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Friday, March 28, 2008

Obama's relationship is with church

Link to article in Bryan-College Station Eagle:

Published Thursday, March 27, 2008 6:49 PM

Obama's relationship is with church

Special to The Eagle

As a minister serving a local church, I'm surprised by some aspects of the recent controversy surrounding Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, its pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and its most talked-about member, Sen. Barack Obama, who eloquently put the controversy in its appropriate larger context during his March 18 speech.

I'm neither endorsing nor denouncing the senator's presidential campaign here. It's the reaction to Rev. Wright's comments that I find striking.

Admittedly, my view of Wright is influenced by having had the pleasure of hearing him speak on two occasions. He preached at my seminary, and lectured at a recent clergy conference I attended. And it truly was a pleasure. At both of these events, during which Wright spoke to predominantly white audiences, he was engaging, insightful, inspiring, and not the least bit inflammatory.

This is just one reason why, while I did disagree with a couple of Rev. Wright's comments recently quoted in the press, I was not at all troubled by them. They sounded (to this white man's ears) like brief, perhaps over-stated sound bites lifted from the kinds of passionate, prophetic sermons that I've personally heard Pastor Wright preach so well.

Yet, even if Jeremiah Wright had been the white-hating, anti-American demagogue who some pundits describe, I still would be puzzled by those who question Sen. Obama's apparent decision to stay with this pastor.

Such a question misses a fundamental point: Obama did not stay with Jeremiah Wright. He stayed with Trinity United Church of Christ. When people join churches, synagogues, mosques, etc., their commitments are not to the clergy serving those congregations, but to the congregations themselves. Put simply, it's not about me as minister, because I'm not the church.

In many churches, including the Unitarian Universalist church I serve, we speak of the "free pulpit," the right of a minister to preach the truth, faithfully, as he or she sees it. But we always speak of the "free pew."

That doesn't mean you're encouraged to walk out on a sermon you think is wrong-headed. Rather, it means you are free to disagree with the minister, faithfully, and still stay part of the church. This is a basic recognition that the commitments we make to our church communities are just that -- commitments to communities, not to individual pastors.

I hope that no person leaves the membership of our church over any theological or political disagreement they may have with me as its minister. Not to be self-deprecating, but I'm not worth someone losing their relationship with the church.

Nor is it worth it for Sen. Obama to end his relationship with Trinity United Church of Christ over anything Jeremiah Wright says, whether or not it's quoted on YouTube. I commend Sen. Obama for staying with Trinity.

I do recognize that it's difficult to sit through sermons you find objectionable. I'm glad that, even through his strong disagreements with Rev. Wright, Obama acknowledges his pastor's freedom to preach what his pastor saw as truth, while also maintaining his own freedom to dissent from those views as a parishioner.

Ultimately, though, my biggest fear about the responses to Sen. Obama's speech is that we'll be so distracted by Wright's political views, we'll lose sight of the greater good served by this profound speech. Sometimes an opportunity arises for deep discussion of the difficult subjects that divide us, the systemic flaws forcing us to engage the deep pain that cause a society powerful anger and hurt.

Sen. Obama has opened such an opportunity for all Americans to engage in authentic dialogue on how racism continues to impact our society. I am grateful to the Illinois senator for his insightful, clear-headed, and penetrating comments on racism.

If we can be in dialogue on these hard but vital issues, we will be a better nation for it.

• The Rev. Eric Posa is pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Brazos Valley.

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