(Though I spoke without notes last Shabbat, so many people have asked for these remarks that I am attempting to reconstruct them.)
I asked everyone to pay close attention to the haftarah today, Jeremiah 7:1-8,33 and 9:22-23, and I will turn to it eventually.
A classic Jewish joke has a woman go into a butcher shop and ask to see a particular chicken. After the butcher hands it to her, she lifts a wing and sniffs. She lifts the other wing and sniffs there, too. She turns the chicken around, pulls the legs apart and sniffs inside the cavity. "I don't like it," she says. The butcher says, "Lady, could YOU pass a test like that?"
I don't like to deconstruct jokes, but I have to for these remarks. The joke is funny because it makes fun of a particularly fussy customer, but you have to ask yourself the same question that the butcher was thinking: what kind of person goes around sniffing chickens, and why? The answer is, to find something wrong.
The three candidates for President of the United States would each do an admirable job of it. We have a choice among three very different approaches to the position, and the country would go in three very different directions under their various leaderships, but each one is competent, patriotic and holds a vision beyond getting elected.
But what would you say of a candidate associated with a pastor who holds the view that blacks and whites should not be romantically involved because the Bible forbids it? Until relatively recently, that was the absolute rule at Bob Jones University. A fundamentalist Christian university, Bob Jones boasts one of the most restrictive codes of conduct in the country. A friend of mine who is a Baptist minister told me of how he was expelled from Bob Jones University in the second semester of his senior year. He had run afoul of the demerit system during his four years for violating the "good attitude" requirement with his puckish sense of humor. But the last straw came when he was attending mandatory chapel and heard president Bob Jones call Lady Bird Johnson some truly awful name from the pulpit. My friend remarked to another student, "I don't think he should be talking about the First Lady of the United States that way." The comment was overheard and he was called into the dean's office and expelled and forbidden contact with any students.
John McCain has actively sought the endorsement of Bob Jones University.
I have the good fortune of chairing the board of The Interfaith Alliance, following in the footsteps of some remarkable individuals, including the man who was pastor of the church that President and Mrs. Clinton attended during their eight years in the White House. Almost every Sunday that they were in town, they went to that church. Housed at that church was a committee of concerned Christians who believed deeply that Jerusalem needed to be an internationalized city. They believed and advocated that Israel had no role to play as the "occupying force" in the Holy City, and they allied themselves with some pretty radical characters in making their point. I discussed this group many times with the pastor, and he listened to me carefully, but concluded that it was consistent with the mission of the church to maintain its relationship with that group.
The committee's positions were contrary to the policies and expressed beliefs of both the President and the First Lady, and they must have known about its existence because they spent far more time inside that church than I did. But they never objected to the pastor and they did not stop attending that church in spite of the support for something so completely at odds with what they – and a significant constituent base – believed.
Why? I think much of the reason can be found in the role that pastor played when the President's indiscretions came to light. He counseled them both and helped to keep their marriage together. Whatever you think of President Clinton's conduct, the survival of that marriage was a good thing for them and for their family, and the spiritual guidance he offered was part of making that happen.
And we have Senator Obama attending a church pastured by the now-infamous Jeremiah Wright. I am sure you have seen the clips of him proclaiming "God damn America" or "America's chickens have come home to roost." It is worth taking a look at those sound bites in their larger context. You would find out, for example, that Pastor Wright was quoting a former US ambassador – who is white – who was quoting Malcolm X when he talked about chickens coming home to roost. The sermons containing these offending clips are not easy to hear or to agree with, but they have a context.
And I have to ask myself, why is it that I am hearing about the offending pastor in Senator Obama's life and I am not hearing about the offending pastors in the lives of the other candidates? Where is all this material that is being circulated on the Internet and turning up on television originating? Who is sniffing around – who is sniffing the chickens – and why?
I don't know the answers, I have to tell you, about where this material is originating, but I can tell you why you are hearing about Senator Obama and not Senator Clinton or Senator McCain. The other stuff is out there – I have seen recent stuff about Vincent Foster's suicide and about how all prisoners of war suffer from post-traumatic distress syndrome, but it moves among the usual malcontents and not into the mainstream. The reason you are seeing and forwarding material about Senator Obama is an unpleasant word, and it may apply to you, so get ready to be offended. The reason is racism. The continuing stream of accusations about Senator Obama are because of the discomfort white America feels about a black man with an Arabic name running for the highest office in the land. That's why people are sniffing the chickens.
You are entitled to those prejudices, wrong though they may be. But when they distract the good people of America from discussing the real issues of this campaign, the issues that ought rightly determine who should lead this country and in which direction, then I will call people out for genuinely destructive behavior. It doesn't matter whether you think we should ever have gone to Iraq or what we should do now that we are there. It doesn't matter how you think we should fix the broken health care system in this country, repair our sinking public education systems, lift people out of the poverty that is increasing under this economic downturn, solve the affordable housing problem, address the crisis in credit that may ruin people's lives. These are the issues we need to discuss in making our decisions about leadership, and you dare not distract us from them.
You will not find a black man who acts like a white man running for President. You will not find a woman who behaves like a man. You will not find a Republican who behaves like a Democrat. There is something about every candidate that will be troubling to some segment of the American population, and if there isn't, then that person is the wrong candidate. We need leadership, not cheerleading.
I haven't forgotten about Jeremiah. I hope you read it carefully. I want to quote just this much. After Jeremiah condemns his own people and their leaders for sacrificing innocent children and turning away from the values of the covenant, he proclaims: "The carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off." (7:33) Imagine that. Jeremiah, speaking of the shortcomings of both the government and the people of his time, calls them out and proclaims to them that the vultures are coming home to roost, the chickens are coming home to roost.
And we made it our Scriptural reading for this Shabbat morning and every time we read this section of Torah, once each year.
I've got news for you. If you are distressed to hear those words preached from this pulpit, then you had better consider leaving right now and severing your connection with this congregation. Either that, or you'd better never run for President of the United States.