By Peter Slonek

Bob, is there anything in your past sermons that would make it necessary for me to denounce you? Better tell me now. Although I am not planning on running for POTUS any time soon, one never knows when the enemy will strike. Voluptuous sounds pretty anti-Christ and I am not so sure Yogi Berra belongs on the big screen in a Baptist church …

Hope and Change have been big words in my life so I am not surprised at all that I am preferring the real candidate for POTUS whose message represents the full meaning of these words. I am deeply troubled by the current controversy over Barack Obama and his (ex)Pastor Jeremiah Wright. First, why is it a controversy and not just a debate? How linked are a pastor and his flock? Just because you might say something outrageous one day that I do not agree with, I am not going to storm out of Lake Street Church forever. Even if I had political ambitions for a higher office.

Luckily, I watched Bill Moyer’s interview with the now outcast pastor when it was aired first. I came away with renewed admiration for Bill Moyers’ courage and with great respect for the Pastor who sounded like a highly intelligent, well read and well educated, passionate patriot. On the news the following night I watched a very subdued Senator Obama, behaving like a politician, denouncing his former pastor. Denounce is a word I learned while growing up in Austria under the Nazi regime: people denounced their friends and neighbors for doing something that was illegal under the regime. Not exactly a good deed, depending on where you stand. Here, of course, it meant the formal termination of the relationship between the Senator and the Pastor.

I would go to bat for you, Bob! Even if that would endanger my campaign. I would be very honest and passionate in defending your beliefs and mine. “God damn America” was not a good thing to say. Even if it was used to contrast it with the mantra of “God Bless America” (no matter what America does) – too many people will hear that the wrong way. Let me digress here for a minute: When I immigrated to the United States from Austria – a Catholic country almost a thousand years older than the USA – I wondered why America claimed the exclusive blessings of God on itself. I had never heard the Austrians or any other country do so, except that the belt buckles of Hitler’s army said “Gott mit uns” – God is with us. Was s/he? What makes the US better or more deserving than any other country?

Some time ago I read a very insightful essay about a region in north-western Europe ravaged during World War I and then again during World War II. And probably many more times before those two nightmares. The author of the essay had visited several small towns and villages. What puzzled him the most were the monuments to their fallen warriors, the fathers and sons who had lived in those places and were killed in these wars. Depending on what period of history you choose these places had belonged to either France, Germany, Belgium, or Holland, on different sides in the conflict. However, all the monuments proclaimed very clearly in one language or another that God had been on their side. Have we elected God to be our cheerleader in whatever killing spree we engage in? Whose side was s/he really on?

Before I decided to make my home here in the US I worked for the US Information Agency, the propaganda arm of the State Department, under the auspices of the American Embassy in Vienna. There I experienced a secular version of the American claim to superiority amongst the diplomats: the US had won World War II, therefore the US was the Best, Americans knew Everything better, Americans did Everything better. The fact that these diplomats knew very little European or Austrian history and did not speak any German did not hinder them to act as infallible in all decisions as to how they should go about to impress on the average Austrian citizen that America knows best. Invariably, unless the local employees could convince these crusaders of a better, less superior sounding approach, these efforts failed. This superiority complex attitude bothered me then and it bothers me now.

There are belief systems fostered by propaganda and then there are the facts. Rev. Wright had his facts right, maybe not exactly right or maybe just not expressed in words that could not be twisted, doubted and falsely interpreted. Everybody who ever read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” would know what the Reverend was talking about. After World War II we demanded of the Germans to face their past and we later we demanded of the Russians to face their past and we demand it of anybody else who we deem to have done wrong. It is time that a majority of the US population face the past and face the facts. There is no need to enumerate them here again. But only thinking of them I would plead for God to Forgive America and save the Blessings for the good we have done throughout our history.

Would it not have been a wiser and much more healing solution to debate the statements Reverend Wright made on a level playing field – if such a thing even exists- rather than denouncing him outright? And there is no reason we could not have taken him to task only for the really offending words he had slipped into his sermons. Tacking this whole controversy onto the back of a parishioner – even if this parishioner is in a very precarious spotlight at the moment – makes no sense to me at all.

Which brings me back to the question of what kind of relationship do I as a parishioner have with you, my pastor? I joined Lake Street Church for spiritual guidance, for a place to contemplate and worship, and out of my need for a community of like-minded individuals. I was not looking for a group of people fitting my template without any variations but a congregation where I could freely state and live my beliefs without the fear of being denounced. And in the same way I would not denounce my pastor for having said something I really do not believe in or agree with. But I certainly would voice my opinion, to my fellow parishioners and to you, Bob, probably over lunch or dinner. Not being a POTUS contender makes all this a lot easier, of course. If I were a POTUS contender – I would like to appear at the next rally, step behind the next rostrum, or confront the next gaggle of microphones shoved in my face and speak loudly and clearly about which statements I disagreed with and which ones I stand behind.

“When you said ‘God damn America’ my heart cringed and I blushed in shame – because above all, I do not believe in a damning God and, second, if I did, I do not believe in collective punishment. And as far as punishment goes, I do believe in Karma, if you know what I mean.”

Maybe even the Reverend Wright might have chimed in and explained nicely why he said what he said rather than going before the Press Club and showing an attitude “Got ya where it hurts most, didn’t I, you white sissies?” – (Attention: readers: I am paraphrasing here!) Which then did not present a pretty picture.

So debate it is – or should be, open listening, openly stating one’s beliefs. Accepting that there is more than one side to the truth – whatever the truth may be. And for all of us to learn our history and the history of as many other countries and cultures as we can – and most importantly, history told from as many angles as we can find because the real story is only showing up in the multifaceted view.

Not everybody has a chance to live through radical political changes or through radical cultural changes with the privilege of experiencing the shifting perspectives as they are shaped. But if we can listen to as many real persons as we can find who have their fingers on the pulse of what is happening here and in the rest of the world and compare notes with others who have listened – and maybe heard something quite different – we can become more rational and more compassionate – very helpful attributes for doing our bit in creating a better world.