Times: Obama offers Easter hope

19978 BlackJesus Pg23 WEBTo all GetReligion readers who are part of the Western church, let me say, “Happy Easter.” I hope you are all having a meaningful day discussing the resurrection power of Barack Obama’s recent speech on racism and its impact on healing the American soul.

While there is a lot of more traditional Easter coverage out there today — Pope appeals for peace, which could be seen as criticism of Republicans — I imagine that lots of folks in elite pews are talking about that New York Times story today by Laurie Goodstein and Neela Banerjee that opened like this:

This Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, many pastors will start their sermons about the Resurrection of Jesus and weave in a pointed message about racism and bigotry, and the need to rise above them.

Some pastors began to rethink their sermons on Tuesday, when Senator Barack Obama gave a speech about race, seeking to calm a furor that had erupted over explosive excerpts of sermons by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

The controversy drove the nation to the unpatrolled intersection of race and religion, and as many pastors prepared for their Easter message they said they felt compelled to talk about it. Their congregants were writing and e-mailing them: some wanted to share their emotional reactions to Mr. Obama’s speech; others asked how Mr. Wright, the minister, could utter such inflammatory things from the pulpit.

The key to this story is whether the reader accepts that “many” preachers were, in the hours before Easter, changing their sermon plans to address the Obama speech. The Times does have some specific names and examples of this trend, if it is a trend.

Some readers are going to buy this story and some are not. And that’s where things will get a bit tense. The story, you see, implies that this is a matter of doctrine and politics, as well as race. There are churches, it seems, that care about race and there are those who do not.

There is the crucial transition:

The response to the controversy from the pulpit will vary, of course, depending on a church’s denomination, racial composition and political and theological leanings, as well the predilections of the pastor. The Wright controversy is a natural topic for those in the United Church of Christ, a predominantly white denomination that includes Mr. Obama’s and Mr. Wright’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (the largest church in the denomination).

Clergy members from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and white evangelical churches are, very generally, less likely to incorporate the Wright controversy into their sermons than are those at black and mainline Protestant churches.

The Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and lead pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., said he would not be preaching about the racial issues raised by Mr. Obama’s speech and expected few other evangelical pastors to, either.

“Easter is about Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus, and it’s pretty unlikely that any other topic would eclipse that,” Mr. Anderson said. “That’s not to say those other topics aren’t important, but this is the most important.”

Most evangelical churches, he said, “are Bible-driven, not current-events-driven.”

So what does this Easter-as-racism theme sound like, in practice? What is the Gospel according to the Times, for this primary-season Easter? Here is one example, drawn from the story. Once again, it uses the structure that this is a left vs. right, oldline vs. evangelical (Catholic? Orthodox?) thing.

The question, of course, is whether a line has been drawn between Easter as metaphor and Easter as a truth claim about history and doctrine. It is possible to preach both at the same time.

The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, said she would preach about when Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to Jesus’ tomb and were met by an angel who rolled away the stone before the cave to reveal that Christ had risen from the dead.

“I’m going to talk about the stones that need to be rolled away from the tombs of lives, that are holding us in places of death and away from God,” Ms. Lind said. “One of the main stones in our churches, synagogues, mosques, communities, countries, world is the pervasive stone of racism. What Obama has done is moved the stone a little bit.

“I will ask our congregation to look at the stones in our lives,” she said.

x215ymxhemvwywdllmnvbv8xnte4nzuxx3jvzg5lewtpbmcuzmx2xzffmte4nzk2mzawmy40nta01To explain my reactions to all of this, I really need to tell a personal story.

Back in 1992, while teaching at Denver Theological Seminary, I took part in an experimental seminar that combined two graduate courses — a study of the Old Testament prophets and my main course, which was called “The Contemporary World and the Christian Task.” My course focused on moral and religious “signals” contained in the news and entertainment media (click here for a look at some of the concepts I used).

The class offered an interesting blend of students, as well, including white pastors from the Denver suburbs and black pastors from the city core. We were rolling along and then the riots broke out in Los Angeles, in the wake of the beating of Rodney King (second photo) and the legal chaos that followed.

When it was my time to lecture, I asked: How can we hold class when LA is in flames? Thus, I improvised. I asked the black pastors, during the next few days, to call suburban churches and ask the pastors what they were preaching on that coming Sunday — including the biblical text and sermon topic. I asked the white pastors to call black churches and ask the same questions. We would discuss the results the following week.

My hunch was that, in the white churches, it would be business as usual. I was right. I also expected that, in the black churches, most of the pastors would find a way to preach on the moral issues raised by the riots, from racist police to blacks attacking white people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I also thought that the Old Testament prophets would be quoted early and often. I was right.

The sermon summaries were fascinating. If I had to sum up the messages preached in black pulpits on that day, I would say this: “Repent. There is enough sin in the LA riots to cover us all. There were sins in the past. There are sins in the present. Everyone needs to repent of their sins of racism and hatred. There is no place for hate and violence in the lives of those who cling to the Gospel of Jesus. Everyone needs to repent and ask for the forgiveness of their sins. So repent. Now.”

