Monday, March 12, 2007

Is Obama's Church Membership an Obstacle, or Opportunity?

by Eric Walters

Newly announced presidential contender Barack Obama is no stranger to the spotlight. His bestselling book, Audacity of Hope, was titled after a sermon given by (his) Pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC) in Chicago, where Obama is a member. The Afrocentric nature of TUCC and the political outspokenness of Pastor Wright has recently become a source of controversy for the Obama campaign.

TUCC embraces black liberation theology—a brand of liberation theology that finds its roots in social justice/social gospel, contemporized by James Cone and other black theologians almost 40 years ago. Guided by the motto, “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian”, TUCC also promotes a 12-point Black Value System that guides its ministry programs and objectives. Below is an excerpt from the TUCC website:

"Trinity United Church of Christ adopted the Black Value System written by the Manford Byrd Recognition Committee chaired by Vallmer Jordan in 1981. We believe in the following 12 precepts and covenantal statements. These Black Ethics must be taught and exemplified in homes, churches, nurseries and schools, wherever Blacks are gathered. They must reflect on the following concepts:

  • Commitment to God

  • Commitment to the Black Community

  • Commitment to the Black Family

  • Dedication to the Pursuit of Education

  • Dedication to the Pursuit of Excellence

  • Adherence to the Black Work Ethic

  • Commitment to Self-Discipline and Self-Respect

  • Disavowal of the Pursuit of "Middleclassness"

  • Pledge to make the fruits of all developing and acquired skills available to the Black Community

  • Pledge to Allocate Regularly, a Portion of Personal Resources for Strengthening and Supporting Black Institutions

  • Pledge allegiance to all Black leadership who espouse and embrace the Black Value System

  • Personal commitment to embracement of the Black Value System. "

The contemporary black theology movement in America arose in response to white racism and discrimination. In short, Christ not only redeems, but also liberates the poor and oppressed. Black theology has helped shape black identity, self-respect, and empowerment in the post-Civil Rights Era through its continued emphasis on social justice, the social gospel, and political activism.

Only time will tell if Obama’s affiliation with TUCC represents a political asset, or liability. Some political pundits suggest that the ethnocentric/black emphasis of the 12 precepts/covenantal statements at TUCC, the ambiguous meaning of a “disavowal of the pursuit middleclassness” , detracts from a centrist appeal that Obama needs to win the White House. Others argue that Obama’s association with Pastor Wright (who favors the rights of Palestinians) and membership at TUCC could alienate some voters, particularly those who are white or Jewish. Obama called Wright the night before his February 10 presidential announcement and rescinded his invitation for Wright to give the opening invocation. Alternatively, some think that the TUCC agenda could endear Obama (a product of an interracial marriage) to more black voters.

One may question whether some of the Black Values of TUCC (established in 1981) have outlived their usefulness or should undergo revision. Moreover, the degree to which Obama is obliged to uphold any or all of them is a matter of personal preference and conviction.
Without question, we live in an era where race, color, ethnicity—and the theological perspectives that emerge from them, have now become the new subtexts of the political debate. To be sure, the Obama-TUCC connection should challenge all Americas to engage in a substantive examination of faith that is informed by race (and racism), and its articulation within the political arena.

How Barack Obama defines the meaning of “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” may ultimately determine the fate of his campaign.

Eric Walters is Co-Founder of TheoSyst Group.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Christian Liberty and the Lottery: Should You Play?

by Eric Walters

March 5-11 is National Problem Gambling Awareness Week, and by coincidence (or divine intervention?) individuals in multiple States are hurriedly competing for the grand prize Mega Millions lotto drawing, worth a record $370 million.

Last night I stopped by my local Seven-Eleven store to pick up a few items. At the checkout, while talking to my friend James on my mobile phone, I remarked about the large number of people waiting to purchase lottery tickets for the $370 million prize. At the time it was estimated that New Yorkers were buying more than 1 million tickets an hour, and Virginia retailers were selling about 8,550 tickets per minute as Tuesday night’s drawing approached. James asked me to buy a ticket, offering to split the cost, and the prize if we won. I didn’t think it was such a great idea, so I declined.

I’ve never played the lottery before, never been seriously “tempted” to go for all those millions. Admittedly, this is probably related to some rudimentary teaching I learned when I first became a Christian: gambling was wrong and sinful, like throwing money away. That was the black and white about gambling, but over the years, I’ve become more aware of the responsibility of my freedom to choose. To be sure, today the reasons for choices are not always so black and white, and more often than not, at best they are shades of gray. I’ll stop here.

I realize that there are many Christian people who don’t think twice about playing the lottery, and many of my friends and colleagues consistently play Lotto. I even know some who quietly pray that God will help them win (To be honest, I think that’s a bit crazy—but I digress.). I’m reminded about the story of a minister who preached regularly from his pulpit against gambling, only to be surprised one day when his wife held the lucky number. Suddenly the skeptic preacher was converted by the gospel of Lotto because he believed God had blessed his family!

I’m interested in your thoughts about Christians and gambling behavior, but before we are tempted to rehash old points and become “preachy”, let’s consider the following:

· State lotteries provide significant funding for public schools and other essential services for many citizens and local communities.

· Some share the opinion that playing the Lotto is very similar to investing in the stock market. Is this merely a case in semantics?

· What practices, other than playing the Lotto, constitute behavior that can be considered as gambling?

· Do spiritual communities or churches rely upon traditions and protocols that a) resemble gambling, or b) are promote addictive behavior?

My point is not to demonize or condemn those individuals who play the lottery, but instead to challenge us to think critically about choices we make in many areas of our lives. As Christians, what central (biblical and extra-biblical) factors inform the rationale for our choices, and do they account for a sense of individual, spiritual, and communal responsibility?

In this vein, National Problem Gambling Awareness Week can help believers understand that gambling isn’t fundamentally about money. Instead, this week can focus us toward greater resourcefulness, responsibility, and stewardship.

I welcome your thoughts.

Eric Walters is Co-Founder of TheoSyst Group.