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Barack, Jeremiah and Jesus

03/18/2008 07:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This morning in Philadelphia Barack Obama is giving the most important speech of his political career. If he can help white America understand why he sat in the pews of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for twenty years, then he may be able to hold his near-grasp of the Democratic presidential nomination. He has come so close! But this is a formidable task, not least because the black church is as foreign to most Americans as a Masonic lodge. Obama's judgment--that personal quality on which he has rested his campaign--is now in question, and not just by working class white men who experience a racist twinge now and then. If Obama can make the case for himself and his decisions and carry us with him to the other side of the divide, then he will have achieved one of those acts of coming together and unity that he has been espousing. At the apex of the Axelrod trinity of states, pledged delegates and popular vote, Barack Obama will march forward inexorably on the road to victory. And America will be the better for the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy, for all of us will have journeyed a bit farther from some of the difficulties of our shared history. If, however, Barack Obama fails to persuade, then everything he's earned is going to begin to fall away slowly, and Hillary Clinton's "clear path to victory," which few outside the Clinton Campaign have been able to find, will become a thoroughfare.

The past few days the Reverend Wright has scared the bejesus out of white America. Since Sunday was Palm Sunday, I've been thinking that one of the misunderstandings at the heart of the pastor story is the nature of Jesus. The most frequent criticism of Reverend White has been, "he's so angry." But charismatic preachers get angry. They get very very angry. They are speaking in the tradition of the Oh, woe to thee, Jerusalem! prophets and of Jesus, who wasn't always the suffer the little children and the turn the other cheek martyr. He could get mad. He could throw things. He could spook people and make them back away. Mark writes about Jesus and His disciples coming to Jerusalem for Passover (on the day Christians call Palm Sunday) and going to the Temple. "And Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but he have made it a den of thieves."

Pissed off Jesus is not the Jesus middle class white Americans like to envision. In what's left of broadly Christian American culture, our eschatological universe is one where puppies and kittens go to Heaven and angels shepherd even the vaguely well-intentioned to their rest. Some churches draw crowds by catering to this desire for uplift. But many Protestant churches, both white and black, are still Bible-based. Second Presbyterian, the largely-white church in Memphis in which I grew up, is much like Chicago's Trinity in that the minister speaks in the language of the prophets. And he can say, in my opinion, some crazy things, and some scary things with which I completely disagree, such as that Christianity is at war with Islam. Unfortunately, you can hear this a lot in Southern Protestant churches, just as you can hear a lot in Southern black churches that God sent Hurricane Katrina to punish black people in New Orleans for their sins. (No, no, you're thinking, that's what that Minister Hagee supporting John McCain asserts. But let me tell you, I've heard this belief from so many African-Americans in my native South that I've lost count.)

But I love returning to the fold at Second Presbyterian, and I suspect that what makes me treasure the few times a year I get to do that is what has kept Barack Obama at Trinity United Church of Christ. The church is not the pastor, and congregations often disagree with their pastor. In a way, that's his role--to provoke, to be bold where his flock is timid, to tell truth to power. The church is the community of believers and the sustenance and energy and comfort such a community generates. It's a powerful experience to stand in the pew, hymnal in hand, and hear a thousand voices behind you rise in song. And sometimes, when you least expect it, that crazy minister will say something in a sermon that stays with you.

Watching the Reverend Wright has reminded me of another United Church of Christ minister, William Sloane Coffin. Coffin's death a few years ago brought forth a wealth of tributes and reminiscences from people who testified to Coffin's acts of love and kindness. A number of people who had been students at Yale when Coffin was Chaplain there spoke about Coffin's leading him or her to faith in God. I remember Yale then--who knew anybody was engaging in religious soul-searching anywhere near Battell Chapel? For those were the days of angry Coffin, the Pied Piper of civil disobedience, the inciter of students to violence, the incendiary proponent of ignoring the rule of law on behalf of Black Panthers. In a sermon, Coffin said, "I am prepared as an anguished citizen to confess my conviction that it might be legally right but morally wrong for this [murder] trial to go forward." "We must recognize that justice is a higher social goal than law and order."

Only slowly did the Reverend Coffin relinquish fire and brimstone (his words and phrasing that of the upper class Wasp, of course). In a famous 1992 sermon, he said, "I think this [American] pride is our bane and I think it is so deep-seated that it is going to take the sword of Christ's truth to do the surgical operation." But the sermon for which he is most known is the eulogy he gave for his son, a eulogy shaped by love for his parishioners and faith in their comfort. This, too, is the meaning of the community of believers and the central act of Jesus' message. Love one another, as I have loved you. Surely, if we watched all Reverend Wright's thousands of sermons we would see love as well as brimstone. And perhaps for Wright, as for Coffin, whose personal life was at times as problematic as his politics, in the end anger and outrageousness fade and love remains.

Palm Sunday has passed and now it is Holy Week, but these days, the most important of the Christian calendar, no longer hold meaning in American culture at large. Really, they never did. If letters and diaries are accurate, Americans of earlier centuries were fairly evenly divided between those who churched and those who did not. So maybe it's not surprising that the successor to the Reverend Wright at Trinity Church, the Reverend Otis Moss III, was yanked from Morning Joe and The Today Show Monday morning because he had said Sunday, "This week should be special for us . . . but I guess we know a little something about Crucifixion." He was talking about Holy Week and alluding to Easter, but presumably NBC/MSNBC didn't get the context. And it seems to me that it's perfectly legitimate for a black pastor to make a connection between the suffering of Jesus and the historical sufferings of African-Americans. That connection is the soul of the black church. The Reverend Moss's unfortunate use of the word Crucifixion (at least from a white point of view) reminds me of a disturbing pencil sketch done by my great-grandmother's brother right after the Civil War. His name was Lee Hill and he was only a boy, but in a firm hand he drew a black man crucified to a tree and signed his name above that tree.

All this race talk is getting hard to take, isn't it? (That's really why NBC cancelled the Reverend Moss.) And what a strange but somehow inevitable almost out-of-body experience Election 2008 has become. The challenge for Barack Obama is simultaneously to bring us down to earth and to move us in one body from this place. Otherwise his campaign is building that house of pledged delegates on sand. A coalition of African-Americans, high-minded white folk, sympathetic bloggers and students, however inspired, is not large enough to carry Barack Obama on down the road to November.