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A disturbing conversation…

February 12, 2008

30obama-3-190.jpg“So do you think we are going to have a Muslim president?” 

My colleague’s question caught me off guard.  I looked up from the stack of papers I was beginning to grade during my planning period.  I had turned the TV on to MSNBC and the political pundits were breaking down the prospects of Barack Obama for the Potomac primaries and beyond. 

I tried to read her face.  She was completely serious.  Here is the essence of the exchange that ensued…

Me:  “Obama is a Christian,” I replied.  “He has been very open about his faith.  He is a member of a Christian congregation in Chicago.”

Colleague:  “No, I mean his faith heritage is Muslim.  Some of his ancestors were Muslims.”

Me:  “Does that make Obama a Muslim?  Isn’t it possible to convert to a faith that is distinct from the predominant faith of one’s family system?”

Colleague:  responds by shaking her head no

30obama-2-190.jpgMe:  “I know that there have been questions raised regarding Obama’s connection to Islam.  I’m not sure what you have heard, or where you have heard it.  I’ll send you some links to legitimate sources reporting on this issue.” 

My colleague went to her next period class. 

I was in shock.  Was it possible that I had just had this conversation?  I was shocked that someone would casually suggest that Obama would be a Muslim president–not because he himself is a professing Muslim, but because his stepgrandmother was a practicing Muslim. 

We had never discussed politics previously, so I had no context from which to anticipate her comment.  Nevertheless, it shocked me.

We exchanged some brief emails later this morning.  I sent her a few links including this one and this one.  She apologized if she had offended me.  I responded that I appreciated her words of apology and explanation.  That yes, her question had come as a bit of a shock.  I said that in a time where the politcal landscape is so polarized–I am particularly aware of divisive language rooted in narratives that knowingly or unknowingly infuse the political debates with distrust for Others. 

(For another example of this kind of language, I submit a quote from Mitt Romney as he suspended his presidential campaign a few days ago:

“If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senators Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”

-Mitt Romney on why he’s suspending his campaign
Is Romney suggesting that if either Senators Clinton or Obama would win, it would mean that we as a country are surrendoring to terror?) 

More reflections on this conversation…

Especially given the history of distrust between the West and Arab countries, I believe we need to be careful in the way we use words and talk about people. 

To talk about Obama in terms suggesting we would have a Muslim president (if he is elected) is irresponsible in my view.  I question the motives of those who would seek to make this connection between the candidate and members of his family tree.  Why the need to suggest that Obama is Muslim because he has ancestors who were connected with Islam? 

This is the type of accusation that is promulgated by the politics of fear.  You don’t have to scratch too deeply beneath the surface of this type of rhetoric to find a xenophobic narrative. 

I think this country needs a visionary leader who has the ability to transcend the visceral toxicity of the political game.  We need a leader with the ability to articulate a new narrative that brings people together–not just 51% of the country in a red state/blue state polarization. 

There will be cynics who say that such a candidate is not possible.  This is their prerogative.  However, I cannot be silent when I hear people speaking from the narrative of fear-based politics. 

I am looking for a candidate who will not paint the political opponent in denigrating terms.  I am looking for a candidate who will engage in honest debate about real issues, without stooping to the level of personal attack or slanderous charicature.

Several generations ago JFK captured the imagination of the electorate in this way.  I think it will take the same type of leader today.  One that does not just play to the party establishment, but seeks to reach out in ways that transcend ideological differences.  One who embodies a different tone.  One that calls us back to civil discourse with each other and with the world.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2008 1:32 pm

    good for you!

  2. February 12, 2008 2:30 pm

    Well at least she had a better reason than “his name sounds muslim.” If I hear that one more time…

  3. February 12, 2008 6:58 pm

    Wow. Unbelievable, Brian. You did well, my friend! I just hope this thinking doesn’t prove to be the majority in Texas, Ohio, and PA. March will be most interesting …

  4. beinganddoing permalink
    February 13, 2008 7:07 am

    Brian.

    Fear and divisiveness are all to often that which drives our understanding of the world. Our culture seems to have an uncanny way of entering that reality. We may look at the chaos of Kenya and think we are “free” or more developed etc., but in our hearts we still think of us and them. Perhaps most frightening is the fact that this way of thinking is prevalent among those of us who name the name of Christ.

    Just after 9/11 I was speaking to a relative. She is kind, a great mom, very involved in church etc. She told me that we should send all people who are of other than American ancestry back to where they came from. I asked her how far back we should go. “Generations?” “Yes!” She replied. “All the way back.” When I pointed out that our ancestors came to this country from Switzerland it did change her mind a little bit.

    Leon

  5. February 13, 2008 9:32 am

    Good article. I think finding a candidate that will unite the country is going to be difficult to find. Especially out of this batch. It isn’t impossible. It just seems unlikely. Our 2 party system has pitted people against each other just by affiliation. The system is in need of reform and I don’t know if any of these candidates has what it takes. Because the tougher task is uniting congress.

  6. Karissa permalink
    February 13, 2008 4:01 pm

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate these thoughts. I would love to have this type of conversation this summer! Our group has talked a lot about these ideas, particularly as we watch the primary process from afar. By the way, we’ve talked to a lot of Palestinians about how they would like us to vote (we have not had enough significant interactions with Israelis yet to know how they feel about it), and they have all either said “Definitely Obama” or “It doesn’t matter because whoever wins will be working within a system that will oppress us no matter what.” Interesting.

    Anyway, my purpose for coming to your blog in the first place…

    If you haven’t already read The Myth of a Christian Nation, by Gregory Boyd, please do so ASAP. I brought it along to the Middle East and I think it is something you should definitely read. That’s all I’ll say about it…but please check it out!

  7. just an apprentice permalink
    February 13, 2008 4:24 pm

    Hey Karissa!!!
    I will read The Myth of a Christian Nation as long as you promise that we can talk about it over coffee this summer.

    Deal?
    Brian

  8. February 13, 2008 6:33 pm

    Hi Karissa,

    You might enjoy Greg Boyd’s blog (author of “The Myth of a Christian Nation”) –> http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=558805560.

    It’s one of the blogs (along with Brian’s) that I check daily.

    Chris

  9. Karissa permalink
    February 14, 2008 4:00 pm

    Oh, deal:)

  10. February 15, 2008 12:23 pm

    “the myth of a christian nation” changed my theology. changed my faith really. i am a better person for having read it. i hope that is a good endorsement.
    a similiar book is lee camp’s “mere discipleship”. this book is the standard on christian discipleship. sorry brian, didnt mean to add to your list.

  11. just an apprentice permalink
    February 15, 2008 5:19 pm

    Joe,
    I have read Mere Discipleship, Lee Camp. Whew! My reading list is already too long!

    Yesterday, at our monthly Mennonite/Orthodox gathering, we were talking about the nature and vocation of Church and how we relate to power–to government…to the political arena.

    Looking forward to reading The Myth of a Christian Nation.

  12. February 28, 2008 10:00 am

    I have a feeling that this issue will be with us the entire election season:

    Obama still battles Muslim myths
    http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/02/28/obama-still-battles-muslim-myth/

  13. just an apprentice permalink
    February 28, 2008 2:46 pm

    Chris,
    You might be right…

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