Thursday, January 13, 2011

A theological speech? Yes. A Christian one? Not exactly

Conor Williams argues that in Tucson last night the President made a case for "a deeply theological understanding of human beings." I would agree with that -- but Obama's public theology is not Christianized in quite the way Williams would have us believe.

In characterizing Obama's metaphysics, Williams substitutes one term for another:
Taking the podium in front of thousands (but really, millions) of scared, confused citizens, the President made a case for a deeply theological understanding of human beings. Start with sin. Obama repeatedly stressed that crises like the Arizona shooting are inexorable proof of the presence of evil in the world.

It's true that Obama does point to the persistence of evil in the world -- here and elsewhere,  notably in his Nobel Prize speech. But while he did exhort us all to be better last night, he never mentioned sin.

To do so might violate his own ground rules for bringing religious values into the public sphere: they must be universalized:

What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason (The Audacity of Hope).
Recognizing the persistence of evil, recognizing that each of us can always strive to be better and always recognize our own shortcomings, is within the bounds of a universal appeal. Referencing sin drags in the Christian doctrine of the Fall -- which, for Williams, suggests a kind of radical brake on the aspiration for a just society in which suffering is radically diminished. To continue with Williams' paragraph cited above:
For many of us—and perhaps progressives are particularly susceptible to this disease—we too-easily imagine that with one more legal or institutional tweak, we might solve many of our political problems for good. Americans are a can-do people (a truism, I know) which leads us to think of politics the way that we think of vaccines: with a change in strategy, we might end racism just like we ended smallpox. The President refused to indulge the audience in these sorts of illusions. This is not our final national tragedy. We will hurt and be hurt again.

Obama would agree that human society cannot be absolutely perfected.  But to whatever degree he has (or has not) internalized the Christian doctrine of sin, in the public sphere he detheologizes it.  In fact he threads a rhetorical/theological needle with his favorite trope, a paradox:
In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.
"A More Perfect Union" was the title of Obama's great speech on race in March 2008. The premise was that the principles expressed in the Constitution have not been fulfilled but are in process of being fulfilled -- that what distinguishes America is the country's constant progress toward fulfilling them:
This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. 
This paradox -- always perfecting, never perfected -- allows us to have our cake and eat it. We can acknowledge the persistence of evil without denying the possibility that our society can be continually improved.

I don't know where Williams' image of a false idea of ending racism "just like we ended smallpox" comes from.  But I would be very surprised if Obama does not believe that the United States mightn't ultimately end racism -- at least, institutional racism.  Perhaps he would agree that the impulse to harshly pre-judge those from another tribe will never quite be eradicated. But Obama is a can-do President -- to be elected in the U.S., you have to be, and it's difficult to fake it. Yes we can.

I do think that a passage from Christian scripture, unspoken, haunts the Tucson speech like a shadow limb. It embodies Christian ethics, though, not metaphysics, and so could inhabit an Obama speech as comfortably as "put away childish things" or his standby favorite, "we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper." It's this: Let he who is without blame cast the first stone:
But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family – especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?

So sudden loss causes us to look backward – but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others. 
That is where this speech pressed the numinous button for me.  And then, upping the spiritual ante, another bit of shadow scripture: love your neighbor as yourself (or as your family, in any case):
That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions – that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires. For those who were harmed, those who were killed – they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but we surely see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis – she's our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America's fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.

And in Christina…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.

So deserving of our love.
"We are family" sounds corny. But the novelist in Obama had brought those people before us one by one. And the event, strangely enough, had brought enough surviving actors in the assault before us to increase the audience's experience of witness. When Obama evoked a family of 300 million, the magic worked.

Of course, if you want to walk the whole Christian mile, you'd have to tell the congregation to love Jared Loughner too.   Not even Barack Obama could pull that one off. With the families still grieving, I'd hate to see anyone try.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew-
    Thanks for taking my post seriously! Really enoyed reading yours. I'm working on some thoughts in response!