Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Barack Obama on the black church

Audacity of Hope, pp 207-208 (Barack Obama)

Ampersand sent the following quote to me and it so dove-tailed with my columns on black theology, that I wanted to post it for all of you to read. One nuance that I may not be adequately tapping in my postings here is that the black church sees itself much more as a community than white Christians. We tend to see ourselves as making individual commitments to God and then looking for an individual church that we will join.

For the African American community, partly forged through suffering, Christians see themselves as sisters and brothers, as members of a collective, a community without walls. That experience of collective identity is shifting as more and more are moving to the suburbs, and racism is slowly transformed into classism. Still, for Cone, who wrote during the Civil Rights Movement, community as identity was primary. Obama's description of the distinctives of his experience in the black church is all the more noteworthy since he was raised by a white mother.

For one thing, I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change. Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation. It had to serve as the center of the community's political, economic, and social as well as spiritual life; it understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities. In the history of these struggles, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it was an active, palpable agent in the world. In the day-to-day work of the men and women I met in church each day, in their ability to "make a way out of no way" and maintain hope and dignity in the direst of circumstances, I could see the Word made manifest.

And perhaps it was out of the intimate knowledge of hardship, the grounding of faith in struggle, that the historically black church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts, or that you relinquish your hold on this world. Long before it became fashionable among television evangelists, the typical black sermon freely acknowledged that all Christians (including all pastors) could expect to experience the same greed, resentment, lust, and anger that everyone else experienced. The gospel songs, the happy feet, and the tears and shouts all spoke of a release, an acknowledgement, and finally a channeling of these emotions. In the black community, the lines between sinner and saved were more fluid; the sins of those who came to church were not so different from the sins of those who didn't, and so were as likely to be talked about with humor as with condemnation. You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not apart from it; rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away -- because you were human and needed an ally in your difficult journey, to make the peaks and valleys smooth and render all those crooked paths straight.

It was because of those newfound understandings -- that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved -- that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."


SusansPlace said...

Wow. Powerful quote. I attended a Southern Baptist black church once. A guy I was dating, 19 year old white teenwas preaching there. The singing and dancing prior to the sermon was lively and fun. Though I enjoyed hearing my friend "preach", I also wished I could have heard the black preacher. I suspect his sermon would have been "livelier" made more of an impact on me.

For several years, after college, I worked in the Equal Employment Opportunity department of a Gulf Oil. My boss and my co-worker were black. On Monday, I loved to listen to my co-worker talk about what she did on Sunday. She went to church like I did but she got all dressed up, with a hat and gloves. All her friends did. She would talk about the choir music and the preacher getting "fired up." Then her BIG family and sometimes friends too would come over for lunch and it would last till they went back to church. They always had lots of food and laughter. Her Sundays always sounded so "lively" and "connected". They were days of invigoration for her and her church.


preacherruss said...

Finally, a politician who can articulate his faith in a clear and heart-felt manner that doesn't consist of completely inane cliches.

This was just gorgeous.

julieunplugged said...

Russ, such a good point - that a politician can articulate a genuine faith response that doesn't sound like he is pandering to a constituency. It is gorgeous. He has such a wonderful way with words. Can't wait to have time to read his book. Ampersand has convinced me of its worth.


Marty said...

Interestingly, the website of Obama's own Trinity United Church of Christ invites everyone to join them for Kwanzaa celebrations on December 27, but makes no mention whatsoever of Christmas.

Peculiar, to say the least.