Barack Obama's speech last Tuesday is still the talk of the country - and should be. Because what started as a political necessity in a presidential campaign went on to become an appeal on a higher level than politics.
The immediate, precipitating reason for the address were some of the outrageous comments of his former pastor - comments Barack Obama's critics had seized upon. That matter he handled with dispatch:
"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."
Lord knows that's true enough. Who has not been embarrassed by a minister's using the pulpit to parade his politics? That doesn't mean we love our preachers less, but only that we notice, and cringe, when in the hold of some political fixation they go right over the rhetorical cliff. Just as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright did. Again and again. It's an old distinction, but still one worth preserving: Hate the sin but don't stop loving the sinner.
Which is just what Barack Obama has done, refusing to turn his back on the man who brought him into the church, who officiated at his wedding, and who baptized his children. What kind of man would do that?
But the senator and presidential candidate did more than say something about what personal loyalty means. He reached across the race line to forge a bond with all of us, black and white and other, when he referred to what is surely a common experience in every family, in every congregation. We've all been embarrassed by someone close to us, and we may confront them, but we don't disown them. We recognize that they're still part of our family, our community. What the wise do is just love the sins of others to death.
Explaining why he wouldn't disassociate himself from his pastor, but only from his pastor's politics, Barack Obama put it this persuasive way:
"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me."
But if the senator's speech had been only about his relationship with his pastor, and with his family, it would have been only a clarification. Like the best of discourses, Barack Obama's only began with the particular before going on to the universal. He wound up speaking not just about the state of race relations but the State of the Union:
"The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through-a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together."
Barack Obama went on to explore the origins and consequences of racial resentments, black and white, in this society. Only when we understand the roots of our grievances may we able to outgrow them, rather than forever take refuge in resentment. If we keep feeding those little devils within, whatever racial or ethnic or class or personal grievances they feed upon, they will only grow stronger, more voracious, till they devour us. Instead, they must be rooted out before conciliation, a more perfect union, is possible. Was this a political speech or a sermon? It was both, of course, as the best of each are. (See King, Martin Luther Jr.)
Barack Obama's was an appeal not just to empathy but to reason. Strangely enough, it worked. For at least one shining moment, his voice was heard clearly, gratefully, above the tumult of talk-show anger and political calculation. His message was an old one, and still sound advice: Come, let us reason together.
It won't be long before politics as usual, and political commentary as usual, obscures Barack Obama's moment of truth. ("How many points did his speech score? Did it help him or hurt him?") But for one shining moment, a new light seemed to fall on the country. The light of reason.