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Sermons: “Obama-Nation

I wore my Harvard sweater in honor of President-elect Barack Obama who graduated from Harvard Law School.  I was a Fellow at Harvard in 1987, and my Indian wife and our son and daughter bought me this sweater. With its bold insignia, I felt a bit self-conscious wearing it, as if I would be showing off. Then, once when I did wear it, I got a stain on it, and Kathleen tried once again to clean off that stain this morning, and made a bit of a hole in the sweater. I realized that the stain was a useful metaphor of what I want to say to you this morning.

We each have our stains. We all make mistakes and have imperfections. When we try to clean up our stains sometimes they seem to get deeper, or we make holes in ourselves with the effort to clean up our acts. I trust Barack Obama partly because he is aware of his stains, and he has dealt with them frankly. We all need to face our stains, remain conscious of how they affect us, and do our best to deal constructively with them.

Only years ago, many Americans likely considered electing a young, African-American, liberal intellectual as the President of the United States to be a catastrophe, an abomination. Months ago, most of the world and many Democrats feared that his election was an unlikely fantasy. He had a name too much like the most famous terrorist; he was the product of a short-lived, bi-racial marriage, raised mostly in Hawaii by white grandparents and in Muslim Indonesia. He had admitted in print to drinking heavily and getting high in his youth. He was a Harvard intellectual, a professor, and a proud community organizer from the mean streets of Chicago. Nevertheless, he not only won the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton, but he then decisively won the Presidency against experienced maverick Republican Senator and war hero Mc Cain and spunky female newcomer Palin who seemed to be the personification of the Republican base’s hopes. Almost everyone had to readjust their political and racial assumptions about the United States in 2008.

It certainly helped that the United States had been thoroughly ‘Bushed’ in the early twenty-first century. Our civilian and military fatalities had sky-rocketed; terrorist and natural disasters seemed almost the norm; the rich were wildly richer and the majority were working harder and losing economic ground. Instead of America being a light to other nations, we seemed to be mocking our own historic ideals. So, Barack Obama rode the waves of disappointment and was elected by an out-pouring of despair with Republican easy-fixes and red meat politics.

This sermon is a readjustment of my political and racial assumptions informed by the amazing written record that President-elect Barack Obama has already provided. I’ve never read so frank a self-analysis by a public figure as Obama’s Dreams of my Father, published in 1995. His second book, The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006, adds intellectual foundations for his philosophy of life and an outline of his goals as a public servant. You should read both these books to understand your new President and to stretch and exercise your own heart and faith.

Barack Obama was mostly raised by his maternal grandparents. Our Order of Service cover is a young Barack with his maternal grandfather on a Hawaiian beach. His maternal grandparents grew up where I did, El Dorado and Augusta, Kansas, a generation earlier. Their lives there sounded a lot like my own, “ordering Great Books through the mail.” [D. 14] Barack explains that his grandfather’s only adult “skirmish into organized religion, [was when] he enrolled the family in the local Unitarian Universalist congregation; he liked the idea that the Unitarians drew on the scriptures of the great religions. ‘You get five religions in one,’ he would say. My grandmother Toot would retort, ‘For Christ’s sake, Stanley, religion is not supposed to be like buying breakfast cereal!’ but if my grandmother was more skeptical by nature....her own stubborn independence, her own insistence on thinking something through for herself generally brought them into rough alignment.” [D. 17]

Barack gives you the unvarnished facts of his upbringing. His African father is totally absent except for one brief visit when he is 10. His mother is dreamy and restless. She remarries, and they move to Indonesia for some years. His grandmother is the primary breadwinner and foundation, but his grandfather adds a good deal of the color and flavor to his life. He feels out-of-place in the elite private high school in Honolulu and in his early years of college at Occidental near LA. Unitarian theologian Thandeka taught many of us the facts about Learning to be White, and Barack Obama had to learn how to be an African-American.

