STRAIGHT TALKER: GOP presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. (Wikipedia image)
The truth can come from an unlikely messenger. Like in Numbers 22:30, when God made a donkey talk to Balaam, a prophet who had veered far from God’s purpose.
Newt Gingrich has been an unexpected source of truth during the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, which is why I hope he stays in the race and keeps talking. Gingrich’s comments have been eye opening, like when he called Congressman Paul Ryan’s economic plan “right-wing social engineering,” and then was forced to backtrack. He’s arrogant, impulsive, and morally flawed, but also smart and shrewd. Gingrich often veers from the typical political talking points and says what he truly believes. He expresses volatile thoughts that many people hold and act on privately, but won’t say publicly. Gingrich’s fellow GOP candidate Rep. Ron Paul has a similar proclivity to say what he thinks without filters. The other night, for instance, Paul was once again trying to deflect criticism about his racist newsletter from 20 years ago when he spoke about the unfairness of the criminal justice toward blacks — not exactly a topic you’ll find many Republican politicians addressing, especially one who’s running for president. Unfortunately, none of the reporters followed up with a question about what Paul has been doing about those racial disparities as a congressman or what he would do as president.
Suffice it to say, without Gingrich and Paul in the race, the political dialogue would be far less lively and informative.
Gingrich’s latest episode of unexpurgated candor is especially worth noting. The former Speaker of the House, who has a history of wandering into politically incorrect territory regarding race in America, riled the blogsphere and pundits recently with a comment about blacks and food stamps. Gingrich often refers to President Obama as the “food stamp president” because Americans are receiving the aid at the highest levels in history. The reference is also Gingrich’s way of reminding white voters that Obama is black.
During a speech to a majority-white audience prior to the New Hampshire Primary, Gingrich said:
“And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention to talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
“Insensitive,” “race baiter,” and “bigot,” were among the predictable names critics called him. The NAACP issued its standard condemning response, with the group’s president Benjamin Todd Jealous calling the remarks “inaccurate and divisive.” But perhaps Gingrich has actually done us a favor.
While clearly provocative, Gingrich’s food stamp flap unexpectedly caused the news media to focus on and dispel a longstanding racial stereotype that blacks are the main beneficiaries of food stamp handouts — a stereotype the media perpetuates. The truth is that the face of food stamps and poverty in America is white.
Gingrich triggered CBS and some other news outlets to report that whites represent 59 percent of the households on food stamps, while blacks are 28 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Previous published reports indicated that poverty is on the rise among whites, increasing 53 percent in the majority white suburbs compared to 23 percent in the cities. Two-thirds of the new suburban poor were added between 2007 (the year the economy tanked under the Bush administration) and 2010.
It would seem that poverty is something the majority-white Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements could unite over, along with the civil rights and faith communities. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a race-neutral Poor People’s Campaign and was also speaking out against the Vietnam War when he was assassinated in 1968. King understood what really mattered. His eyes were opened. However, savvy politicians also know they can rely on racism and class to divide voters and advance their own agendas.
The food stamp story also unveiled how the major news organizations often contribute to keeping Americans in the dark. Many of us probably don’t realize that reporter David Weigel of Slate.com, who attended the Gingrich speech and was reportedly the first to tweet the comment, may have done so because he is anti-Republican. Media columnist Richard Prince reminded readers that Weigel resigned from the Washington Post in 2010 from his gig blogging about conservatives after it was revealed that he had disparaged Republicans in a deeply personal way on a listserv. The Post owns the liberal-leaning Slate.com. In his blog, Weigel posted the Gingrich comment without providing proper context, then feigned surprise that others did the same. I suspect Weigel knows, as most bloggers do, that the volatile mix of race and politics often generates lots of reader page views and retweets on the Web — especially if the talker is a polarizer like Gingrich.
As Numbers 22:30 teaches, the messenger might be an ass (or even an elephant), but we ought to pay attention. There’s truth between the lines.
CIVIL SERVANT: President Barack Obama shakes hands with Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the State of the Union address earlier this year. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
“The uniqueness of His meekness is too deep to speak / and if you think meekness is weakness try being meek for a week.” – ShaiLinne, “Mic Check 1 2 (featuring Stephen the Levite & Phanatik)”
Let me state a few things up front, so this doesn’t devolve into something from my highly refined, literary alter ego, Captain Obvious (And His Adventures in Missing-The-Point-Ville).
