black theology, ecclesiology, James Cone, justice, modern nation-state, obama, Oscar Romero, political theology

Talking about Obama and His Church

I have to admit, I’m disappointed in Obama and the whole political process, but the latter doesn’t surprise me. Neither did Rush Limbaugh’s categorically false and woefully misinformed response: calling Mr. Wright “a race-baiter and a hatemonger.”

It is also safe to say that the media gets absolutely none of this as it did with the Williams row, or what the Pastor Wright really drives at. They should be ashamed of themselves – just as white as part of the church in America. Again, no surprise.

One aspect about theological study and discourse is that it is fundamentally dialogical. It is conversational, which is why I have no qualms about what I’ve done to follow in this post (other than that this may seem rather arrogant – Posting your own conversation? Well, I’m not going to post someone else’s am I?). I had a conversation with Chris Layton, a friend of mine, and it went something like this:

Me: None of this is good, as far as I can see right now. The first black president we might have and he’ll go with American innocence other than slavery? Publically, as far as I have seen, he hasn’t brought up slavery much, or the effects that still strongly linger today and doesn’t extend that critique beyond the “black experience” like most black liberation theology does. However, it was the potential to do so that was the most interesting things about Obama, him coming from a black liberation church and embodying the critique. I was quite excited to see it and how his presidency would turn out. I suspect it’d be rather Niebuhrian, but still, better than other stuff.

My “politics” or favorite candidate are quite different than Obama, I’m more of a Kucinich person if anything (but not really a Kucinich person either), but I figured some black liberation from the presidency would do this country a lot of good. Now I’m not sure it’ll actually be that; now he’s kind of like Clinton, Hillary that is, and what good is that?

Chris: I think that the nation-state is not the route by which justice will be enacted.

Me: I suppose there is an upside, there isn’t the bastardizing of Christian hope by making it American hope (although I do admit I haven’t read the book, but it still strikes me as Reagan-esque). As for justice enacted by the nation-state? Sure, it won’t fully, but if there can be some change in the state, peacefully, it’ll at least begin a discussion. Having a Christian in the presidency actually bringing up issues that the church needs to deal with, I could live with that. There are other aspects I object to, but at least he’d do things I don’t see Hillary or McCain doing, but now, in some respects, I’m not so sure.

Chris: I don’t know that someone who occupies that office can speak to the church about churchly affairs. Its a kind of idolatry.

Me: Oh no, I’m not saying he could speak to the church, however, if the society is talking about it, it makes it an easier issue to raise in the church.

Chris: I think it makes it harder. If society talks about it, it will be too easy to let society set the terms of the conversation. For us to talk about these things we have to be free to choose the vocabulary. We have a habit of letting the terms of a social debate be handed to us

Me: True, but we’re always free to choose the vocabulary, just sometimes we don’t.

Chris: I think the times we do are in fact really rare.

Me: That is our problem though, that is not a problem with the debate per se. We need to be that Christian body in the debate.

Chris: Its an endemic problem for us, though. I think wishing for the circumstances that perpetuate the problem is … not good.

Me: I’m wishing for the debate, otherwise some people won’t even talk about it no matter how much we say anything. Its our task to make our voice heard and how we understand such a debate to take place.

Chris: To have a Christian in the white house, no matter how much we hope for him/her, we invite the sorts of mistakes we have been making these past decades – mistaking America’s interests for Christ’s. I would rather a non-Christian in the white house, so we are not tempted to displace our political responsibilities onto the nation-state.

Me: Yes, this is true. I have the same criticism of Huckabee, as I would of Obama. I certainly object to a lot, but I think it would be helpful to have black liberation spoken from the presidency, insomuch that it would bring up a discussion about white America – instead we just assume whiteness isn’t racialized itself.

Chris: We need first to take up those responsibilities before we can “enter the debate” but its so much easier to say “that guy is a Christian and an American and the leader of the free world.” We need to be marginal before we can summon the energy to speak in a way that will reflect the values of the church. See – I am not completely ignorant of liberation theology!

Me: True, but I wasn’t originally talking about our responsibilities, I was talking about the opportunity of Obama could’ve brought, while at the same time living the downsides as well. I figured out of the three, Obama was the most interesting and helpful, but now he really is starting to sound like the other two.

Chris: That may be true, but I remain very doubtful of any move to place hopes in a person who is aiming at such a position.

Me: The other two seem to look like typical presidential contenders and will simply use Christian language to pull from a niche for votes. I wasn’t placing much hope, especially now. It wasn’t like I was gunning for him from the beginning, more than wanting to see a black president. I didn’t think even then, that would bring salvation or make the country un-racist. Its just that Obama would be the healthiest of the three and by that virtue alone, the most interesting. Perhaps he still is, although I don’t follow everything that closely, but when he severs ties with something I know a bit of, I’m seeing something that disappoints me.

Me: And then I think, we’re screwed no matter what, and really that’s the whole idea of the church. We can’t really control the machinations of the world – like violence brought upon ourselves – instead we react strongly as Jesus for the hurting as the church no matter the consequences. I think again, as I am often reminded, of Oscar Romero and martyrdom.

Chris: This is better, methinks, those last two, not being able to control the machinations of the world and so on. If we vote, it is as a subversive.

Me: Yeah, a lot of liberation theologians may only like part of that.

Chris: Well, I’m not much of a liberation theologian.

Me: Cone, as a Niebuhrian (or taking a lot from Niebuhr), is okay with seeking power. While Niebuhr’s conception of power is complex, it still is rooted in the idea of not letting the oppressor oppress. Of course I’m simplifying it, but that is the general gist. So he might half like what I said, but certainly not all of it, as I’m so critical of the “liberal” project of working in the state (ironically, a great deal of conservatives/evangelicals/fundamentalists buy into the “liberal” project, but deny its affects). While I think he would like the idea that the white church would have to give up its privilege to do what I described: to be with, rather than “speak for” the hurting (thats an incredibly incredibly important distinction). I’m not a fan of some ways we speak of in empowerment here at Union, but if we are empowering when we chose to live with and support the poor as they speak, then I’m all for that. None of this representation crap, that so many people advocate – it keeps people in the same position and does little to change the systemic problems.

And then we digress.


2 thoughts on “Talking about Obama and His Church

  1. adamsteward says:

    I was hoping you might have some thoughts on this issue. I see the whole thing in terms of James Cone’s distinction between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the latter believing in an American Dream, versus the latter in an American Nightmare.

    What was your take on Obama’s speech this morning?

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