black theology, modern nation-state, political theology

Obama, Race, and Theology

I find Obama to be a rather interesting figure. He is incredibly intelligent (he did write this speech on his own), and, as he describes his social location, he embodies much of America. Both in experience and genetics, he is the confluence of white and black America, and, it seems to me, he is a living microcosm of a good America, mostly. Yet, still America. In my mind, Obama is so much closer than others, but still so far. The gap of far, however, is not something that I think will or can ever be closed. The system just does not work that way.

Obama is doing what he has to do and in his context, it is commendable. This speech was right to do. Obama is quite candid and honest and I highly appreciate this speech, particularly as he describes so well the systemic problems for the black community. Nevertheless this speech, as much as it addresses his relationship to his pastor, is constructed and argued within the matrix of a presidential run. As much as this speech incorporated theological language, it is not necessarily a Christian theology. This is the theology of the state.

If you have not seen the speech, I highly recommend giving it a watch. In terms of speeches, it felt very presidential and, in many respects, I would be proud to have him as president. If it were in my conscience to vote, Obama would instantly get my vote. However, if he were any more critical or less optimistic, very quickly he would become “unelectable.” In this country, the prophet cannot be the president, nor the president be the prophet – the state’s raison d’état simply does not allow for it.

A Theological Critique
Obama criticized his former Pastor, Dr. Wright, saying that Wright “expressed a profoundly wrong view of this country” and perhaps Obama is correct, however, I strongly disagree. Maybe the remarks by Wright were somewhat unbalanced, then again, he was not blaming other people, but instead was addressing our complicity.

I object to the idea that Wright’s comments were divisive. Prophetic language is inherently critical: “Change from this to this.” Now, what a community does with the message will prove whether the community is divisive. In this case, was it inflamatory language or critical honesty that made America angry? I think the latter. No one wanted to admit that our hands pre-9/11 were bloody, we still do not.

One of the greatest values of prophetic language and Black Liberation theology in particular, is the honesty and truth that it wields against the established status quo. It calls into question our denial and America does not like that. America responds calling such criticism unpatriotic or racist, which ironically proves the point; America’s general response is to silence the prophetic voice. This sounds an awful lot like Rome and the ways each attempt to silence someone are not too different – fear and death; lynchings and crosses; threats and nooses.

I would also argue, when Obama implies that anger from oppression may creep into the sermon and perhaps instigates such “outbursts” displayed by Wright (which Obama seems to call into question as culturally determined), however such an implication is not theologically grounded and is actually a very wrong statement and implication. In fact, there is room for such anger and indeed that if there is no anger, perhaps one’s theology is profoundly lacking. What of Jesus turning over the moneychangers in the temple? Anger, anger for justice, is divine. God throughout the prophets displays it and Jesus himself lets the authorities have it. Christianity has both a fierceness in passion and a sharp edge that confronts. If anger were not allowed in, the cross would cease to be the scandal it is and would cease to confront the black and white churches as a lynching. It will cease to confront the centurion at the foot of the cross – one of the complicit ones, whom I equate with American Christianity. The metaphor of a lynching is not solely for blacks, but also calls into question white churches that historically excluded blacks and created a ghettoization within American Christianity which is still alive and well, although it may not be as consciously constructed any longer by some. Jesus would be angry with us. We should be angry with ourselves. We should be angry with the country we live in, despite how much we love it. To avoid anger is to seek to avoid the inherent racism within America.

While Obama’s narrative of the continued plight of the black community is spot on, in his quest for unity, he glosses over white privilege by supporting the narrative of white immigrants. It is true that white people in America are immigrants and there is an immigrant story behind it all, however, since when were white people immigrants? It has for most been quite some time. In the end, the middle class is just as much a farce as the immigrant story is now. Both stories are linked together – bravely we crossed the ocean, out of nothing seeking freedom, we made our way in the world through work and now we have a modest home with all our needs met. I would be the first to affirm the hard work that my family has done. I fear that I may never live up to such work. However, such stories deny or do not acknowledge that historically, and even today, the system gives whites an advantage towards things like land ownership, loans, etc. Such stories also deny that perceived needs are generally wants, which betrays a greater issue – virtually everyone in America attempts to portray themselves as middle class. Of course some want to wear their wealth, but by and large, the image of America is the middle class. Quite simply put, we are no longer immigrants and while we whites may have worked hard, we are where we are also because of the privilege of our skin. Still. And where is the church in all this? Generally it supports the old stories instead of calling into question the plantation narratives.

Obama also criticized Wright for saying “he spoke as if our society is static,” which I do not even feel like debating, this post is getting too long already, but as I am sure everyone noticed, Obama has an anthropological optimism. Instead, theologically, we are bound to a tragic past, we also have a tragic future as well, save for the interruption of God. But that does not play well in the state that says it is the agent of peace. The state could not be the agent of peace if it did not claim the ability to achieve it, which necessitates power and the moral will to create this “peace.” Optimism is a necessity for the state. Faith in the American experiment is a must. Out of all the things Obama said, theologically this is the most obviously incorrect view, which simply does not merge with a Christian anthropology.

Lastly, in relation to Obama’s state salvation narrative, I am concerned about his language. On one hand a great deal of it is very familiar because much of it is theological language, but on the other hand, theological language in the service of the state? I’ve never quite agree with that. I do not agree with Reagan as he did it and nor do I agree with Obama doing it. To talk in gospel terms – to speak in the language of salvation – but to make the state the object is to create another entity, community, and call to allegiance that seeks to co-opt the body of Christ.


7 thoughts on “Obama, Race, and Theology

  1. adamsteward says:

    Good analysis, David. I feel much the same. I especially feel a lot of affinity for your critique of Obama’s optimistic anthropology.

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