Wednesday, March 19, 2008


(Expanded version: excerpts are preached relevant to the context).

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17.

We were living in Canada when Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled hit the best-seller lists. His thesis: life is risky; it’s not trouble-free. We’ve done a better job in modern Western cultures of ensuring that life is less trouble-free than any previous generations. But the degree to which trouble surprises us, says Peck, will be the degree of our vulnerability to various neuroses... The riskiest option is to try to live without risk….

Life itself is inherently risky – especially if you did not choose your parents well! When you marry you take a huge risk. Having children is risky. Mothers giving birth – especially if they’re teenage girls in places like Ethiopia – face awesome risks. Being a politician is risky: and as we witnessed this ‘Sorry’ week, being PM or leader of the Opposition is risky.

When a few of us began a ministry to ex-pastors on April Fools’ Day 1991, without the promise of a dollar’s support from anyone, that was risky!

Social and Management Scientists (who tell us ‘what everyone knows in language no one can understand’) say that what we do in every significant action is actually ‘risk assessment’ – we do a ‘costs/benefits analysis’ to judge whether the costs of taking a certain course of action are justified by the expected benefits.

When I ‘speak the truth in love’ to conservative Christian groups, I generally have to encourage them to move beyond legalism and/or dogma: these risk-avoidance stances are inherently inhibiting their growth in faith, hope and love.

But some live with too much risk. Last week at a friend’s 80th birthday ‘bash’ I was talking with someone about a mutual friend who’d died recently. She’d moved interstate, and would phone me every couple of months when she was drunk. She’d had nine major operations, including a double mastectomy; was physically abused by her husband and sons: the boys, when they’d been drinking, sometimes swung her by the hair around the room. I conducted the funeral of one of them, who’d shot himself through the mouth... But she stayed with her family: I was with her when her husband died, and buried him too... This humble, abused woman kept her faith until the end. How do you get that kind of courage?

Our friend Dawn Rowan took huge risks in challenging two governments: she took them to court and won. But even though she’s innocent, she’s likely to lose everything she owns. (Look up her name in Google to read her amazing story).

You can say three things about all the biblical leaders: they took risks, they all failed at some point, and they all spent a disproportionate amount of their lives in deserts... You can put the heading ‘Risk-taking’ over just about every page of the Bible. In the lectionary readings for today we heard about two ‘risk-takers’ – Abraham and Nicodemus.

About 4,000 years ago a family of Semitic nomads left the country we call Iraq and settled in Haran, (now Turkey, on the Syrian border). There Abraham, 75, who was enjoying retirement – ‘in his slippers and growing geraniums’ - received a divine command: ‘Leave your country, your people… and go to the land I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1). So ‘Abram left, as the Lord had told him’ (Genesis 12:4), and journeyed south-west towards the land of Canaan.

His epitaph, in Hebrews 11: ‘By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called… and he set out, not knowing where he was going’. The Hebrew risk-taker par excellence!

The encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus in John 3 is one of the best-known and best-loved stories in the Gospels. How many of you learned to recite John 3:16 when you were young? Our grandmothers used to crochet John 3:16. Martin Luther called this text ‘the Gospel in miniature’. There’s a guy who travels the world’s major sporting and other events holding up a John 3:16 sign for the TV cameras; the spectators at the Super Bowl saw it on a banner pulled by a small plane. (Actually Jesus’ words to Nicodemus probably end at 3:15, and the writer of the Fourth Gospel tacks on another discourse from verse 16.)

Only John of the four Gospels tells us about Nicodemus – in chapters 3, 7, and 19. Nicodemus had a good education and position, power and wealth as a Pharisee. He always got the best seats at the synagogues. He had considerable authority as a member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin: something like Archbishop Peter Hollingworth who became Australia’s Governor-General for a while. (Only in two modern countries, I think, are religious leaders ex-officio in the legislature – the British House of Lords, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.)

Jesus said something quite startling to him: ‘You must be born again.’ There’s a word-play here which is difficult to translate into English. Jesus could either mean ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’: certainly both. Nicodemus latched on to the first meaning. Actually Ezekiel had said something similar: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you… A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you… I will put my spirit within you…’ Jesus too talked to Nicodemus about the ‘Spirit’ being God’s agent in this process. Later Paul and others taught about ‘regeneration’ – roughly the same idea.

