The second-to-last week of March was an amazing week for Barack Obamas campaign. It began with a speech that was heralded by some as the greatest speech ever delivered on race relations. It was supposed to be a speech about the controversial remarks of Obamas longtime pastor and mentor but the speech missed the mark right out of the gate. As one of my students, Cory Truax, said, In the language of the college classroom he didnt complete the assignment he was given. Instead of addressing and defining his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and answering why he didnt sever that relationship in light of Rev. Wrights anti-American, racist tirade, he simply made up a new assignment. He gave a great speech about race.
Cory is exactly right to accuse Obama of mishandling his assignment. I tried to imagine what my reaction would be if I assigned a student the task of writing about the economic effects of World War II and he came back with a paper about German and Italian Fascism. No matter how articulate or well researched the paper might be if the assignment is ignored the paper would receive a failing grade.
There were some attempts at rationalization in Obamas speech and there were some places where a deeper knowledge and proper application of Gods Word would have been helpful. For example, while clearly condemning Wrights most egregious comments by describing them as expressing a profoundly distorted view of this country, and Reverend Wrights comments were not only wrong but divisive, Obama then applied the tip the scales defense in favor of his embattled mentor. He described Wright as a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick to lift up the poor. He also pointed out that Rev. Wright served his country as a U.S. Marine, and for thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing Gods work here on earth by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
The point Obama seemed to be trying to make was since his pastor/mentor had filled to overflowing one side of the morality scales with good works he should be allowed to make racist, blasphemous, and virulent anti-American remarks from his pulpit. This argument echoes the cry of those who were shocked when Jesus in Matthew 9 rejected them. They immediately present their list of good deeds believing the list would far outweigh any deficit of character they might possess. But Jesus says to them, Many will say to Me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many miracles. You have to admit, that is a pretty impressive list of good deeds. But Jesus reminded them that a personal relationship with Him isnt based on whether or not the morality scales have been tipped in our favor. If your speech and life doesnt match your deeds you will hear Jesus say, I never knew you; depart from me you who practice lawlessness (Matthew 9:22-23).
Another defense Obama offers for his pastor/mentors remarks is the nobody knows the trouble Ive seen defense. In his speech, he quotes William Faulkner who once wrote, The past isnt dead and buried. In fact, it isnt even past. After saying, We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country he goes on a somewhat revised trip down selective memory lane reliving the past injustices blacks have suffered in previous generations. The argument seems to be that wrong actions performed in the past opens the door for wrong attitudes and racist ideas to be expressed in the present. But what does Gods Word say about the past? In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul put the past in its proper place when he said, Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14). Paul knew that the past makes a good sign post but a poor hitching post. Obama, like many other liberal leaders and politicians, would have us chained to the past. They present a picture of America unchanged by the Civil Rights movement. For them, it will always be 1960.
Finally, Obama defended his pastor/mentor justifying his expression of anger against the injustice of the past. Speaking of Rev. Wrights generation, Obama said the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. Harboring anger and nursing bitterness rather than putting both aside for the peace that passes understanding will never result in unity whether racial, political, or spiritual. Ephesians 4:26 says, Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. Colossians 3:8 says, But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.
It appears that the sun has risen and set many times while Jeremiah Wright nurtured his anger and fed his bitterness. His statements have opened a window to his soul and allowed his anger to reveal the content of his character. Obamas speech failed to close that window.
Dr. Tony Beam is Vice-President for Student Services and Director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina.