Friday, May 16, 2008

Wright and Obama: Prophets and Politicians

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. I Cor. 12:4

It is important keep in mind the distinction between a prophet and a politician.

A prophet speaks unvarnished truth to power, heedless of consequences, which can sometimes be severe. Ideals and norms can be enunciated without regard to their immediate practicality.

A politician is engaged in the art of the presently possible who, in a democracy, must get elected and thus must not unduly offend the prevailing sensibilities of the populace. Before power can be exercised, it must be attained. Hence, strategic compromises with truth and justice must be made along with wise silence, prudent avoidance of dangerous issues, and some pandering to local bias. The patriotic gestures must be observed, no matter how trivial, like wearing a flag lapel pin or making important pronouncements in front of a bank of American flags, and, if possible, accompanied by pictures if not the actual presence, of the lovely family of the candidate or official.

(EXCURSUS: Senator Walter George from Georgia said that for five years he could go to Washington and do his work. When reelection year came, he said he had to go back to Georgia and "shovel some sh**t." George was a savvy politician who knew how to play the game, but he knew when he was tossing the manure. As a sophisticated intellectual with integrity, Obama sometimes seems reluctant to follow this example. My advice to him: Get a good shovel and, without abandoning your call for a new politics, when the occasion calls for it, creatively, thoughtfully, enthusiastically, and pragmatically "shovel some sh**t. )

Jeremiah Wright is a prophet. Barack Obama is a politician. These gifts must not be confused. Some seem to think it is enough to explain black liberation theology and the prophetic black church tradition to the white population to make Jeremiah Wright acceptable for political purposes and to make him harmless to the Obama candidacy. Don't bet on it. The positive interpretations of Wright are mostly shared among his defenders, the converted testifying to the converted. If Obama wants to be elected in order to do the good he honestly wants to do and to achieve what is politically possible, he has to do whatever his integrity will permit to render the Wright issue impotent to wreck his candidacy. I hope it is not too late. The Republicans will use every dirty trick in the book to destroy Obama with this issue.

Those of us who work in the cultural arena (and that includes religion) must do the work of explaining, interpreting, and defending the role of the prophet. That is not politician Obama's task. He walks a fine line between getting elected and maintaining his integrity, i. e., keeping a proper balance between realism and idealism and between principles and pragmatism. (On this point, see my blog of April 29, 2008. My texts for today's homily are a repeat of those in the aforementioned blog.)

Is the politician, then, limited to present actuality with no power to transform the present into a better future? No, not a all. A strong leader must locate the places where growth and transformation are possible, areas and issues where a breakthrough is possible by creative vision and liberating action -- a kairos, a situation pregnant with new potential for justice and a greater social good in need of a midwife to facilitate the birth.

I am not a prophet nor a politician but a professor. My calling is to elucidate context, provide definitions, make distinctions, and to expose simplistic propositions that obscure complexity, ambiguity, and nuance, to puncture pretension, and to provoke deeper thought than usually prevails. I wish I had better gifts to do so. I am thrilled when someone tells me I have been successful in some measure in living up to my calling.

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