Friday, March 21, 2008

a more perfect union?

it was a masterful speech. senator and presidential hopeful barack obama, responding to criticisms of his mentor's incendiary racial and political remarks (from the pulpit, no less), elected not to do the typical political renunciation, then hope the whole thing would blow over. instead, he tackled head on, the issue of race in his presidential candidacy and in america for the first time in this campaign. there were no speech writers here; he wrote the whole thing himself. if you haven't heard it in its entirety, it's worth the nearly 40 minutes to listen to the whole thing; the first sound bites i found on the web were much too short (1-3 minutes!) to get a real sense of what he actually said. you can hear it by clicking here. (if you prefer to read along, you can find the transcript here. but i do recommend hearing the speech as opposed to merely reading it.)

of course, reaction has varied tremendously. some have lauded the address as one of the great speeches ever given on the subject of race in america; others have seen it as a slick dodge of personal responsibility or a lame excusing of abhorrent, racist and anti-american statements. i thought time magazine provided a more nuanced set of responses than many commentators.

my goal here is not to evaluate obama or his speech, but to reflect on what the tremendous range of reactions tells us about ourselves. extreme forms of post-modernism argue that there is no intrinsic meaning in a text, that interpretations are really a function of the worldview and agenda of the interpretive communities out of which they arise. simply stated, it's not the words but our own experiences and assumptions that we keep reading into or over the words. i've never been persuaded of that claim, but watching the reaction to obama's address does give some credence to the theory. at the very least, the social location of the hearer makes a huge difference when one is searching for meaning. there is no view from nowhere. we can say all we want that we are just focusing on the words or the ideas, but the reality is that we are always evaluating them against some set of presuppositions and convictions we consider self-evident -- too often without being aware of it.

i suppose that none of this should be a huge surprise. of course people are shaped by their experiences and what they've been taught. of course it affects the way they hear, and probably even whether or not they can hear certain things. but is it ever possible to transcend our own assumptions and worldview? hearing the reactions to this speech, one wonders.

to some, wright's remarks are so obviously anti-patriotic, so anti-american, so overtly racist... what does it say about barack obama that he was able to listen to such a man for 20 years? what does it mean that he is unwilling to disown the man even now (though he has admittedly tried to distance himself from the offending remarks)? this is the spiritual leader he chose, not just for himself, but for his daughters? these folk find the comparison of wright to obama's white grandmother both disturbing and distasteful. what did she ever do to merit getting thrown under the bus in a political speech?

to others, wright's remarks so obviously carry the ring of truth that it's hard to believe anyone would challenge their essential veracity. okay, so he makes his point in a colorful, even harsh, way -- but it's a harsh truth. besides, if you listen to the context of the remarks (both culturally and within each of his sermons), you find his outbursts in the midst of a greater call to love one's enemies the way that Jesus does. that obama feels the need to distance himself from wright or his remarks is a sad commentary on a society that is simply unwilling to hear the un-sugarcoated truth. these folk hear the reference to obama's grandmother as the humble recognition that people are complex beings, and that even the best ones, the ones who have loved us the most, have their flat sides. to renounce all such people would leave us completely alone in the world -- and worse, turns a blind eye to the obvious good that is mixed in with the less-than-perfect attitudes, words, and actions that all of us carry.

is it any wonder that the world is so often cast in terms of white and black? so many people can't help but see it that way, given the differences in upbringing and experience. not surprisingly, they can't even agree on the problem, much less the solution.

but what does that mean for me as a chinese-american man who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in suburban dallas, who is married to a black woman and has biracial children, who pastors a predominantly asian american church which hopes to have effective service and witness to a multi-ethnic community? can we ever learn to see the world through someone else's eyes, someone else's experience, so that we can find common ground and common cause with them? what could make such a thing possible?

do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit,
but with humility of mind
let each of you regard one another as more important than himself;

do not merely look out for your own personal interests,
but also for the interests of others.

have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

who, although he existed in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant,
and being made in the likeness of men.

and being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,

even death on a cross.

therefore also God highly exalted him,

and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bow,

of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth,

and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(philippians 2:3-11)

1 comment:

Bevy said...

I don't have a problem w/Obama going where he wants to go to church - I just would like to KNOW how much the words of his pastor he ascribes to. :) If he holds most of what his pastor speaks of then there may be a problem with him leading this country. But I know the race issue is a difficult one and I don't know the answers. The poor Democratic Party is so splintered right now it's very difficult to see them being anything but unfocused when it comes to the convention.