New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
This is a time of transition between
Presidents, but even more so it is a time of transition between
generations. Our country celebrated
Martin Luther King Jr. last weekend, and he very much felt like God had taken
him to the mountain top, to see and dream of all that could be for his people:
the oppressed, people of color, and all those who could not fully participate in
the American dream. He knew that
his generation would not live to see our society transformed, but he trusted it
would be transformed. Barack Obama,
and at least some people in his generation, speak of themselves as the Joshua
generation, able to enter into this land of milk and honey as full participants
in the American dream, made possible by the faith, leadership and sacrifices of
that generation that came before them.
But they dare not enter into this new role as victors, lording it over
those who have held power here before them, but rather seek to transform our
very basis of power so that we are all blessed.
And it is hard to imagine any person
better suited by personal history and temperament to lead us all in this
transformation. While his
grandfather fought in WWII, his grandmother worked as Rosie the riveter at the
Boeing plant in Wichita,
KS. They later joined the East Shore
Unitarian Church in Bellevue, WA; so when Obama says he learned his
core values from his beloved grandmother, those were UU [Unitarian Universalist] values. In his “Call to Renewal” Obama says, “In
our household, the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf
alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas my mother might
drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese
New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and the ancient Hawaiian burial
sites.” He says he leaned that
“underlying these religions was a common set of beliefs about how you treat
other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself, but also for the
greater good.” He describes his
mother’s beliefs as secular humanism.
His father, and his step-father, both grew up as liberal Muslims, and
while living in Indonesia Barack Obama was educated for two years at a Muslim
school and attended the mosque with his step-father. He also attended Catholic school for two
years in Indonesia. Most of his adult life Barack
Obama has worshipped at Trinity United Church of Christ, which is the largest
black UCC [United Church of Christ] church in America, where he converted, married,
and adopted his postmodern Christianity.
This is another generational
transition. While most Americans
over the age of 50, regardless of religious affiliation, hold a modernist view
of reality, many Americans under the age of 50, regardless of religious
affiliation, tend to a postmodernist view.
So being a postmodernist Christian, Barack Obama seeks to achieve common
ground and a common understanding with like minded folks whether they be
Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Evangelicals, or Jews. In his book “The Audacity of Hope”,
Obama derives his pro-choice position from his Christian faith, though he
recognizes that many Christians are unable to do so. He prefaces his discussion of civil
unions and gay marriage the same way.
He says, “For many practicing Christians, the same inability to
compromise may apply to gay marriage.
I find such a position troublesome, particularly in a society in which
Christian men and women have been known to engage in adultery or other
violations of their faith without civil penalty. All too often I have sat in a church and
heard a pastor gay bashing as a cheap parlor trick—‘It was Adam and Eve, not
Adam and Steve!’ he will shout, usually when the sermon is not going so
well.” Obama continues: “I believe that American society can
choose to carve out a special place for the union of a man and a woman as the
unit of child rearing most common to every culture. I am not willing to have the state deny
American citizens a civil union that confers equivalent rights on such basic
matters as hospital visitation or health insurance coverage simply because the
people they love are of the same sex—nor am I willing to accept a reading of
the Bible that considers an obscure line in Romans to be more defining of
Christianity than the Sermon on the Mount.” Obama’s postmodern Christianity informs
his liberal politics, and he is able to reach out to a Rev. Warren, a
post-modern Evangelist, and find common ground. I was surprised however when Rick Warren
got far more grief from fundamentalists for agreeing to do the invocation at
Obama’s Inauguration than President Obama got from gay rights activists for
inviting Warren to pray. With
America still deeply divided over
social and cultural issues, finding common ground on which to base government
policies will be difficult, but not impossible, if we are to be one people. When Barrack Obama’s parents were
married, over 80% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriages and they
were illegal in most American states.
Today 80% of Americans are fine with interracial marriages and they are
legal in all 50 states.
