Saturday 5 May 2007

Getting acquainted with Senator Barack Obama - his character & upbringing, his pastor & the church he's affiliated with...

First, I highly recommend this long but excellent article just published in the New Yorker magazine entitled "The Conciliator" written by Larissa MacFarquhar. Absorbing this has heightened my admiration for Barack Obama. His nature, personality and ability to understand different perspectives - and to be self-critical - sets him apart from other candidates and, in general, as a politician in an increasingly polarized landscape.

Secondly, Senator Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, recently sent the following open letter to New York Times, published in their Church bulletin on March 18, addressing in particular NYT writer Jodi Kantor regarding misrepresentations she wrote and they published March 6 about Obama. I don't know if this "reply" ever got printed in the NYT - it certainly should have if it didn't - but it showed up in this week's student announcements at Pacific School of Religion, and plenty of blogs when I searched for it today.

Oh beware of the vagaries and inevitable challenges that come when applying faith values to politics!



Jodi Kantor
The New York Times
22 9 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036-3959

Dear Jodi:

Thank you for engaging in one of the biggest misrepresentations of the truth I have ever seen in sixty-five years. You sat and shared with me for two hours. You told me you were doing a "Spiritual Biography" of Senator Barack Obama. For two hours, I shared with you how I thought he was the most principled individual in public service that I have ever met. For two hours, I talked with you about how idealistic he was. For two hours I shared with you what a genuine human being he was. I told you how incredible he was as a man who was an African American in public service, and as a man who refused to announce his candidacy for President until Carol Moseley Braun indicated one way or the other whether or not she was going to run. I told you what a dreamer he was. I told you how idealistic he was. We talked about how refreshing it would be for someone who knew about Islam to be in the Oval Office. Your own question to me was, Didn't I think it would be incredible to have somebody in the Oval Office who not only knew about Muslims, but had living and breathing Muslims in his own family?

I told you how important it would be to have a man who not only knew the difference between Shiites and Sunnis prior to 9/11/01 in the Oval Office, but also how important it would be to have a man who knew what Sufism was; a man who understood that there were different branches of Judaism; a man who knew the difference between Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews and Reformed Jews; and a man who was a devout Christian, but who did not prejudge others because they believed something other than what he believed.I talked about how rare it was to meet a man whose Christianity was not just "in word only." I talked about Barack being a person who lived his faith and did not argue his faith. I talked about Barack as a person who did not draw doctrinal lines in the sand nor consign other people to hell if they did not believe what he believed.

Out of a two-hour conversation with you about Barack's spiritual journey and my protesting to you that I had not shaped him nor formed him, that I had not mentored him or made him the man he was, even though I would love to take that credit, you did not print any of that. When I told you, using one of your own Jewish stories from the Hebrew Bible as to how God asked Moses, "What is that in your hand?," that Barack was like that when I met him. Barack had it "in his hand." Barack had in his grasp a uniqueness in terms of his spiritual development that one is hard put to find in the 2 1st century, and you did not print that.

As I was just starting to say a moment ago, Jodi, out of two hours of conversation I spent approximately five to seven minutes on Barack's taking advice from one of his trusted campaign people and deeming it unwise to make me the media spotlight on the day of his announcing his candidacy for the Presidency and what do you print? You and your editor proceeded to present to the general public a snippet, a printed "sound byte" and a titillating and tantalizing article about his disinviting me to the Invocation on the day of his announcing his candidacy.

I have never been exposed to that kind of duplicitous behavior before, and I want to write you publicly to let you know that I do not approve of it and will not be party to any further smearing of the name, the reputation, the integrity or the character of perhaps this nation's first (and maybe even only) honest candidate offering himself for public service as the person to occupy the Oval Office. Your editor is a sensationalist.

For you to even mention that makes me doubt your credibility, and I am looking forward to see how you are going to butcher what else I had to say concerning Senator Obama's "Spiritual Biography." Our Conference Minister, the Reverend Jane Fisler Hoffman, a white woman who belongs to a Black church that Hannity of "Hannity and Colmes" is trying to trash, set the record straight for you in terms of who I am and in terms of who we are as the church to which Barack has belonged for over twenty years. The president of our denomination, the Reverend John Thomas, has offered to try to help you clarify in your confused head what Trinity Church is — even though you spent the entire weekend with us setting me up to interview me for what turned out to be a smear of the Senator; and yet The New York Times continues to roll on making the truth what it wants to be the truth.

I do not remember reading in your article that Barack had apologized for listening to that bad information and bad advice. Did I miss it? Or did your editor cut it out? Either way, you do not have to worry about hearing anything else from me for you to edit or "spin" because you are more interested in journalism than in truth.

