By Beth Newman
Sen. Barack Obama’s recent resignation of his membership in Trinity United Church of Christ was probably inevitable, but it is a melancholy occasion nonetheless. Since I cannot know the likely Democratic presidential nominee’s heart, I don’t know whether this was a cynical political move or a heart-rending decision. But this much is obvious: in Sen. Obama’s opinion, his Chicago church home — or at least his membership there — had become a political liability.
The resignation is melancholy because it speaks so starkly of the division in our society not only among the races, the classes, and the political parties. It speaks of the price of power in our nation and of our convictions about where actual power is to be found. The affair illustrates for me the continual and forced relegation of faith to the sphere of the purely private.
As has been observed elsewhere, a great part of Sen. Obama’s appeal has been his seeming ability to overcome the divisions that have for so long characterized the political life of the United States. Not least among these divisions was the sacred/secular. Here was a Democrat who could speak convincingly not only of the importance of a generic faith, but of his specifically Christian faith. And he did so without the overtones of triumphalism or exclusivity that so often alienate those of the so-called “progressive” element of national life.
I think these words of faith were heard with such hope because Obama tied them not to the glittering generalities of the American civic religion, but to the actual life of a real congregation. It was at Trinity Church that he met Jesus, at Trinity that his marriage was celebrated, at Trinity that his children were baptized. That congregation formed his life.
And this is the congregation that he is willing to leave in order to gain the presidency.
I should say that I am not particularly troubled by the few minutes of “rantings” from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — Obama’s former pastor — or by the few seconds of the same sort of things by Father Michael Pfleger, the Catholic priest who inflamed controversy over Trinity again over the Memorial Day weekend.
And further, I am quite willing to believe that the totality of the ministries of this congregation dwarf whatever offense is given by these YouTube moments. What bothers me is the implication that the real power to make a difference lies not in the church’s engagement with the world, but in the activity of a governmental office.
More than one “expert” called to offer insight on the recent pastor problems experienced both by Obama and his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has called for the complete relegation of religion to the private sphere (“Why won’t these preachers just shut up? Why don’t our politicians keep their religious opinions to themselves?”) so that we can get on with the serious business of electing our leaders. In other words, banish religion to the non-public sphere where it ceases to threaten or offend, and politics will be better off.
If the early followers of Christ, however, had understood religion as private and politics as the machinations of government in the public sphere, there would have been no conflict with the Roman Empire. The early church, however, refused to avail itself of the protection of the cultus privatus (private sect) status that it could have enjoyed under Roman law. They saw, rather, that Christianity entails a whole way of life — one that encompasses both the so-called private and public spheres. Thus they described the body of Christ in political terms: “a holy nation”(I Peter 2:9), a citizenry (Ephesians 2:19) and the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).
What we need to remember is that the gospel is offensive. Aside from whether the antics of certain preachers upset the world, the message of the gospel will upset many when faithfully preached. The wisdom of the Cross is foolishness to the world. If this cruciform folly is not embraced, “the Cross of Christ [will] be emptied of its power” (I Corinthians 1:17).
Sen. Obama says that he and his wife will choose a new church after the election. In other words, after the real work has been done. Such a decision makes quite clear where his hope for the future lies.
Hope in the power of the Cross, however, cannot be set aside or relegated to a private sphere. Rather, following the Cross empowers the body of Christ to overcome divisions in all areas of life and extend God’s love to all the nations.
Such hope might make Christians look foolish in the eyes of the world. Let’s hope so. It’ll be a sign that our lives, public and private, are more determined by the power of the Cross than other principalities and powers.