As a teenager, he learned to “slip back and forth between my black and white worlds... convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.” [D 82] A Black friend explained: ‘we are always playing on the white man’s court... by the white man’s rules... you couldn’t even be sure that everything you assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self... had been freely chosen by you.” [D. 87] As a college sophomore, drifting downward into binges and highs, caught in his own racial self-description, Obama was confronted by a Black fellow student, Regina, and soon had an epiphany: ‘It’s not just about you.... It’s about people who need your help.... Is that what’s real to you, Barack—making a mess for somebody else to clean up?’ He realized that he had “been so wrapped up in my own perceived injuries, escaping the imagined traps of white authority.... I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehood that white spoke about black. Who told you that being honest was a white thing? Sold you this bill of goods that your situation exempted you from being thoughtful, diligent, or kind, or that morality had a color?”.... [I had] a constant crippling fear that I didn’t belong with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.” [D 109-11]

I found my own moral compass as a youth in the civil rights movement, standing up with Blacks and Latinos who were poor and who often made me uncomfortable. They were not trying to make me uncomfortable, in fact, they were trying to be friendly, but their poverty, their differences from me, sometimes made me anxious. I argued with my role-model grandfather who was an honorable man and a public servant, but a bigot. He was a Democrat and a liberal, but his ancestors had taken their Georgia land away from the Cherokee Indians and farmed the land with slaves. He would always say that Blacks needed more education before they got their rights, but I suspect he would have still found Obama’s election an abomination. I would argue with my father, who had Black friends, but still made racial comments even in front of my chocolate brown Indian wife. These are among my stains. I did not take away the Cherokee’s land or farm with slaves; I have worked hard to be an active anti-racist, but I have benefitted, am still benefitting from these actions of my ancestors. Despite my best efforts to wash these stains away, they are still part of my life.

My children are multi-racial like Obama, and I have dedicated my life to making a world in which they could thrive, but my basis for doing so is a lot like Barack’s mother’s 60’s romanticism: “her heart a time capsule filled with images of the space program, the Peace Corps, and Freedom Rides, Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez.” [A. 30] Well into my adulthood, I did not think that I could be soulful because I was not Black.

I share with Barack Obama an intuition that empathy is central to what I am trying to be. Toward the beginning of The Audacity of Hope, Obama speaks of the late Illinois U.S. Senator Paul Simon. Simon had spoken at the church I served in Chicago as a seminary student, and remembered me years later in an airport and spoke warmly with me there. Simon was a funny-looking man. Obama considers himself to be a funny-looking mongrel, as I see myself. Obama wrote of Simon’s authenticity, his trustworthiness, that he lived his values, and that he cared about people. “That last aspect of Paul’s character—a sense of empathy—is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.” [A. 66] Obama has aptly summed up my own faith.

I think that empathy is often difficult to do, but I believe that empathy is at the heart of building bridges of love and justice in this world. I believe in Barack Obama because he is an intellectual, because he is self-aware, because he is a multi-cultural person in a multi-cultural world. My youthful heroes were Gandhi, Martin King, and John Kennedy, intellectuals, self-aware people, who tried to be empathetic, and gave their lives to the public good.

If we are to fulfill Martin King’s dream of a world based not upon tribalism but upon individual character and shared commitments and sacrifices, then we need leaders like Gandhi, King, Kennedy, and Obama, but we each must also outgrow our own tribal identities and our learned and institutionalized prejudices and injustices and become integrated persons in integrated societies. We must have the courage, as our UUA [Unitarian Universalist Association] tradition states, “to challenge and confront the powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.” We must make the dream come true together, for any individual person can be killed and will die, but together we can make our nation whole. If we accomplish this, “our improbable experiment” as Obama calls it of making the dream come true in our multi-cultural nation, now the most culturally and religiously diverse nation on the Earth, then we can again become a beacon to the world, and we can help the world to fulfill its varied versions of our shared dreams.