Jesus said Nicodemus must be born of water and of the Spirit. The Church through the centuries has taken this to refer to baptism – the outward sign of the new birth. For Nicodemus, as for many Christian believers in many parts of the world, to be publicly baptized would have been a huge risk. Nicodemus might have thought of John the Baptist out there in the desert, baptizing people, among them some of Nicodemus’s priest-friends. As we think back to our baptism – maybe it was a risk committing ourselves to a life of obedience to Christ, and some of us might have been persecuted for that.

Indeed, the act of baptism by immersion is itself a risky venture. I sometimes say to candidates who are ‘baptized backwards’: ‘I’m going to lower you right under the water, and after a second or two I’ll lift you up. You are utterly dependant on my physical strength for that to happen. I could hold you under – a kind of death – and in a sense that’s what baptism is all about…’

In the U.S. the phrase ‘born again’ has entered the common religious and political language . The Southern Baptist republican candidate Mike Huckabee, I heard on the news last week, will appeal to ‘born againers’, evangelical Christians.

Jesus in the Gospels said only to one person – Nicodemus – ‘you must be born again, if you want to see the kingdom of God’. To another who asked how he could gain eternal life, Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor, ‘and you will have treasure in heaven.’ It’s interesting that we’ve universalized the ‘born again’ idea – everyone has to experience it if they want to get to heaven - but we’ve relativized the other: apparently not everyone has to sell up everything. Phew!

But there’s something else here: In the clause ‘You must be born again’ “you” is plural. In English we have one pronoun which can be both singular and plural. Jesus said to him ‘You – plural – you Pharisees; you the religious establishment must be renewed from above’.

What was wrong with the Pharisees, and why did they hate Jesus? The word ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated one’: they separated themselves from the rest of humanity to keep the Law of Moses – and all the other laws the Scribes had added over the centuries - in every detail. The Sabbath laws are the best known. Here’s the problem: Moses said the Sabbath was to be kept holy, and no work was to be done on that day. The Jews over many generations defined and redefined what exactly ‘work’ meant, and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day had it all tied down. For example, Jeremiah (17:21-24) said you weren’t to carry burdens on the Sabbath day. Now what’s a ‘burden’? How heavy is a ‘burden’? They asked ‘If a woman wears jewelry is that a burden? Or if a man has a wooden leg? Or if you lift a child?’ and so on ad infinitum.

Jesus cut across all this religious nonsense, and said the Sabbath was made for the well-being of people, and not the other way around. The Pharisees were actually very ‘good’ people, but ‘good in the worst sense of the word.’ They were guilty of the ‘neurosis of scrupulosity’ as some of my Catholic friends put it. So laws are codified into ‘constitutions’ and the doctrines organized into ‘systematic theology’. I’ve met people and groups like that: haven’t you? And when they become ‘thought police’ like the Pharisees, they’re quite obnoxious…

I read this in an online sermon: ‘If anyone could be trusted to know what the Bible had to say about anything, it was the Pharisees. Nicodemus’s opening line, when he meets Jesus is, ‘Rabbi, we know ... blah, blah, blah.’ ‘We Pharisees, we know...’ And although what he is claiming to know is quite positive and affirming of Jesus, his certainty that they already know who he is and what he is about has already got Jesus challenging him. Jesus doesn’t quite say, “You don’t know nothing,” but he might as well have.’

He comes to Jesus at night. Why? The sermons I’ve heard suggest he was fearful of being discovered talking to this radical prophet. Possibly: Pharisees were known to advocate death to infidels. Or, he simply desired a private conversation uninterrupted by the crowds; or he wanted to ‘vet’ Jesus and his teaching before he made any judgment about him. Whatever the reason, Jesus seems to have won him over: later, when the Sanhedrin was trying to arrest Jesus Nicodemus defended him: a very risky thing to do. And when they finally crucified Jesus he brought expensive spices to prepare Jesus' body for burial.

