Back to News
May 6, 2008
The American phenomenon of religious theatre that rocked Barack Obama's campaign will go down as shame -- Rev. Jeremiah Wright's example of how to do it wrong.
A powerhouse of a preacher, activist, social engineer and author, Mr. Wright ran afoul of Jesus's directive to his disciples to be "wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove." Instead he went off like a bomb, and as The New York Times and NBC News charged, Mr. Wright immediately made the presidential campaign about himself.
Clergy are in the profession of being a messenger for an infallible God -- a tough occupation to inject into the error-prone world of politics and media. Clergy struggle on a professional path where divergent battles of prideful thinking and low self-esteem lurk. It's a job where it's remarkably easy to get out of touch with reality, and where people become frightened to correct you. Mr. Wright lived in that world, added his own private demons to the mix, and finds himself far from any relationship with a battle-scarred political candidate who once trusted him like family.
Mr. Obama now describes his old pastor as "divisive and destructive, giving comfort to those who prey on hate" and is "saddened by the spectacle" Mr. Wright has become.
In many minds, Mr. Wright's credibility, forged in years of hammering out the tough truths of black liberation theology, launching more than 70 programs into bettering the social needs of his people, is gone with a poof because pride eclipsed his calling as a servant of God.
We have no current parallels in Canada of how this debacle may look in our political annals, but we do have a hero who has advised clergy on their needed and valid role in public life. Rev. Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and former professor at Yale, Harvard and Notre Dame, wrote of this and the clergy's temptations when he was pastor for Daybreak, a L'Arche community for developmentally disabled people outside Toronto. In his book, In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Father Nouwen told clergy they will face the same battle the Gospels describe between the devil and Jesus. Father Nouwen sums up Satan's three temptations of Jesus as being the desire to be relevant, the desire to be spectacular, and the desire to be powerful.
Who would want to be anything less, Father Nouwen asks? But the preferable alternative, he advises, is to avoid the glitter of success and to reach, rather, into people's despair and to serve as the conduit of God's hope.
Since Senator Obama actually titled his book on a sermon Mr. Wright preached on hope, you know these men have got to have done some work together on that private battle. In that sermon, given in 1990, Mr. Wright preached that the condition of your soul is what keeps you going. It's also what stops you.
We talk a lot in Canada about wanting politicians who will serve with vision and integrity but we never explore what it takes to equip the inner person to take on that challenge.
In Ottawa, there are at least four groups that busy themselves with spiritual care to our 305 Members of Parliament. The highest profile is the weekly gathering of MPs who form the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Next week they'll gather 800 people together, but not announce a speaker or put any public sparkle around the event because the Canadian way is to quietly wrestle out the mysteries of faith rather than grandstand with any experts.
Jack Murta, a former minister from the Mulroney era who directs the event, said parliamentarians behind the movement believe the forum is about putting people into relationships with each other, because "it will make for better government, less rancour, more trust," relationships, he says, are guided through the person of Jesus Christ.
As boring and benign as that is to the public and press, politicians here must sigh with relief at the approach, and they will continue on in accessing soul care in the privacy of their own pursuits. The Canadian way seems to understand that the gospel, by its own admission, is an intrinsically offensive idea; it doesn't need any help from us to establish that in the public mind.
Back to News