19 January 2009

Reflections on the eve of an inauguration

The article below will be going to the editor of a joint Methodist Church and Anglican parish magazine tomorrow morning (20 January 2009).  This article is not meant to be a 'spiritual reflection'. It is an attempt to reflect as a Christian on world events and to show that our Christian faith and values can be brought to bear on our 'real lives'. I'm happy to hear any comments you might have about the article itself. American readers might find some comments odd as they reflect some British ideas you might not recognise (one comment I'm hearing a lot is that 'Barack Obama is not really African-American because his mother is white'). Anyway, here is the article:


I'm writing this article the day before Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. I hope that this reflection will be neither too political nor too much about the man himself but rather offer some ways that a Christian might reflect on world events. I ask you to indulge me as this article will not be what some would term 'spiritual'. However, as Christians we believe that God is everywhere and this means that we can use our values to reflect on the world around us as well as on our 'spiritual lives'.

I'll start by saying what you'll guess soon enough anyway: I'm very pleased that Barack Obama has been elected and I'm looking forward to returning to the United States under his Presidency in what promises to be a very challenging time for both the United States and the world.

This leads me to my first observation. President Obama has conducted an inspiring election campaign and he has captured the imagination of many Americans: African-Americans, Latino-Americans, younger Americans and Americans who are inspired by values of broad liberalism and tolerance. He has demonstrated that he is an exceedingly intelligent man who intends to appoint expert office-holders in key positions and he is an excellent communicator (dare I say 'preacher'?).

However, I hope that both America and the world remember that he is not the Messiah. Well, you'd expect a Christian minister to say that, wouldn't you? But actually, I'm serious. You already know the warnings in the bible not to put one's faith in Rome (the government, the established order, those who wield power) for salvation, so I will simply remind you of those warnings.

At a more down-to-earth level, no single man, no single government is going to be able to turn around the current world economic situation in one four-year Presidential term. It appears to me that our present age is still looking for quick fixes and short term solutions. I get the impression that we hope we've elected a Superman who bash all the bad-guys and make our problems go away. 'Patience' is one of the fruits of the Spirit and it seems to be something which society lacks these days. It is going to take patience and the diligent hard work of 'service' that Obama is calling for to change the current course of the world economy.

That leads me to my second observation. Pray for Obama's safety. I get the impression that some British people are bemused by worries surrounding the possibility of assassination, perhaps because British Prime Ministers do not tend to have threats made on their lives. I believe that there is a heightened possibility that attempts will be made on Obama's life. Not only by those who may be disappointed that there is no quick fix for current problems, but also because of the very powerful symbolism invested in being the first African-American President. (It doesn't matter that he's half white; any black heritage at all was grounds for discrimination in the past.)

This is my third observation: the powerful symbolism of being the first African-American President. As an American, I don't feel that I can fully communicate to British people just what a powerful symbol this is. I suspect that African-Americans feel that, as a white person, I can't grasp the full power of the symbol either.

As one weeping woman on television said, 'This is the first time in my life that I have real hope that my children can be anything they want to be.' Perhaps a Christian would say 'This is the first time in my life that I have real hope that my children can be what God created them to be.' As a Christian, can one do anything but weep to think that there have been - that there are still - people who know that they cannot fully be the person who God created them to be? And not just African-Americans, of course.

We too can identify people suffering similar injustices in our own town and country. We can, however, also thank God every time a barrier of discrimination falls because it is another defeat for the powers and principalities. And perhaps we can get a new insight into the Gospel - into what it meant to excluded people when Jesus recognised them as fully human and as beloved children of God. Perhaps we can get an insight into how we ourselves can be good news when we are able to see the full humanity in each individual.

My last observation is that of Barack Obama's call to 'service'. The day on which I write is not only the day before the election, it is also Martin Luther King day. A public holiday that was begun with the idea that people would set aside their daily work to perform voluntary service for others. I'm reminded of a black-and-white television clip that I saw many times when I was a child: John F. Kennedy saying 'Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.'

Such a sentiment does not have to be confined to one country, of course. I can very well imagine Jesus saying 'Ask not what your neighbour can do for you. Ask what you can do for your neighbour.' It is my hope and prayer that the election of Obama means more than the election of a capable, intelligent African-American individual to the Office of President of the United States. I hope that the American people have also seen a vision of putting others first and that we have 'elected' to change our values from self-interest to service, from racism to full human dignity for all people and from quick fixes to diligent hard work.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pam,

This is excellent. Thanks for sharing.

In regards to the 'African-American' label, Gwen Ifill on 'Meet the Press' said that since he assumed that label himself (along with all that it represents), that is the label he can be identified with - regardless that he is half-white (or Euro-American or whatever).

Olive Morgan said...

Thanks, Pam.

You might like to pop over to http://lifeattheriverbank.blogspot.com to see what two UMC ministers at present (until May) serving in the UK have written on this.

Amy said...

Thank you, Pam, for this excellent reflection! You balance wonderfully the American perspective in a British context!

PamBG said...

Thanks, Amy for your kind words.

Doorman-Priest said...

Very thoughtful. I appreciated this post very much.

Peter Kirk said...

I suspect that the greatest danger of assassination will come from those who consider him an apostate from their religion, as well as a potential threat to the lands and people of that religion. It does not matter to them that he has never professed the religion, as for them he was born into it. So by exercising his freedom of religion in another direction he became in their eyes an apostate and, by their religious law, liable to the death penalty.

PamBG said...

Possibly Peter. I might be out of touch as I've been away from the US for 20 years but, personally speaking, I have a far greater belief in the racism of your average American fanatic. But an assassination is an assassination and something that I pray doesn't happen.

Sally said...

Well said Pam, and having lived in Texas for 4 years only 10 years ago I agree that racism is probably still a greater threat.

John said...

However, I hope that both America and the world remember that he is not the Messiah

Yeah, this sentiment is all over the place. I didn't vote for him, but I wish him the best, will call him "Mr. President", and expect him to be nothing more than an average politician.

I hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Anonymous said...

Peter Kirk is under the mistaken belief (held by far too many) that Obama was ever a Muslim. Apostasy only applies to those who convert, but Obama was never a Muslim. His FATHER was a Muslim who became an athiest. HE could be considered an apostate by Islamic fanatics. But Obama was raised without faith. His adult conversion to Christianity was not from Islam, but from atheism.

Meanwhile, both racism and political violence are alive and well here in the USA.