Black hand on the Bible

The world got goose bumps as Obama put his black hand on Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural Bible. Around the globe, billions of us breathed a collective sigh of relief. Finally, George W. Bush, with his for-us-or-against-us posture, was sitting politely on the sidelines, hands folded in his lap. The geo-political mood had finally shifted.

A religious pessimist’s reading of Obama

The world got goose bumps as Obama put his black hand on Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural Bible. Around the globe, billions of us breathed a collective sigh of relief. Finally, George W. Bush, with his for-us-or-against-us posture, was sitting politely on the sidelines, hands folded in his lap. The geo-political mood had finally shifted.

And the fact that a person of African descent had risen to the highest office in the world made us feel like history could indeed be healed. Humanity was breathing the fresh air of hope.

I too got goose bumps that January day when I walk into the local laundromat – the only place I really watch TV – and I realized Michelle Obama was about to pull out the holy historic Bible. Though I’m not American, I had been rooting for Obama since long before he announced his candidacy. And during the primaries, while visiting relatives in the Obamas’ Chicago neighbourhood, I made sure to take a picture of my infant son in front of the home of what I hoped was the next president. And finally, there, as the washing machines hummed and whirled, the grand moment was at hand.

Same old supremacy
But as I listened to Obama’s speech, I felt as if the rising tide of hope was leaving me behind. I had not expected to be irritated by Obama’s historic address. But I was. My feelings seemed so inappropriate, but as the hearts of billions swelled with hope, I was muttering under my breath.

I was bothered by the fundamental gist of the speech – that Americans need to pull together to remain great. There were other noble motifs of course, but the essence was a rally-the-troops style pep talk to a nation with greatness presumed to be in its DNA. “We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on earth,” Obama said, as though that were something to boast of in front of all the presumably lesser nations. He talked about “reaffirming the greatness of our nation.” And he denounced the “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”

Let me say what at least a few of us in the rest of world were thinking: A bit of decline may not be the worst thing, and the next generation better lower its sights. The world can’t afford this game of “richest, most powerful.”

It seems unbecoming to treat another nation’s business as my own, but less so when that nation so regularly makes the rest of the world’s business its own. And that trait has only changed slightly. In addressing “other peoples and governments who are watching,” Obama started well – “know that America is a friend of each nation” – but ended poorly – “and we are ready to lead once more.”

Watching the screen in that little laundromat on the Canadian prairies, I wondered, “Who exactly asked you to lead?” The lesson of the Bush years is not that America’s global glory needs to be regained, but that the goal of ascendancy itself is misguided. The U.S. will always play a prominent role in international affairs, but the presumptuousness in the “we will lead once more” statement is exactly what needs to be put aside. Obama did mention “humility and restraint” but there’s something about super-powered humility that is only partially convincing.

To swear on the beatitudes
The grand Obama moment was made even more uncomfortable for me by the religious bracketing of the speech. It started just after the Bible was centre-stage, and ended with three references to God, including the ultimate and compulsory religio-political benediction: “God Bless the United States of America.”

But does the narrative of “richest, most powerful” fit with religion? At one point, Obama heralded “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” If this God-given promise applies to all God’s children – not just Americans – then how can the U.S. guard its top spot and strive for equality at the same time? In contrast, Jesus’ story is one of descent to the point of identifying with “the least of these.”

As a person still clinging to Christianity – despite all it has been through these last eight years – I am troubled that Obama seems to believe America’s greatness is a divinely mandated destiny. Near the end of his address, he said, “This is the source of our confidence – the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Then, tack on a “God Bless the United States,” which still sounds odd to many of us out here, and it becomes clear that God is on America’s team. God supplies and sanctifies the nation’s affluence and influence.

The Bible upon which Obama swore his oath reserves a particular blessing for the poor, humble and powerless. Consider the biblical lines that would never make it into a presidential speech (in any country): “love your enemies,” “the last shall be first,” and from the beatitudes, “blessed are the poor” and “blessed are the meek.” My point is not that presidents should be preachers but that God is not in any country’s corner. And perhaps the parts of the biblical story that could never make their way onto a presidential tele-prompter indicate the exact elements that Christians should bring to the discourse of a nation.

Lobby for the Lord
Just as troubling to me as Obama’s mix of nation and God is the extent to which U.S. Christians are embracing this two-headed narrative. And again I find myself uncomfortably at odds with the prevailing sentiment, this time the hope of many progressive Christians in the U.S. They are headed by Jim Wallis of Sojourners. In the past, I have appreciated Wallis’s focus on poverty and peace and his attempt to broaden the faith-politics dialogue beyond hot-button issues. But his experience of the inauguration contrasted sharply with mine. In a gushing blog post about the historic events – including the private presidential prayer service he attended – Wallis says of Obama, “he talks differently – about almost everything… . The more I listen to [the speech], the better it gets.” He then compares the new Commander in Chief to the prophet Nehemiah.

Where I see a kinder manifest destiny, Wallis sees a super-powered bandwagon he’s eager to jump on. Wallis writes that faith leaders, including himself, had been “virtually inhabiting the offices of [Obama’s] Transition Team.” He counts Obama as a “friend” and has acted as advisor to senior Democrats. While the peace and justice goals of Wallis and company are commendable, the extent to which they’ve embedded the church’s mission in the most powerful organization on earth, and the extent to which they seem enamoured with power, smells too much like the power-hungry influence-peddling of the Religious Right.

In a recent press communique, Sojourners’ Deputy Press Secretary said of the unprecedented mobilization of the progressive Christian lobby, “This is the Religious Left filling the hole created by the decline of the Religious Right, but now we have the political power and ear of the White House.” They may bring the gospel of justice, but it hardly feels like the gospel of meekness. No longer rejecting identification as the Religious Left, Sojourners has allowed the narrative of power to seep into its mission, just as the Religious Right did.

I expect Wallis and company will do much good. Or maybe they’ll end up where the Religious Right did, feeling short-changed by their favoured power brokers. In either case, I’m left wishing the church would find a more creative role than to hit the back rooms of power in efforts to graft its social justice agenda onto Obama’s narrative of ascendancy.

Blessed greatness
And so, in the midst of this historic moment of possibility for Obama, justice-minded Christians and the world, I find myself on the wrong side of hope. As inappropriate as it feels, I’m a pessimist in a time of promise. Blessed prosperity and power remain at the heart of the U.S. narrative, and my fellow progressive Christians are jumping on a bandwagon ultimately guided by that narrative and the interests it serves.

There isn’t really a smooth way to end a pessimistic article – no Obama-esque crescendo, or Wallis-like rallying cry. All there is, perhaps, is a seemingly ridiculous belief in the story of a guy long ago who did not reach for levers of control or spearhead a political action campaign (though many wanted him to), but, rather, embraced meekness, gravitated to the bottom of society, and made his mark outside the walls of power.

Will Braun is editor of Geez _magazine and can be reached at will [at] geezmagazine.org

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