February 20, 2008

The Obama Message

2008 1505 page17 capne evening last month I watched history being made when Barack Obama, junior senator from Illinois, won the Iowa caucus on a frigid Thursday night. One of the more noteworthy aspects of his win was the fact that he won in a state where only about 2 percent of the population is Black. This is unheard of in American politics. All the pundits who predicted that Whites would never cross over and vote in significant numbers for a Black man were dead wrong. They did, and Obama won.

I was personally struck with Obama’s victory speech. He didn’t patronize the racial, gender, or political party divisions of the past, but he assumed the desire of Americans to see themselves as one people. How did he put it? “Not a red America or blue America, but the United States of America.” At least on that night America could hope, notwithstanding the divides of the past, that this country could, in fact, be one.

Now that doesn’t mean we will not disagree over particular views, but at least the racial stuff that so quickly alienates people from each other is possible to diminish, at least among the vast numbers of Americans.

But something else happened that cold night in Iowa. There was a clear generational shift that was not beholden to viewing the world only through racial lenses. And may I quickly add, I didn’t sense any attempt to plow over fundamental racial concerns that still need to be addressed, but only a recognition that every issue is not racial.

2008 1505 page17I may be an optimist speaking way too soon, but I don’t think so. I believe that in the United States, where race has defined so much for so long, change is on the way—where the issues that need to be tackled in our country are not just Black issues or White issues or Asian issues or Hispanic issues, but American issues. The issues and challenges we face are mostly common to us all.

U.S. president George W. Bush went a long way in helping to create what happened, at least on that night in Iowa. He wasn’t afraid to place people of a race different from his own in significant positions of responsibility. I applaud that. I don’t agree with him on all the issues, or with any politician for that matter. But what is pronounced is the fact that he did not limit his options by pigeonholing Blacks and Hispanics in the usual slots (HUD, Veterans Affairs, etc.). And when these leaders did well—even when they didn’t—it wasn’t because they were Black, Hispanic, or Asian; it was their leadership at issue, not their race.

Implications for the Church
Our church has moved light years down the road when 
it comes to issues of race. There was a time when certain major sectors of our denomination were determinedly racist, truth be told. It was a bad time. Leaders didn’t always act as Christians, but took their cues from the surrounding culture. However, for any honest observer today, that can no longer be said about our church. Yet we still have work to do.

Like other denominations that have traveled a similar path as ours, we will at some point need to disassemble the last symbols of our historical divide—racially segregated conferences in the United States. Let me quickly say that there are more than nine racially defined conferences in North America; the majority of conferences in the United States are racially defined at their core. That doesn’t mean any deliberate intent on the part of any conference to discriminate. But it does represent a reality that facilitates a racial divide.

The United Methodist Church faced these same structural challenges decades ago when it had Black and White conferences. They acknowledged it for what it was and made bold moves to address it. It didn’t make all racial issues go away, but they deleted the possibility that their structure would create a divide.

A new generation is emerging in the church, and old rationales as to why we do what we do will not hold. There’s a big country out there for us to reach for Christ. And it will not be a Black Adventist church, a White Adventist church, an Asian Adventist church, or a Hispanic Adventist church that will reach our world. The Adventist Church together will do it. That’s the point Obama was trying to make in our wider culture.

If our church is going to reach this culture, we need to think well what we are presenting to the world, as well as to a new generation in this church.

Fredrick A. Russell is senior pastor of the Miracle Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.