So how does the story of this risk-taking theologian Nicodemus challenge us? Let me, in closing, make five brief suggestions:

First, the most important thing about being a Christian is not slavery to a belief-system or a commitment to a codified set of laws. It’s about ‘following Jesus’. Resist any religion which is driven by dogma and legalism.

Second, don’t be afraid of a new idea: ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.’ Who was it said ‘When I resist a new idea simply because it’s new, please begin to dig my grave’?

Third, let us develop what my radical friends call a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ about all ‘received’ wisdom – particularly entrenched ideas that prevent us seeing God at work, even in unlikely people and places... And let us never forget that, as sociologist Robert Merton and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and others have taught us: the evil in institutions is likely to be greater than the sum of the evil of the people within them. ‘The worst evils in the world are not committed by evil people, but by good people who do not know they’re not doing good!’ (Niebuhr). It was institutional evil, perpetrated by Nicodemus’s colleagues, that got an innocent man, Jesus, crucified.

Fourth: knowing the Bible off by heart – as many of the Pharisees proudly boasted – does not guarantee godly behaviour, or even good theology. You can know the Bible off by heart and miss the whole point.

Fifth: let’s not forget our brothers and sisters for whom being a Christian is very risky, and who suffer from institutional evil in many places in our world.. This news item landed in my inbox last week: The Eritrean government has imprisoned more than 2,000 Christians. Some of the imprisoned Christians are kept in metal shipping containers and routinely tortured. As a result there have been cases of prisoners who have died, lost their sight, and/or have been paralysed. Due to the severity of persecution, many churches have gone underground and many Christians have been forced to flee the country.

Sermons on this passage were prepared this amazing week by Australian pastors in the context of our saying Sorry to the indigenous peoples of our land. From one Baptist pastor: ‘Like many Australians, I watched and wept as our newly-elected Prime Minister delivered the long-awaited and long-overdue apology this morning. I wept in shame. Shame for the ways in which previous governments have acted and legislated so atrociously towards our indigenous sisters and brothers, on my and my parents' and grandparents' behalf; shame at the thought that many church organizations, no doubt with the best of intentions, were nonetheless part of the machinery that enabled so many children to be removed; and shame at the memory of my childhood when, as a kid who used to spend his summer holidays on my grandparents' farm in wheatbelt Western Australia, I was ushered to the 'Whites Only' swimming pool, which was separated by barbed-wire from the 'Blacks' Pool'.

‘But I wept also with joy - because as I read through the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, I was brought to John 3: the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. And in that encounter, in which Jesus so profoundly speaks about 'new birth', I realized afresh what the core of the gospel is: that our past no longer needs condemn us to a particular future; that my tomorrows are not imprisoned by my yesterdays; that in Christ, there is a new and more hopeful reality that is brought into vision. Today's apology was, for me at least, truly a Lenten miracle, and one that served to highlight powerfully the world-shaking wonder of the gospel of which John 3 speaks.’

Let us pray: Lord help us to understand grace: that the good news is about a gift: a gift of a new birth, a new life, a new relationship with the living God: a life which is eternal – here and now, and also forever. Amen.

As we go into the world to live out a risky faith, let us be challenged by the great prayer of St Ignatius:

Dearest Lord
Teach me to be generous
teach me to serve you as you deserve –
to give and not to count the cost
to fight, and not to heed the wounds
to toil, and not to seek for rest
to labour, and not to ask reward
except that of knowing
that we do your holy will. Amen.


Day by day
Dear Lord, three things we pray:
To see you more clearly,
To love you more dearly,
To follow you more nearly,
Day by day…

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Sirit. Amen.

Rowland Croucher
February/ March 2008.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


The following is a transcript of Sen. Barack Obama's speech, as provided by Obama's campaign, (in response to controversial comments by his ex-pastor).

We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.

Sen. Barack Obama has said the controversy over his ex-pastor's remarks has been "a distraction" to the campaign.


Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy.

Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution -- a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States.

What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part -- through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk -- to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign -- to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together -- unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction -- towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas.

I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners -- an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.

I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one.

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity.

Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African-Americans and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either "too black" or "not black enough."

We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action, that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.

On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation -- that rightly offend white and black alike.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain.

Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely -- just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice.

Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America, a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Rev. Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems -- two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Rev. Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church?

And I confess that if all that I knew of Rev. Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and YouTube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor.

He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine, who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's 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.

In my first book, "Dreams From My Father," I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:

"People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note -- hope! -- I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones.

"Those stories -- of survival, and freedom, and hope -- became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.

"Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish -- and with which we could start to rebuild."

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety -- the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger.

Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear.

The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Rev. Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.

Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork.

We can dismiss Rev. Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Rev. Wright made in his offending sermons about America -- to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.

And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country.

But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

Legalized discrimination -- where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments -- meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.

That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families -- a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened.

And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods -- parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement -- all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

This is the reality in which Rev. Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted.

What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it -- those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination.

That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations -- those young men and, increasingly, young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.

For the men and women of Rev. Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.

That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Rev. Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.

Their experience is the immigrant experience -- as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.

They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.

Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze -- a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.

And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns -- this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy -- particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction -- a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people -- that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life.

But it also means binding our particular grievances -- for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs -- to the larger aspirations of all Americans, the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.

And it means taking full responsibility for own lives -- by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American -- and yes, conservative -- notion of self-help found frequent expression in Rev. Wright's sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The profound mistake of Rev. Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.

But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination -- and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past -- are real and must be addressed.

Not just with words, but with deeds -- by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.

It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle -- as we did in the O.J. trial -- or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina -- or as fodder for the nightly news.

We can play Rev. Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words.

We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children.

This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st Century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care, who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life.

This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag.

We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

I would not be running for president if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.

And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation -- the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

There is one story in particularly that I'd like to leave you with today -- a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King's birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.

There is a young, 23-year-old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was 9 years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents, too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time.

And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

"I'm here because of Ashley." By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

March 19, 2008

(From the CNN website)


Beliefnet's Washington Editor, David Kuo; Politics Editor, Dan Gilgoff
and Beliefnet Editor in Chief and author of the new book FOUNDING FAITH:
Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America and
other bloggers are weighing in on Senator Obama's "A More Perfect Union"
speech today.

Here's a quick rundown of pre-speech posts and points of view:

-- David Kuo: Obama's decision to stand by his church is good
Spirituality "He didn't forego his spiritual home for political
convenience. Whether or not that is good politics is yet to be seen.
That it is good spiritually should be applauded."

-- Steven Waldman: Obama can't be held responsible for all Wright's
statements, but he needs to say where he agrees and disagrees.

"Some stay because the Sunday school is terrific. More commonly, I hear
people say something like, "I don't like the minister's sermons, but he
was so wonderful when my father died." We should remember that the main

purpose of a minister is spiritual. If he helps someone get closer to
God, or find meaning, that matters tremendously."

-- Dan Gilgoff (God-o-Meter): With Trinity UCC lashing out at the media
this weekend, this controversy is sticking around for a while.

"One of the main arguments Obama's surrogates have been making in the
face of the Wright flare-up is that voters want to hear about issues
like health care and the economy, not about the ravings of Obama's
pastor. This weekend's ravings from the church are fuel to the fire,
promising the story ain't going anywhere soon."

-- Rod Dreher: Rev. Jeremiah Wright is no MLK: "Martin Luther King....
was a true prophet, in the Old Testament sense,

who did not damn America, but called her to be true to herself. It's
easy to imagine King denouncing the grave sins of this country, because
he did that. It's impossible to imagine him denouncing this country in
the fanatical terms used by Jeremiah Wright. Had he done so, we would be
living in a different country today, and a worse one.

-- Jim Wallis: This controversy is all about race, not religion.

"There is a deep well of both frustration and anger in the African
American community in the U.S. And those feelings are borne of the
concrete experience of real oppression, discrimination, and blocked
opportunities that most of America's white citizens take for granted....

In 2008, to still not comprehend or seek to understand the reality of
black frustration and anger is to be in a state of white denial which,
very sadly, is where many white Americans are."


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Rowland Croucher


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