one or more statements is not the same as rejecting the totality of a person's life work. None of us is perfect, and to insist that others achieve a standard of perfection in words and deeds that we know we cannot ourselves meet is hypocritical. Hypocritical, and destructive of the kind of growth towards wholeness that we should seek in ourselves, in those we encounter, and in the society in which we live.
Challenge a statement with which you disagree - that may be incumbent upon you. But be certain that in reading the statement you do not see it outside the context in which it was offered, or apply it to a purpose for which it was not intended. Even the most noble and inspiring words, when lifted from their original context and applied to a different purpose can seem quite destructive in a way not imagined by the original speaker. Were we to apply the same standard to our own words we might be tempted to cease from speaking completely, lest our words be construed in manners we would find horrifying, totally alien to what we deeply believe.
And if we stay and listen to the preacher? We may agree or disagree, we may be challenged, angered, comforted, inspired - any or all or none of the above. Our presence does not signify agreement. It does represent a willingness to listen, to hear, to ponder. And for others to interpret for us what our actions represent is as much of a distortion as is taking words out of context for the purpose either of demonizing an opponent or elevating and glorifying one whom we support. If our politics is intended to help us achieve our highest aspirations, we need to forgo using lower means to achieve such ends.