If we are going to find common ground
on same sex marriage in this generation, it will be by persuading post-modern
Christians that such belief can be consistent with the teachings of Jesus. I am not concerned that in reaching for
the consensus middle that Barack Obama is not there yet. After all in Lincoln’s first inaugural address Lincoln said, “I have no
purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in
the States where it exists. I
believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do
so.” Yet it was not three years
later that Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address and then signed the Thirteenth Amendment
fully outlawing slavery in the USA. The path may still be long, but it feels
like we are on the way.
For old lefties and liberals, who have
been waiting eight years in the wilderness for a return to power, it can be
devastating to discover that President Obama seeks to be the President of all
the people, not just progressive people, and seems to seek to govern from the
middle rather than from liberal positions that he held as a US Senator. This is good for our society, even if it
requires patience for our politics.
It is time to reunite this land.
We need to become once again the United States of America.
And we should keep in mind that
President Obama is not a Biblical prophet, thank goodness, but is a Chicago politician. He is a shrewd operator, one who knows
how to make deals. As a
politician he will seek to build a composite majority for his policies. Those majorities will not always be
willing to support what we (or even he) might feel are right and necessary. But the President’s role is to build an
emergent community around what is possible, rather than what is simply
preferable. The role of prophet,
crying in the wilderness, is not and cannot be his to do. We still need prophets, willing to cry
out on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and especially those who do not have a
voice in the councils of power, but Obama is not that person. Like all
politicians, indeed all human beings, he has feet of clay. Now it happens that in earlier times,
when constructing great commemorative statues, it wasn’t always desirable to
construct the entire figure from the most expensive and durable metals; fine
metals were rare and could make a statue prohibitively expensive. So the head might be the finest gold,
the torso silver, the legs of steel, and if metals or money ran low, the feet
might be of the cheapest iron and clay that could be smelted. Such a figure might look great but would
be inherently unstable since should something shatter the feet then the whole
edifice with all its dreams and glories will then come crashing
This image is famously portrayed in
the book of Daniel, but can be applied to anyone who holds great power, for
Daniel in chapter 2:31-35 interprets the king’s dream for him as follows: “You were looking, O king, and lo
there was a great statue. This
statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you and
its appearance was frightening. The
head of that statue was of fine gold, its chests and arms of silver, its middle
and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of
clay. As you looked on, a stone was
cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and
clay and broke them to pieces. Then
the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in
pieces.” American politics, by its
very nature, deals with composites, some of which are grand, but which are
vulnerable to toppling. Now having feet of clay is fine as long as you are
struggling, up to your hips in the muck and mire, so that your struggles on
behalf of a great cause sustain you, and hip deep in muck and mire no one ever
much notices or cares what your feet are like. However raise that same figure up onto a
pedestal, and hose them down until they are pristine without a trace of the muck
and mire remaining, and that statue is enormously vulnerable. Let’s not put Obama up on a pedestal,
lest he become overly vulnerable, but let him govern deep in the muck and the
mire that is Washington politics.
This is an extraordinary moment in
time, one that will fascinate historians for many years to come, but it is just
one moment. Americans as a people
are still very much a work in progress.
Obama said in his inaugural address: “We know that our patchwork heritage is a
strength, not a weakness. We are a
nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and
culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the
bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter
stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall
someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world
grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must
play its role in ushering in a new era of peace… For the world has changed, and
we must change with it.” Are we
prepared to change and be changed by grappling with this new generation? Unitarian Universalists are uniquely
prepared to rise to this call for a new America. As part of this society, we have our
share of having created this problem, we ought to share in its solution. To do so we keep our eyes fixed upon the
beloved community that we seek to build, and always remember that it is our hope, our faith and our love which ultimately make the
realization of our dreams
possible. As the Protestant
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us: “Nothing that is worth doing can be
achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or
good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we
must be saved by faith. Nothing we
do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by
love.” We enter this age with the audacity of
hope, the consolation of faith, and the certainty of love incarnate in
community. I love you all
dearly. Blessed Be and Amen.
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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