Forgive me for having a momentary lapse. I forgot that The New York Times was leading the bandwagon in trumpeting why it is we should have gone into an illegal war. The New York Times became George Bush and the Republican Party's national "blog." The New York Times played a role in the outing of Valerie Plame. I do not know why I thought The New York Times had actually repented and was going to exhibit a different kind of behavior. Maybe it was my faith in the Jewish Holy Day of Roshashana. Maybe it was my being caught up in the euphoria of the Season of Lent; but whatever it is or was, I was sadly mistaken. There is no repentance on the part of The New York Times. There is no integrity when it comes to The Times. You should do well with that paper, Jodi. You looked me straight in my face and told me a lie.

Sincerely and respectfully yours,
Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. ,
Senior Pastor Trinity United Church of Christ

Here is the expanded story Jodi Kantor re-wrote later for the NYT, published April 30, 2007 - to follow up the "quick" news article she published in March and to which Rev. Wright was referring above. However, in my view, this doesn't really seem to be much better insofar as it seems to still miss most of the salient issues Rev. Wright identified above, although it broadens the picture somewhat about Obama:
"A Candidate, His Minister and the Search for Faith"

1 comment:

  1. From Martin Marty
    Sightings 4/2/07

    Keeping the Faith at Trinity United Church of Christ
    -- Martin E. Marty

    Note: This is not an endorsement of Senator Obama as a candidate.

    Note: This is not a non-endorsement of Senator Obama as a candidate.

    Note: I don't do endorsements.

    Note: This is not even about Senator Obama.

    It is about Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where the Senator was converted and is a member. Some editorials and the more strident TV networks and radio talkmeisters tell its story wrong, no doubt intentionally. Friendship for the church and its staff, and a desire to help set the church-reporting record straight, impel some comment here.

    My sources for this Sightings are, of course, personal experience of the place and the people of Trinity -- plus a dissertation and a book: Chicago Theological Seminary Professor Julia Speller's Walkin' the Talk: Keepin' the Faith in Africentric Congregations. I read the manuscript with care to write the foreword, and was familiar with the subject of the chapter on Trinity, since Speller was my dissertation advisee when she wrote a full-length work on the suddenly lime-lighted church. Not that it has ever been a shrinking violet, thanks to the energies of the people and the personalities on the staff, including the soon-retiring Pastor Jeremiah Wright. But now it's on the spot.

    Trinity is the largest congregation in the whole United Church of Christ, the ex-Congregational (think Jonathan Edwards) and Reformed (think Reinhold Niebuhr) mainline church body. Trinity's rubric is "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian." So far as I can tell Trinity shapes a kind of ellipse around these two "centers," neither of which makes sense without the other. This you would never know from the slanders of its enemies or the incomprehension and naiveté of some reporters who lack background in the civil rights and African-American movements of several decades ago -- a background out of which Trinity's stirrings first rose and on which it transformatively trades.

    So Trinity is "Africentric," and deals internationally and ecumenically with the heritage of "black is beautiful." Despite what one sometimes hears, Wright and his parishioners -- an 8,000-member mingling of everyone from the disadvantaged to the middle class, and not a few shakers and movers in Chicago -- are "keepin' the faith." To those in range of Chicago TV I'd recommend a watching of Trinity's Sunday services, and challenge you to find anything "cultic" or "sectarian" about them. More important, for Trinity, being "unashamedly black" does not mean being "anti-white." My wife and I on occasion attend, and, like all other non-blacks, are enthusiastically welcomed.

    Heretical? Hardly. Harriet and I sometimes come home reflecting and remarking that Wright sounds almost literalist about biblical texts when he preaches. The large-print texts are before the worshipers, and Wright, taking up the Gospel message line by line, applies it to personal, cultural, social, and political life. He turns much focus on the family. Of course, he can be abrasive. Why? Think of the concept of "unashamedly": tucked into it is the word "shame." Wright and his fellow leaders have diagnosed "shame," "being shamed," and "being ashamed" as debilitating legacies of slavery and segregation in society and church.

    Trinity reorients. Wright and company have had tussles with more traditional members and, at times, some in the UCC. I've known "Jerry" Wright since his student days, have often agreed and disagreed with him, and have found him never to be a preacher of peace when there is no peace -- but "walkin' the talk" for him is also a message of peace.

    Julia Speller's Walkin' the Talk: Keepin' the Faith in Africentric Congregations is available from Pilgrim Press.

    Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at


    The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism: Religious, Irreligious, and Areligious" by W. Clark Gilpin. To read this article, please visit:


    Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.