History, Barack, and Jesus

I didn't vote for Barack Obama, just so we get that out of the way up front.

I'm also wondering whether Jesse Jackson is crying because of the historical significance of the moment, because it's not him on the stage, or because he didn't get to maim Obama before he had the full protection of the Secret Service (just so we get my one tasteless joke out of the way up front).

Tonight is a big deal. You can acknowledge it or not. You can love it or hate it. You can hope or fear. You just can't change history, and tonight is history. It's not merely history for black Americans. I just listened to Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark and a black man, talk about the conversation he had tonight with his mother who participated in the civil rights movement. She told him that this is not a victory for black America; this is a victory for a greater conception of America. And even though I strongly disagree with some of Obama's positions and generally distrust Big Politics of all flavors, I believe Mrs. Booker is right.

Look, I don't care if you're wildly liberal, deeply conservative, or utterly indifferent to politics and elections. We live in a culture and a country with a long, twisted history when it comes to human rights. We have both blazed trails into new frontiers of human liberty and virtue and scraped the dark corners of the horrid barrel of cruelty and greed. In many ways we still live in that tension, though perhaps the subtlety of much current injustice blinds us to our sins in the way our ancestors were blinded to theirs. (For some reason we often need the vision of our offspring to see our narcissistic errors for what they really are.) We are human, and our humanity carries both an endowed dignity and a certain proclivity for selfishness and, frankly, evil.

Though that human duality plays out in many different ways, there is no escaping this reality: for the greater part of American history, black (or partially black) folks were decidedly on the losing end of it. We are just over four decades removed from the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts – four out of over twenty three decades. Much progress has been made in those 44 years, but it is not rational to assume that we're "over" the racial issues that accumulated over the previous 188 years of our nation's history (not counting the pre-Declaration years, during which slavery was already being woven into the fabric of a burgeoning social and economic revolution).

In that context the election of a black president is undeniably historic, and Mrs. Booker is right – it is historic for all of us. It represents yet another step of maturity out of the indignities of our collective legacy; indignities that not only robbed generations of black Americans of basic freedoms, but also stripped many white Americans of their humanity through hatred, ignorance, or apathy. If the essence of humanity is bearing the image of the Creator—an assumption not all will share, but one many of us cannot escape—and if God is love, then we are clearly least human when we fail to love.

None of this makes white people bad or black people inherently good. I am not making an argument for entitlement or a case for white guilt. The painful history of the country is neither a blank check for black
Americans nor a never-ending IOU around the necks of white Americans. I am also not naive, and I understand that folks of all colors unscrupulously continue to use race to help themselves and undermine others. This is not news and it does no good to rehash it as though it is. Our focus, instead, should be moving forward in love and forgiveness no matter what misguided things others are doing. We do no one, including ourselves, any favors by sinking into this cycle of hostility and distrust by continuing to point out this speck in one another's eye.

So I suggest we put to rest all of the complaining about black people endorsing or voting for Barack Obama simply because he's black. For one thing that knife cuts both ways, and we all know it. More importantly, you do not win an election in this country—and certainly not by such a significant margin—because black people voted for you based on your skin color. And that, in part, is why this moment is so historic. Barack Obama, a man of color, was decidedly elected president by the majority of voting Americans, period.

Does that resolve our racial problems? Of course not. Are there aspects of his election that actually highlight some of the lingering racial divide and distrust among us? Certainly.

And it's still historic. And it still marks a moment of progress—imperfect, incomplete, tainted progress—for this mass of people living in the wake of 232 years of distinctly American history.

I know many of my friends and family, particularly those who are Christians, will struggle with many other concerns about Obama being elected. I don't ignore those, nor do I exalt racial progress over the other serious moral concerns at stake in the United States and the world. As I mentioned, I did not vote for Obama. (I didn't vote for McCain either, but that's a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say neither of them embody a life ethic I can support in good conscience with Jesus and his Kingdom as my party and platform.)

My only request to my fellow Jesus-followers in this moment, no matter how deflated or how excited you feel about the outcome of an election, is that you act like Jesus, who neither wrung his hands over the morality of Caesar nor called Pilate a murderer, though there was sufficient human cause for both responses. He saw the big picture of God's plan for the world, and he didn't fret about who carried the title of Caesar. He didn't spew angry words at a government sanctioning cruel killings – even when they were sanctioning his tortuous death on a cross.

Instead, he showed the world what God looks like: speaking truth, but doing so with love – modeling humility, never using the fact that he was "right" as a tool of mockery or condemnation – loving those who hated him, and insisting his followers do the same – serving those who the religious establishment thought the least of – giving his own life as a sacrifice for undeserving wrecks (like me and like you).

So I'm not asking much of myself for of my fellow Jesus people. Just this: If you follow that guy, act like it.

10 thoughts on “History, Barack, and Jesus

  1. great post. i agree that it’s absolutely significant historically, and at some level, it’s a victory, even if his politics contrast sharply with mine (mccain’s aren’t much better).
    i’m in wholehearted agreement with everything but this:
    “So I suggest we put to rest all of the complaining about black people endorsing or voting for Barack Obama simply because he’s black. For one thing that knife cuts both ways, and we all know it.”
    Either way (“knife cuts both ways”) it’s racism. it’s reducing someone’s value to the color of their skin, the size and shape of their lips and nose, and quality of their hair.
    If anyone votes for anyone in that way, it’s racist. Whatever the “race” of the candidate, that’s racism.
    I assume that you and i basically agree on this, but i just don’t have the same comfort level reading those two sentences that you had in writing them.
    Still and all, this is great. i’m genuinely excited to see this happen in america. And for all the Christians who are freaking out right now, it ain’t like God woke up this morning, poured his coffee, opened up his NYT, and got a big surprise. as you said in your sermon, this is just another person for me to pray that God will use for His glory and purposes.
    Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as in Heaven.

