Benedict and Jeremiah

Two very public, very controversial religious leaders have addressed the nation in as many weeks and the differences between them couldn’t be more striking. Pope Benedict, during his stateside visit earlier this month, spoke the truth about American Catholicism with equal parts commendation and critique. His humility and shy grace were evident in his speeches and sermons and in his carriage and demeanor (all of which was a little disconcerting to those who remember when his public persona—fair or not—was that of the rigid, humorless Cardinal Ratzinger).

Jeremiah Wright, on the other hand, has come out swinging. In a series of increasingly hostile speeches he has assumed the pose of the put-upon, the tragically misunderstood. At first he had a point: reducing thirty years of sermons to thirty seconds of incendiary sound bites was irresponsible and misleading and did serious damage to Wright himself, to Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations, and to the (multivalent) tradition of black preaching in America. Read more

Obama and His Preacher

Barack Obama has endured criticism for his membership in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and for his association with his now-retired pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Wright’s inflammatory remarks have met with angry disapproval. Yet this reflection is not about Rev. Wright. I am writing, instead, about Obama and his understanding of the Church.

Political pundits have said that Obama should publicly refute his pastor. They have written that if Obama had any integrity, he would withdraw his membership from his Trinity church. These people are merely revealing that Obama’s understanding of the gospel is far more mature than theirs. Indeed, these “experts” cannot fathom the integrity that Obama has shown.

Thus far at least, Obama’s actions and words witness to an understanding of the church that is orthodox and biblical. In the tradition of Christian faith, Obama seems to understand that we do not “choose” our church, nor does the church exist to please us and to meet our needs. Rather, the church is the body of Christ. It can be wrong, and often is. Its preachers can speak words that are not the gospel, and we often do. Read more

The Violence of Love

mural of Oscar RomeroEaster Monday marked the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered while celebrating the Eucharist at the chapel of Divine Providence Cancer Hospital in San Salvador on March 24, 1980.

We should not wonder that a church has a lot of cross to bear. Otherwise, it will not have a lot of resurrection. An accommodating church, a church that seeks prestige without the pain of the cross, is not the authentic church of Jesus Christ. (February 19, 1978) Read more

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. Read more

Unexpected News

This past Sunday brought NCAA basketball just down the street from my parish on the campus of Xavier University in Cincinnati. We’d been warned parking would be a nightmare for the 11 o’clock mass, so we went instead to St. Joseph’s church, a largely African-American Catholic church in Cincinnati’s struggling West End. My family had worshipped there before – usually at the end of one of our parish’s “urban plunge” weekends – and knew we were in for a powerful experience.

But what struck me more than the heartfelt singing and unselfconscious prayer was the force of scripture proclaimed by mouths familiar with the bitter taste of injustice. Read more