There's too much black and white in the world. Especially when it comes to religion.
Believers adore crisp, clean demarcations between right and wrong, faith and faithlessness, truth and falsity, sacred and profane.
Me, I'm increasingly into gray. Not that there's anything wrong with black and white. After all, their mixture produces the subtle shades that I like.
Politicians, though, are under a lot of pressure to stake firm positions. "You're either with us, or against us" is a simplistic example.
So this morning I was eager to read Barack Obama's speech on race and religion to see how he handled the controversy over inflammatory remarks made by his spiritual mentor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Since Obama has known Wright for more than twenty years, he couldn't claim ignorance of the pastor's America bashing. If Obama rejected Wright now, he'd look hypocritical. But if he accepted him, he'd look unpatriotic.
Solution: paint those shades of gray. Which is the color of the real world, mostly (as contrasted with the fictional black and white domain inhabited by dogmatic fundamentalists and rabid politicians).
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend 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 truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty 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.
I was a member of a "church" (loosely speaking) for thirty-five years. Every Sunday I'd sit and listen to speakers say things that I didn't agree with, or believe in.
Yet I stayed involved with the organization, because for a long time the pluses outweighed the minuses. Then, the equation changed. That was a personal calculation, not anything mathematically objective.
Understand: this isn't a post about how marvelous Barack Obama is, though I support him. I simply want to point out how Obama managed to steer clear of the this or that, my way or the highway fallacy.
Reverend Wright isn't all good or all bad. Neither is his Trinity United Church of Christ, Christianity, and religion as a whole. Or, the United States, Barack Obama, me, you, and everything and everyone else in the world.
It was refreshing to read a speech by a politician that recognized this so clearly.
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend 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.
I don't know how Obama's speech will play across America. I liked it, but I enjoy nuance. As a New York Times story said, Obama took a gamble on trying to bridge a divide when so many voters want a politician to stand on one side or the other of an issue.
Presidential politics usually requires candidates to either wholly adopt or reject positions and people. Mr. Obama did neither with his pastor, rejecting his most divisive statements but also filling in the picture of Mr. Wright and his church.
"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 biases that make up the black experience in America," Mr. Obama said.
It was one of several times that Mr. Obama seemed to be quite purposefully arguing two ideas at once — another dangerous tactic in presidential politics, in which statements are sifted for hints of contradiction and every speech is an attack ad waiting to happen. He admitted that his pastor is both a divisive figure and an inspiring one. He said that his candidacy should not be viewed through a merely racial lens, though racial reconciliation is one of the reasons he ran.
Like I said back in 2005, "Reality is shades of gray." I sounded a bit like Obama with my talk of black and white, red states and blue states, rich and poor.
I hope he'll be our next president. But if he isn't, may whoever leads the United States share his understanding that nothing is wholly this, or wholly that.
Subtle gradations make the world go world, not firm divisions.