Monday, April 28, 2008
More Than Sound Bites
It was the first time I had felt truly angry before entering a pulpit. As I sat on the rostrum, I faced an audience filled mostly with grief and sorrow. In the midst of the grief-stricken congregation were dealers and gangsters - full of contempt and flagrant disrespect for the necessary solemnity of the occasion. In the rear of the assembly sat a few smugly detached individuals who had come to Ft. Myers, Florida all the way from Cleveland, Ohio to report on the final chapter of a life that had fallen prey to the harsh reality of inner-city America. Both of the emotionally detached groups came to witness a spectacle. I had no intention of allowing one to be created. Nevertheless, I also knew I had to tell the truth about "K" - the one I had flown from Cleveland to bury - and that by telling the truth, I would enrage the gangsters who glared at me with menacing stares and I would also furnish the Cleveland reporters with material that would be the talk of the town for days to come. As I concluded my remarks I glanced towards the rear of the chapel and saw the reporters writing with enthusiasm and glee. I then looked towards the section filled with dealers and gangsters and saw unbridled fury. A few hours later I would learn that my passionate attempt to tell the truth with love and sincerity was boiled down to two sound bites: The gangsters spread the word on the streets that I had said dealers and gangsters deserve to die. The reporters provided a headline to the Cleveland paper that read,"Preacher Says Cop Killer in Heaven!" For a time, my entire life and ministry was summarized by those two sound bites. I was criticized by talk radio, vilified by street hustlers and looked on with suspicion by all kinds of folks who had no idea what I stood for. All because of two powerful, but inaccurate, sound bites! This life experience taught me in a very dramatic way that we must work harder at ensuring that we don't reduce our evaluations of public figures to caricatures based on mere sound bites.
This past weekend, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor, has been back in the news and confronting evaluations of controversial statements he has made from the pulpit. In 2 past blog entries, I have addressed these comments. I took issue with his most circulated statements in my blog and still take issue with those statements today. Many who have a deeper familiarity with Dr. Wright have said such criticisms are unfair and do not paint a complete picture of who he is. With those thoughts in mind, and in light of my own "sound bite experience," I'd like to share some thoughts I have after further investigation.
Rev. Wright has been called unpatriotic when he has served his country for 6 years in the US Naval Service as a Marine and a Sailor and has a granddaughter who is currently serving in Iraq as of the writing of this entry. He has been called uncaring, when he has spent decades ministering to the poor and needy in his community and throughout the world. He has shown himself to be a true renaissance man, gifted in the arts and letters - teaching as well as preaching and encouraging people to pursue the American Dream with excellence and elbow grease. Based on the evidence I have seen, his patriotism, industry and care for those in need seem to be well established. It is a disservice to him and to the pursuit of truth to paint him as an uncaring, un-American, unsympathetic "bogey-man". Nevertheless, words do have meaning and impact and as a preacher of the Gospel and a public figure, Rev. Wright can be called into account for the statements he has made.
Rev. Wright and I come from different theological schools of thought. The ways in which we engage the Biblical Text differ greatly as does much of the way we apply it in our preaching. As I have taken the time to listen to his comments in context, I believe that his criticisms of government are rather partisan, and more of a political critique of administrations with whom he takes issue than of government in general. What he describes as the fallibility of government I would broaden to the fallibility of humanity and the sinfulness of humankind which has been demonstrated by politicians - and preachers for that matter - of every ethnic and political stripe. In my estimation, Rev. Wright is guilty of the same malady that skews the view of many political pundits. Once a political side has been chosen or alliance made, that side can do no wrong, and the side which is opposed can do no right. When discussing matter of race in particular, partisan bias offers no help, no solutions and prolongs the pain that most people who pursue racial healing are seeking to relieve. It is becoming increasingly clearer to me that when it comes to matters of race, though it is easier to deal with sound bites than substance it is totally counterproductive to the efforts of people who truly seek to build understanding.
It also seems to me that both speakers and listeners have a responsibility when controversial subjects like race are on the table. Speakers - particularly preachers and especially preachers who know they are being recorded - have an obligation to speak in a way that not only takes into account the audience seated in front of them, but the potentially broader audience of people who may not share their particular life experience. A wonderful man of God who has now gone on to his Eternal Reward, once told me that the real gift in addressing issues of race in public speaking is seen in those who are able to confront a mixed audience of ethnic groups regarding their shortcomings in pursuing unity while at the same time inspiring them to continue to press on together in achieving understanding. This kind of pursuit takes a willingness to engage in dialogues that are deep, complex, time consuming and exhausting. In other words, it takes hard work and perserverance.
In one sense, Rev. Wright has done us all a favor. He has once again exposed the gap of understanding on issues of race in this nation. If we can display the grit to keep coming to the table in love, and to attempt to confront even the ugliest scenarios in building bridges of understanding, perhaps we can make some progress. In any case, as listeners we must move beyond sound bites and carefully assess what a speaker says in the rightful context and not carelessly move to conclusions that digress beyond a speaker's actual words. As speakers, we must work hard not to set up a sound bite feeding frenzy with careless rhetoric that destroys the very progress we claim we are attempting to build. Otherwise, we will continue to be pundits full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Until next time...