The Face of Race

a face made up of sections of different faces

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. – Barack Obama, 19 March 2008, Philadelphia 

When William F. Buckley died a few weeks ago, much was made of his love of language and his penchant for polysyllables–sesquipedalian that he was. Where a simple expression would do, Buckley preferred instead to dazzle and intimidate with word choices that were exotic, obscure, inaccessible. For Buckley it was all about vocabulary (though of course his politics were pretty scary). Which is exactly what it is not about for Barack Obama.

For those who love words, who know the power of words to move, to heal, to surprise, to reconcile; who have longed for eloquence in public discourse for eight long years–Barack Obama has breathed life back into that most hackneyed of literary genres: the political speech. In Wednesday’s extraordinary speech on race in America Obama did what may ultimately do him in as a contender for the presidency: he asked us to take in long, beautiful sentences; he refused to simplify the complexities of race into digestible sound bites; he teased out the nuances of the national conversation we need to have by showing how those nuances are embedded in his own DNA and in the complicated relationships of his personal life.

What might a theological response to Obama’s challenges entail? How can anglo churches begin to have conversations about race that don’t seem driven by fickle political winds but rather are rooted, as Obama suggests, in the biblical story of our shared humanity? How can each of us in the Ekklesia Project begin to prepare for our own important conversation on these matters this summer?

(Originally published Friday, March 21, 2008)

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