Barack Obama, like Mohandas Gandhi, is a world citizen. Obama is a faithful Christian, as Gandhi was a faithful Hindu, both are national patriots, but these men know that truth, justice, and love are larger than any nation, religion or ideology. They realize that there must be a revolution in our individual lives and consciences to support more civilized politics and humane economies. They realize that negotiation rather than violence must become the way of the world. They know that there is enough in this blessed world for every person’s basic needs but not for any person’s unlimited greed. Democracy must become practical realities not only in our nations but in our families, congregations, economic systems, and among nations. They saw the divine in everyone, but resist the idolizing of the wealthy or powerful, whether those are billionaires or generals, nations or tribes.

Like Martin King, Barack Obama is both a model and a challenge to his tribe and to his nation. He has the unique potential to inspire our multi-cultural ghettoized underclass to take responsibility for their lives and their families. End teenage pregnancy and irresponsible fatherhood; stop using the historic oppressions of racism as excuses to become terrorists in their own neighborhoods and families. At the same time, Barack Obama can help us to more thoroughly overcome institutionalized racism and classism in our economy and our politics. We all need to learn how to combine a thorough and sustainable meritocracy with persistent and gutsy individual responsibility, as Michelle and Barack Obama have so impressively done in their own lives. Every body needs to become and remain responsible, and for those of us who begin with stable families, reliable incomes, and many choices that means paying up with thousands of dollars of additional taxes, fees, and donations and thousands of hours of public service for the greater good both in careers of public service and in sacrificial commitments as citizen volunteers. Obama needs to combine King’s full dream of a nation based upon individual character empowered by civil rights, peace, and a decent and sustainable living for everyone.

Young John Kennedy grew in office. He knew that citizenship was not about what government can do for you, but what you can do for your nation and the world. King’s deeds challenged Kennedy to take civil rights seriously. Russian challenges helped him to take negotiation seriously. Kennedy got Americans thinking about working with the world instead of simply conquering and consuming the world. Barack Obama has the opportunity to do the same, to be an FDR and a JFK, to further the non-violent revolutions of Gandhi and King, in a nation and a world that desperately needs such leadership. I believe that the Presidency of Barack Obama can be a blessing instead of an abomination, as our racist ancestors might have assumed. However, his success rests not only upon his capable shoulders or the hard work of his Administration and the other branches of our government alone, but upon the willingness of each of us to make the sacrifices and the patient commitments that can fulfill Martin’s dream and Obama’s audacity of hope.

That phrase, audacity of hope, came from Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It was the title of his sermon the day that Barack Obama decided to become a member of Wright’s congregation. I suspect that we need to consider Rev. Wright if we are going to face up to our own racist fears and grow past them. If we don’t outgrow those racial fears, there is little chance that King’s dream can become a reality or that the United States can become an Obama-Nation. Wright was the son of a Baptist minister in Philadelphia. He joined the Marines, and dabbled with liquor, Islam, and Black Nationalism in the 60s. He entered Howard University and studied the history of religions at the University of Chicago for six years. In Trinity UCC [United Church of Christ] Church, he spent a generation building a congregation that brought a whole cross-section of Black Chicago together in worship and service. In other words, Rev. Wright is both an intellectual and an effective activist, which are certainly the pillars of our own UU [Unitarian Universalist] faith. Trinity Church voted on a value system that included a disavowal of the pursuit of ‘middleclassness;’ “while it is permissible to chase ‘middleincomeness’ with all our might, those blessed with the talent or good fortune to achieve success in the American mainstream must avoid the psychological entrapment of Black middleclassness that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaching them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US.’”

That also needs to be our analogous concern. I want you to be fulfilled and happy, to seek your own good lives and individual satisfactions, but when it makes you feel that you are better than other people, whether they are religiously orthodox, conservatives, foreigners, or others, then you have forsaken empathy, and you will be unable to build the bridges of love and justice which we need to build. Tribalism will always remain a temptation. Government can help to create a level playing field and fair rules for the game, but we must also discipline ourselves every day to remain good sports if the game is to be worth playing. Because, ultimately, it is not about you; it is about people that need your help.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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