  2. Thanks Thad. You continue to provide really great insight about how to handle the world around us.
    The relief that comes from putting my hope in the Lord that was, and is, and always will be the one sitting at the throne of our coming Kingdom is very pleasing.
    I’m on board with rk:
    God’s Kingdom come, His will be done, on earth as in Heaven.

  3. Ross: I did not mean to suggest with those two sentences that voting based on race (either way) isn’t racism. I actually didn’t wish to get involved in that debate one way or another. When we have that conversation, I think it demands more nuance than whether or not it’s racist. It requires that we discuss context and history and the morality (or amorality) of ignorance and…well, that wasn’t really my focus, so I didn’t go there.
    My intended points (which I may not have communicated well) were (1) I think it is folly (historically, certainly, but also contemporaneously) for white people to complain that Obama was elected because black people voted for a black man, and (2) I believe we gain very little from the version of the conversation about race-motivated voting I’ve seen playing out lately. [For the benefit of those reading along, none of what I write here is intended to characterize rk’s position on race. He is one of my best friends, and his family is racial healing. My point here is to explain what I meant, not argue with him or suggest he’s guilty of any of the things that frustrate me.]
    In other words, if it is indeed racism both ways, and if it happens both ways, then I believe there is no productive purpose in only pointing out that “they” (whichever group is “they” in a given conversation) do it. If we’re going to discuss it, we have to talk about it both ways. Very few on either side of the divide care to do that because it doesn’t aid their argument. If we’re going to saddle Obama with his racist supporters (particularly after he moved away from the grievance rhetoric guys like Jesse Jackson used for years), we have to, in the same breath, acknowledge the fact that the majority of our now 44 presidents have been elected with the aid of racist voters and racist laws. And if we’re going to point out that there are white people (some of them lifelong Democrats) who can’t bring themselves to vote for a black man, we have to also acknowledge that there are blacks who voted for a black man simply because he is black. I just can’t stomach the shots across the divide that demonize one phenomenon as though the other doesn’t exist or isn’t relevant, and that’s almost all I’ve encountered in this conversation.
    Our country, past and present, has not been and is not whole when it comes to race. I’m not suggesting we ignore that or that we shy away from discussing race or that we accept the muzzle of political correctness. I’ve just seen very few people use this conversation about someone voting based on race to the end of wholeness. Instead it is usually fuel for ridicule or finger-pointing.
    My point, ultimately, is that I am convinced that this particular conversation is mostly unproductive, especially from a Kingdom perspective. Yes racism exists, yes it’s produced by and directed at people of all races, and yes it robs both the purveyor and the recipient of the divinely intended human experience. I’m just longing for a way of talking about it and moving forward that more fully embodies the kind of humanity we were made to embrace and experience together, marked by grace, respect, forgiveness, and love.

  4. Thad, I was always a little unsure about your reticence to speak about politics and it’s place in a believers life, and I’m still not sure about how I feel about your decisions about voting, but you absolutely hit this one out of the park. What great words about the problems of race and how to deal with them.
    I disagree with RK about what racism is though. White people invented racism (at least the American kind) and Black people’s response to that racism (ie voting Obama only b/c he’s Black) is not the same thing. It’s not ideal, but I think it’s understandable, and in the case of voting Obama b/c he’s Black, acceptable. Ross, I know you have empathy for the plight of people in this country who have dark skin, and maybe you are trying to keep them to a high standard and that’s respectable. But I think that there is an understandble and sometimes unavoidable response to the overwhelming-ness of White racism: that Black people tend to cluster in groups for safety.
    Just my thoughts.

  5. Thad and all,
    I have to say (well have is such an incorrect term, just due to my inability to keep my mouth shut) that I disagree with the statements about reverse racism.
    I don’t see the merit in calling African Americans racist for voting for Obama solely on race. You can call is short sided or narrow minded for sure. The same way that single issue voting is. But to call it racist I think misses the point. I will acknowledge that I think that voting against Obama because of his race is racist. It is such a dichotomy that is very difficult to grasp, but racism comes from a point of power. You wouldn’t blame Jews for not liking Germans, right? Well at least I wouldn’t, and would find that dislike to be quite justified. I think that with the history of race relations in this country it is perfectly justified if you’re African American to want, at minimum, a bi-racial President. There are really two reasons for this.
    First is to simply debunk the long standing racist belief that somehow African Americans are not mentally equipped with the same capabilities as Caucasians.
    The second is the precedent that it sets for African American children specifically, but also for African Americans in general as well. It allows for them to see that anything is possible in the United States, and thus it is what makes this country so great. I think this was a pivitol turn for our country. Remember it was only a second ago that the nation watched an entire city, mostly filled with African Americans, get neglected at its most urgent time of need. That single situation set back racial discourse and equality another thirty years. You have to remember as well that it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks ago that there was a plot foiled to kill African Americans do to Obama being in this race (sure the plot included assassinating Obama, but even the culprits noted that it was incredibly unlikely).
    So I think you are correct in saying that it does not clean the slate as far as racism goes, and quite honestly does very little to bridge the gap of racial injustice.
    Hopefully the one thing that will come out of it is a more open air of discourse about race, and how are history affects our feeling about the subject. I believe once this taboo subject has been open to discussion I believe that will be the great leap for mankind.

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