Obviously, President Barack Obama is not Jesus. Our 44th president is not, nor should he be, exempt from criticism. It does not make anyone a bad Christian to publicly criticize his actions or ideas, from either the political right or the left.
So I hope that neither LZ Granderson nor Roland Martin, both professing Christians whom I respect greatly, will take offense when I say that as Christians I think they’re dead wrong about Obama.
Specifically, they’re wrong about how President Obama should respond to House Speaker John Boehner’s latest act of insubordination regarding his upcoming jobs speech.
For the uninitiated, the White House publicly requested a joint session of Congress to assemble on the same day that the Republicans were planning a debate, also surrounding the topic of jobs. In response, Rep. Boehner asked instead for the date to be pushed back, citing security issues.
“Don’t cave to Boehner,” pleaded Martin. Then after the White House rescheduled the date. Granderson lamented Obamas failure to respond to a diss to the presidency, as if the primary responsibility of the President of the United States is to avoid being punked. Then Martin lamented further, claiming that the president’s biggest problem is that no one fears him.
I beg to differ.
The primary responsibility of the president is not to show people he’s in charge. His job is to lead people as effectively and prudently as possible. It’s not that he “needs a spine transplant,” and is therefore incapable of standing up for himself. It’s that when it came to this particular issue at this particular time, he chose a more expedient path of action.
He doesn’t need to show people who’s boss, because he’s already the boss. Posturing is what one does when they’re auditioning for the role campaigning for the job. But as the POTUS, Obama must be the boss. He has a very complex and subjective set of priorities to address and keep in balance at all times. It shouldn’t be a surprise that saving face wouldn’t be the highest thing on his list.
The Uniqueness of Meekness
Consider the example of the Christ Jesus to whom Obama has publicly, repeatedly declared his fidelity.
Jesus often gets a bad rap in our popular culture for being weak and effeminate (which is one of the reasons why preacher Mark Driscoll is so popular, but that’s for another column). If you read your Bible, though, you’ll see that nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus was constantly challenging and confounding both the religious and political establishment. When he felt like street vendors were making a mockery of the faith, he destroyed their operation. There was a reason why they eventually conspired to kill him.
However, Jesus was not the revolutionary that his followers expected. He never made a play for political office. At the point where his followers thought they were on the brink of an armed revolution, Jesus rebuked one of them for resorting to violence. And then he acquiesced to his accusers, knowing full well the result would be a sham of a trial followed by a brutal crucifixion.
If I would’ve been one of Jesus’ disciples during this time, I’m sure the sense of frustration and disappointment in the air would’ve been absolutely palpable.
Why is he letting them DO THIS?!?!
Jesus was not happy about the events that had transpired. A bit earlier, He prayed to the Father for another way out. But in the end, He chose to be obedient, knowing that there was a larger objective that He was given to fulfill, one that required enduring the cross and all of its horrors.
Believing what Christians do about the resurrection, it’s hard to argue with the result.
When Jesus said “blessed are the meek,” in the Sermon on the Mount, the Greek word he used that we translate today as “meek” is one that referred to a sense of a great strength under useful control. It’s like a fierce fire that could warm a great castle, but that could just as easily be reduced to a pilot light. Or like a wild stallion capable of galloping 100 miles an hour, lightly sauntering under the master’s control.
Meekness is anything but weakness.
Strength Under Control
Meekness is keeping your cool because losing it could jeopardize the prize ever set before you.
It’s the difference between I’m-doing-this-because-I-can and I’m-doing-this-because-I-should.
In my opinion, this is the kind of strength under control where President Obama excels. Sure, it was disrespectful for Boehner and House Republicans to respond the way they did. And sure, Obama probably felt more than little vindictive about it. But Obama has a larger set of priorities in mind, among them being re-election in 2012. And acting out of a desire to be vindicated is something that might win the battle but lose the war.
So no, he’s not Jesus. And no, he’s not infallible.
But if you’re a Christian, and you think Obama is weak just because he chose not to flex his muscles over a scheduling conflict, then either you don’t read your Bible, or you haven’t been paying attention.