Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Let's Talk About Race" Ad

Coming in the Friday, April 11 edition of USA Today is another full page ad from the United Church of Christ.

In an advance mass e-mail, UCC President John Thomas writes:
Our ad invites the nation to enter a sacred conversation on race and asks other communities of faith to join our preach-in scheduled for Trinity Sunday, May 18.

Together, as we ready ourselves for this important preaching opportunity and the intentional dialogues that must follow in the months to come, this ad clearly puts the UCC on public record as a church willing to grapple forthrightly with difficult issues. Ours is a risk-taking church.
This newest one, which comes on the heels of last week's New York Times ad, is entitled, "Let's Talk About Race."

OK. I accept.

Let's talk about how this ad frames the question and sets the agenda.

First, notice how this ad doesn't mention the Barack Obama-Jeremiah Wright flap and more importantly, the UCC's relationship to it. Why is boldness suddenly shy? It's like the parent talking to their child about the birds and the bees, but too embarrassed to admit the part they played in bringing little johnny into the world.

If Obama and Wright were members of another denomination, there's no way the UCC jumps into the fray and places this ad.

So really. Why are we calling for a dialogue on race? And doing so now?

The ad's lack of full disclosure is telling. It suggests that one motive for keeping silent is denominational self-preservation.

Try saying with a straight face that you're Jeremiah Wright's denomination, you won't scold his outrageous statements, nor condemn his award to Louis Farrakhan, all the while insisting on the need to discuss race.

Difficult, huh? The general public won't buy it and I think our leaders realize this. Better then to avoid the connection and instead say this:
Sacred conversations are never easy, especially when honest talk confronts our nation's painful past and speaks directly to the injustices of the present day. Yet sacred conversations can, and often do, honor the value of diverse life experiences, requiring an openness to hear each others' viewpoints.
Instead of acting like the Old Testament prophets-- who told it like it was and willingly took the hit to their reputation-- the ad takes the soft sell route.

Never mind that we're the religious body that's home to this race controversy. Ignore the fact that none of our national leaders have the courage of Obama, who said in his race speech that Wright remarks were distorted and divisive. Forget that.

Instead, simply present yourself as the denomination that calls for a sacred conversation about race. That strategy raises the odds of the denomination looking much better in the public eye. We look spiritual, reasonable, and hip all at the same time.

If the average irreligious USA Today reader doesn't recognize the UCC connection to the Obama-Wright controversy, the strategy of the ad just might work to enhance our reputation.

Image is certainly on the mind of our President:
No single newspaper ad will ever fully capture our denomination's diverse story or our justice legacy, but as the media spotlight continues to focus on the UCC like never before, it is imperative that we be proactive in sharing who we are and what we're about, lest others continue to define us in narrow and distorted ways.
But for those in the general public who do know the UCC connection, who've read or seen Rev. Thomas' defense of Wright, and don't approve of Wright's remarks, the ad won't work.

The effect will come off like this: "A UCC pastor makes outrageous claims about race and then the UCC tells me that I'm the one who needs to have a dialogue about race? I'm the one who needs to be lectured? It's like being the innocent bystander who sees a fight on the school playground, but instead of the bully going to the Principal's office, I get sent."

Despite the flaws and motives of this ad, the truth remains that, "we have an opportunity to make America a better nation." Sometimes, when the family of an alcoholic is asked to sit down for treatment, they protest saying, "But I'm not the one who needs therapy!" And yet, if they choose to sit down and talk, they too can learn something valuable.

The American public may not feel like they have to sit down and talk about race. But if they do, I'm sure they'd learn something good.

Meanwhile, Rev. Thomas should be proactive in taking this risk-- the Friday before Trinity Sunday, May 18, go and talk about race on the O'Reilly Factor or Hannity & Colmes, and state clearly that Wright was wrong.

No comments: