Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Why did Obama blink during Trinity's 'sacred conversation on race'?

De facto Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has said he would talk with the leaders of Iran and Cuba. That willingness to explore a more engaged foreign policy won Obama a lot of support (and, of course, some critics). But why didn't he show show such boldness closer to home – by using his eloquent, and persuasive, voice to help solve the festering crisis that has gripped his church in Chicago?

He had the perfect opportunity when Trinity United Church of Christ and other UCC congregations began a “sacred conversation on race” on Sunday, May 18.

UCC started the conversation partially in response to the controversy that erupted over the byte-sized racial remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., during the years when he was pastor of Obama’s church.

Obama could have made up for his fumbling responses to Wright by going before his besieged congregation and making the case – a strong one – for social and racial justice guided by the spirit of leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King. King sometimes lambasted the then totally white controlled power structure. But, even when he was put behind bars, he did not engage in the kind of vituperative, divisive ranting that marked some of Wright’s sermons and his recent appearance at the National Press Club.

Obama found the time to sub for ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and deliver a commencement address at Wesleyan University on May 25. Why couldn’t he have spoke to his congregation the following Sunday? Or, if he was too busy campaigning, have his wife, Michelle, also a Trinity congregant, deliver a joint message?

But Obama passed up the opportunity. Seizing it instead was the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a radical Catholic priest in Chicago who used the Trinity pulpit during the sacred conversation to out-Wright Wright.

Instead of being subjected to Pfleger’s rant – which he has subsequently apologized for – Trinity’s congregants could have heard a message from Obama stressing conciliation – a message that’s echoed from many UCC pulpits around the nation during the sacred conversation.

In the wake of Pfleger, Obama finally responded to the crisis in his congregation – but it’s not what you’d expect from the man who calls for a new way of doing things. He resigned from Trinity. His limply worded letter to Trinity’s new pastor, the Rev. Otis Moss III, provided no guidance to fellow congregants who have been buffeted by a controversy that won’t go away.

Obama’s campaign mantra is “Change we can believe in.” But when he walks away from a big issue so close to home, what’s there to believe in?

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