In other words, it was possible to preach about current events AND the Gospel. This was not really a matter of left and right. There is enough sin in this world to touch us all and there is grace for all who repent.

So here is my question, on this Easter Sunday for Western Christians: Did the Times cover the whole equation? Were there churches today — black and white — that talked about racism and repentance? About the resurrection, as a metaphor and as a reality? I predict that thousands of Christians in the pews of black churches heard about both sides of that equation today, not just the political part.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • truthteller

    This was a great post topic.

    Thank you for writing it!

  • Eric W

    Clergy members from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and white evangelical churches are, very generally, less likely to incorporate the Wright controversy into their sermons than are those at black and mainline Protestant churches.

    1. This author/journalist doesn’t know that it’s not “Easter” for the Orthodox this Sunday.

    2. Churches that use a liturgical reading schedule usually tie the sermon in with the reading(s) for the day – they are probably not prone to change it for the “news event of the week” unless it’s of national importance (e.g., 9/11).

    3. FWIW, our priest did not make the story of Jesus healing the paralytic into a sermon about racial issues. :^)

  • Asinus Gravis

    Perhaps orthodox theological sermonizing is too expected and familiar to be newsworthy.

    Now, someone actually living like Jesus did and suffering like Jesus did would still count, I suspect, as news in our own day and time–i.e., if the minister of our church, or some other local religious leader, did that.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Circumstances meant i attended three services at two different Methodist congregations in central Ohio, both 95% white. Three different sermons, all about Jesus and the resurrection. Senator Obama and Pastor Wright did not come up, even at the donut and coffee table. Racism was mentioned at two of them, as part of the sin that still needs God’s transforming power to be set free, to work in our dying lives to create new life in Christ.

    Politics didn’t come up, but then, it rarely does, other than “next Tuesday is an election day; please pray for discernment and be good stewards of this privilege and vote.” That’s about it.

  • Ben

    I was very curious to see if the Obama speech would come up at my Catholic Mass today, but it didn’t. I admit I was a bit disappointed because it has been such a cornerstone of conversations this week and I do think it was a speech of national importance.

    But at another level, the service itself spoke to some of the themes in the speech. Our church is very diverse with a significant African-American and African membership. The songs this Easter Sunday drew from both the Medieval Europe and Negro Spiritual traditions. At it’s best, religion can do something that contemporary politics often fails at: give a universal narrative that people from vastly different backgrounds can see their own story/history in and add to.

    I think that’s what Obama was getting at in the portion of his speech where he explained why he joined the church: “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.”

  • Jerry

    Speaking of sin and Jeff’s note, it’s interesting to look at the study on sin http://www.ellisonresearch.com/releases/20080311.htm and note that racism was 2nd from the top in the category of sins for all demographic groups, white, black, conservative, liberal etc. And for all groups, racism ranks as a sin above abortion, homosexuality although for evangelicals they’re pretty close.

    I suspect that sermons mentioning sin don’t reflect the results of that study, but it’s a question that should be asked as a followup.

  • FW Ken

    It is nighttime in America,
    How can we hold class when LA is in flames?

    This comment is about exaggeration.

    Now, it may be nighttime in America, but the oppressed Rev. Mr. Wright drives a Porsche. His most famous disciple lives in a house costing more than the lifetime earning of most teachers. Neither was kidnapped by other black men, as their ancestors were. Neither was brokered to white people by Arab traders, as their ancestors were. Neither was lynched by white people for being “uppity”, as their ancestors were. “Nighttime”?

    The tmatt quote is there because it’s as much hyperbole as the other quote. LA was never “in flames”. A limited part of South Central LA was (I think about 6 square blocks? or maybe more), but not “LA”. The LA reporting was a perfect example of television’s influence. The camera points at the looting and that’s all we see. Isn’t it the job of print journalism to provide perspective?

    This is another reason why journalism is a sad joke to a lot of us. I know that with the Times, and most of the MSM, it’s all about race, and perhaps it will be until the last of the baby boomers retire. And what then? Yes, race is a significant factor in American life. But real life is so much more complex (and interesting) than most newspaper reporting. Again, it’s all about context and perspective.

    From my reading, this article has nothing to do with perspective; it’s just a collection of random examples, devoid of context. For example, do black Catholic priests preach like Rev. Wright? Or a lot more like white Catholic priests, informed as they are by the same social doctrines. Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare the preaching of black ministers in different religious groups? What would that tell us, if anything? Catholic parishes, of course, generally more integrated than the Times staff, I’ll bet. What does that tell us, if anything?

  • Joan O.

    Interestingly enough, our Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor DID relate to the local newpaper: He pointed out that there was absolutely NO mention of what he calls “the best news EVER–Jesus is resurrected!” He did indicate that the front page had a picture of a chick on it–some concession to the Easter season, I think.
    It is important to note that the message of Easter, coming from Christian pulpits, is, indeed, the best news ever. When the MSM ignores it it is one thing; when preachers ignore it, it is life threatening.