Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I Have Been Waiting for these Words

I have been struggling with my feelings regarding the relationship between Barack Obama and his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Oddly, my struggle is not that I am having trouble reconciling this relationship; rather it is that I am not.

I have had to ask myself why the absolutely offensive words that the Reverend Wright spewed has not lead me to the same question that many seem to be asking: How come Senator Obama has remained in that Congregation, allowing this minister to officiate at his wedding and to baptize his children, knowing that these views are so discordant and antithetical to his own beliefs?

I have been a member of the same congregation for 10 years. There have been sermons that various Rabbis have given over the years that I have not agreed with. I know that others have found some sermons extremely offensive. Do we leave our congregation because we disagree with the words of our Rabbi? No. We are a community, which is our extended family. What do my friends, who are pro-choice and in favor of gay marriage do when their priest espouses the beliefs of the Catholic Church during a Sunday mass? Do they leave their congregation? No, it is their community, their family. We all gain strength from belonging to a spiritual home and take pride in the good work it does in our communities. We value the relationships we share with our spiritual leaders. I am sure that the congregants of the Trinity United Church of Christ feel exactly the same way. I am sorry that this congregation, that these people, this family, has had to bear the brunt of our own fears – our scrutiny.

First, I do believe that I, as a white, Jewish American, have a lot to learn about the African American experience. I have no clue about what it’s like growing up with black skin in this country. In a few weeks I will be seated at my dinner table, retelling the Passover story as if I were a slave in Egypt – but I can’t begin to relate to the notion of having a great grandparent who was actually enslaved in America. I was young during the Civil Rights movement – I grew up in a white suburb in New England, attended an all white elementary school and sang freedom songs with my family on car trips. I can be empathetic and sympathetic but I refuse to be a hypocrite. I have no right to place judgment on this congregation or this minister.

To have asked Barack Obama to denounce Reverend Wright, which in a way meant turning his back on his congregation makes me cringe. How dare we ask this of him because his pastor spoke words that made us uncomfortable. How dare we judge his congregation without judging ourselves. How dare we disparage Senator Obama’s relationship with his pastor. It’s none of our business. Senator Obama’s actions - his record, has certainly proven that he does not espouse or agree with these particular sound bytes. Reverend Wright is not running for President and he has a 1st Amendment right to speak, even if his words are offensive. Even if what he says makes us angry. Even if we vehemently disagree. We don’t have to listen if we don’t want to. But perhaps we should.

Reverend Wright’s words are a wakeup call to white America – and they are harsh words to hear. There are serious racial tensions in this country. And there is anger. Barack Obama may be the single most important person who has the ability to transcend this racial divide and for the first time in a long history be an effective instrument for positive change. He can begin the dialogue and give voice to both sides of the divide. He is the best hope that can I possibly imagine to finally begin to bring this country together and to move us forward. I don’t mean the Democratic and Republican, Independents and Green parties, I mean the people who make up these parties – the rainbow of colors that is this country.

Senator Obama is speaking this morning at 10:30. That he has chosen Philadelphia as his venue cannot be an accident. This is a speech that I was hoping he would make, that he must make to the people of this country – black and white, women and men, rich and poor, young and old. I know he has the courage to seize this opportunity - to confront and not shrink away from this challenge. This is a time when words do matter. They mattered when our forefathers gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Declaration of Independence and they mattered when Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. These words are words that must be spoken and we should all find it within ourselves to listen.

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