Wednesday, November 05, 2008

obama going forward

Had I sensed that the solutions to our primary problems were political in nature I would have chosen a career in politics. Instead, I have always sensed that our chief questions are theological: who we are in relation to God, to one another and to our world? How we work out these relationships, and how resources are shared across relationships and in the wider world has everything to do with the practice of politics and economics. I have served alongside people of deep faith who are very clear in their agreement about the importance of the great questions and yet differ in the practice of politics.

My sense of last evening and this morning, in the United States of America, is that we have entered into a new world, and I see that journey in theological terms: we are a country deeply scarred by the reality of slavery, and both oppressor and oppressed bear the wounds of that history. I do not reduce this reality to red and blue states, but understand that these impulses, which are about power and control, are at war within each of us. The free election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, by a citizenry of people of all colors is a testament to the breaking of the yoke of slavery, which accounts for the overwhelming ethos of joy on the faces of African -Americans across our country. And yet this same election should resonate within the heart of every white American as well; we are only now living into the conduct of our creed, that all are created equal. I agree with an anonymous person from South Africa who wrote to the New York Times last week: I think Barack Obama may be our Nelson Mandela.

I tend to be centrist in my politics, and see movements as swings of the pendulum; we have seen two national elections (06, 08) as correctives to a governing party that was elected by a narrow margin and yet ruled as if it had a broad mandate. In "the wisdom of crowds", our democracy worked, and now there is a move to the center. When Obama speaks of a nation that is not primarily about "red states" and "blue states" but the "United States", I take him at his word. And I know, from historical memory, that if he does not lead and manage in this way, another corrective is on the way. This is the messy beauty of our democracy.

I am happy for the election of an African-American man as president and delighted that an African-American family will reside in the White House. I am also happy that Obama did not make race the leading factor in his election. I take no delight in the defeat of John McCain, whom I do regard as an heroic, if also tragic figure--tragic in that he deserved better, in 2000 and in 2008 (I refer not to electoral outcome, but to the events embedded in each race). I recall the opinion piece written by David Brooks on the day following the national election of 04, a word of warning to the Bush Administration, that "pride goes before a fall". Brooks was encouraging President Bush to govern toward the middle, where the electorate actually was. This was not the outcome, and the results, again, have been two successive electoral responses.

In our congregation we spent some time this fall reflecting on the relationship between faith and the presidential election. In reading books by Jim Wallis and Adam Hamilton, I realize that my voting patterns are shaped by values largely related to a set of issues that no one party has yet assembled. To name just two of the values, I appreciate the government's role in securing a safety net for retired persons, for the poor, and, I hope in the future, for the sick. I am for a national health plan. At the same time, I am also for greater efforts to insure that the unborn are welcomed into the world, and adopted into families that will care for them.

In reading a recent book by Tom Friedman (Hot, Flat and Crowded), I also have the sense that our national and global crisis (rooted in concerns of economics and energy), will require engagement and competence in the future. The Katrina event, followed by the ongoing war in Iraq, have in my mind unleashed the continuing question of competence in our national leadership. That almost nine of ten Americans recognize this puts the issue, for me, beyond partisanship. The recent economic collapse has taught us that we have less margin for error. And, to be sure, this may have been the driving force in the electoral result.

In the midst of it all I was also asked to share a prayer with a clergy group, and the prayer eventually made its way to a number of websites: the General Board of Discipleship, the Upper Room, the General Board of Church and Society. I know that it was used in worship services, and adapted according to particular needs, and for all of this I am grateful. The closing words, "Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ be a peaceable people in the midst of division. Send your Spirit of peace, justice and freedom upon us, break down the walls of political partisanship, and make us one. Give us wisdom to walk in your ways, courage to speak in your name, and humility to trust in your providence, " seem to me to be as relevant post-election as pre-election.

Note: I have always had the strong personal sense that I should not, as a pastor, endorse a particular candidate. This derives from my desire to serve individuals who are of any or no political perspective. What brings us together is not our political vantage point, but a deeper unity in the One Body of Christ, which transcends, judges and gives life to all political and economic practices.

Being a pastor in a large congregation, in a city and community that is pretty divided politically (I am not sure if North Carolina has even been called either way) is always an odd experience on the day after an election. There seem to me, on a day like to today, to be causes for celebration and caution. Celebration: we have reframed the history of our country in one electoral act---slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., all of it reframed in one historical moment. And, theologically, that is about redemption and the providence of God. And yet, a word of caution: our problems, and the solutions to them, are not fundamentally political in nature; they are theological. Every person, whether he or she resides in a red or blue state, whether he or she votes with or against you, has been created in the image of God. This imago dei has everything to do with freedom and dignity, and, at our best, this is why people across the world strive, against all odds, to make their way to the United States (I think of three people on our staff: one from Ecuador, one from the Congo, one who is a Montagnard).

A further word: it is true, someone noted, that all idols crack under the pressure of our need for them. At the moment Barack Obama is an icon, the projection of a massive social movement, one aspiring, at its best, to the cause of human dignity. I think he is careful to deflect this back to the people who listen to him speak, to say continually that it is about them. That is true, and yet Obama does not need to become an idol. Barack Obama is a Christian (the rumors of his being a Muslim were untrue), and he understands the need for humility. As he said late last night, he needs both his supporters and his opponents. God is speaking through each of them. And hopefully God will use all of them (us) for the rebuilding of the nation.

It is a remarkable day to be a citizen of this nation, and today I offer prayers of profound thanksgiving to God for the ability to witness, participate in, and reflect (even through a glass darkly) with you about all of this.


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