THE PLANK JUNE 2, 2008
I’m a bit late to responding to the reports of and the fallout from Rev. Michael Pfleger’s rude and uncharitable sermonizing at Trinity United in Chicago. As a way of adding more context to the situation—and the unfortunate lack of context is, I think, what fueled Barack Obama’s decision to break with this church—I’d like to share a conversation I had with Pfleger in March, just hours before he last spoke at Trinity, as part of the two-week celebration of Jeremiah Wright’s retirement. Pfleger, a preacher/activist of the mold of, well, many preachers (but fewer white ones), had many interesting insights about Obama, standards, faith in politics, and the media’s coverage of both:
I can't comment for Jeremiah. I can tell you what I think about the issue. I think you cannot separate them; I think faith ought to shape policies and policies should shape politics. I think that the Bible is not a Bible that just deals with spiritual redemption but it speaks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, those in prison, the disenfranchised. It talks about poverty perhaps move than any other social issue from Genesis to Revelations.
I find that [double standard] really interesting. One thing is first that the people that sit in front of Jeremiah Wright or sit in front of me on a Sunday morning are primarily African American. As a minister your first mission is to speak to or preach to the people in your church, so for him to have an agenda for the church is normal. I grew up in a Catholic Irish church where Irish bagpipes and culture and information was a norm in a church, so why would he not be speaking to African American issues? It’s done in the Polish church, and you can’t find a Latino church in this country that isn't dealing with the immigration issue. Why is this a double standard when it’s a black church?I’m very puzzled. I’m troubled that I couldn’t tell you what denomination Hillary Clinton, John McCain or John Edwards are. None of these folks came out of or from church…. If it's fair game, let it be fair game.…Jeremiah is who he is. He’s consistent with who he’s been for 36 years. One of the things I’m going to talk about [at tribute service this evening] is people say ‘you should change this, you should change that.’ Number one: Why should he change who he is after 36 years of pastoring? His authenticity is wonderful.For all the negative stuff that is being put out there about his church, it is the womb that turned out a man with an audacity to hope. If he’s so nationalistic and crass and all these things and he’s so racist and all of these things people like to attribute [to him]—how come he taught a man that is so inclusive, has such a tent, has such a vision for the future for change and for hope that is attracting so many? I’d think every pastor in the nation would like to turn out a Barack Obama.If Jeremiah is so bad, well damn, let me be that bad. [my emphasis]
And so he was. I think Pfleger’s obnoxious outburst was a far cry from our very reasonable chat, and his measured (if biting) April defense of Wright. Further, as a Chicago native, I know Pfleger’s m.o. pretty well by now—in fact, he once addressed an assembly on social injustice at my middle school. He’s certainly part of the furniture when it comes to activist circles in Chicago at-large—not just Hyde Park, or the South Side community to which he and Jeremiah Wright minister. I don’t wish to excuse this unproductive outburst, for both Wright and Pfleger undermine their supposed support for Obama by looking and sounding like crazies on the national stage. This is all the more galling given that any preacher who navigates politics as frequently as they do should understand the damning power of suggestion here. But Pfleger makes a few good points, which I’ve emphasized above. And he is, in some ways, recapitulating statements Obama has made about generational change and the need to build on the methods and message—not the obsessions—of the past.