Friday, April 2, 2010

Mr. President

The first time I ever heard of Barack Obama was from a flyer on the wall of a hipster designer's office on the third floor of a building at my alma mater, a private Christian liberal arts university in British Columbia, Canada.

It was in the early summer of 2008, and I was popping in for one last visit with my photographer friend Mike Rathjen when I saw the words "Going On Vacation?" plastered across a sheet of computer paper on the next cubicle over. It continued, "Barack Obama Will Water Your Plants For You!" There were four more of the home-made flyers, each of which touted some ludicrous thing that Barack Obama was going to do to make your life easier.

That was not, obviously, the last I would hear of Mr. Obama. Shortly thereafter, I moved down across the border and back to North Carolina. I began to hear his name jubilantly spoken all over - often from the sorts of people whom I  generally experienced as being thoughtful, concerned folks who loved truth and justice and tried hard to conform their lives to love. However, there was a tone and tenor to their adulation of Obama that often felt to me to be a little too close to that of those flyers - overblown to the point where I began to wonder if it wasn't all perhaps one big joke. I was suspicious of these almost-crazed cries of adoration, because Mr. Barack Obama is a politician.

As time went on, it became apparent that he had a fairly good shot at the oval office. As much as I don't like politicians, I do think it is important to know as much as you can about the world around you, so one day in the grocery store I picked up his book, "Dreams from My Father" and started to read.

Now, as you may know, I like words. I especially like them when someone with some real skill has arranged them into sentences, paragraphs and chapters that let me peak into the arranger's soul. When this happens, I get to feeling like I know the person, and I begin to trust them. This is what a good writer does - he or she earns your trust. The more I read, the more I liked this Obama guy... and the more I understood why some of my friends were dancing giddy circles at his political success. Still, it was political success they were talking about. And politicians, as you know, are weasels.

I wanted to know more, so I got Obama's second book, too. And I still liked him.

Then I began to hear other strident, exuberant voices. Except these voices were screaming about how much they hated the man. They said things... horrible things. They called him a liar and a snake. They hurled racial epithets. They claimed he was a muslim terrorist. When that was debunked, they claimed he wasn't an American citizen, and when that was debunked, they claimed a whole bunch of other things that also reminded me of some posters on the wall of an office cubicle in Canada.

It was all so crazy, so farcical, so... insane. Could he really be as inherently evil as many people were beginning to claim?

I had read Barack Obama's books and had come to the conclusion that he was an honest man who was trying to be a good politician. He was a pragmatist, though, which meant that he believed that sometimes you had to do things you didn't like in order to get what you really wanted. I understood this because I, too, make compromises (as, I would argue, does everyone with their eyes open who tries to live justly in a thoroughly unjust and broken world). For example, I am almost pathologically opposed to the consumption of fast food. I not only believe that it is gross, tasteless, over-salted-and-sugared garbage, but I also think it is wrong to cast a vote in its favor by eating it. Nonetheless, I ate fast food yesterday. I did it because three of my male colleagues at work were going to grab a bite to celebrate the beginning of our spring break, and I wanted to be a part of that. I valued community over my own tastes and opinions, so I ate some horse manure. And I had a good time doing it, too.

I make these little compromises all the time, and even though I feel that I ought to be stronger - ought to stand for my beliefs without any failing, ever - I don't generally let myself get too worked up about it. I try to be stronger, but it is a screwed up world and I am in it. Still, it's hard not to get a bit incensed when other people - people with some serious power - make these sorts of compromises in order to get things done. I want to judge them as harshly for this as many of my friends, students, and family seem so eager to do.

But I keep remembering that politicians are people, too. They are screw-ups, yes. But they are also trying to get by and get things done in a system that is inherently flawed. A four-year election cycle is fine when the average person has some modicum of integrity and a love of truth and their fellow man... but this is America, people! We eat, breathe and sleep a mantra of ME! ME! ME! We chase titillation and selfish pleasure and react with fear-driven anger when any of the conveniences we've come to expect are in the slightest way threatened. This is at least ostensibly a democracy, and we are getting exactly what we pay for.

850 million people in the world are malnourished.

Eight Hundred and Fifty Million.

EIGHT HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILLION.

In my faith-paradigm, that is eight hundred and fifty million image-bearers of God walking (or crawling) the face of this earth without enough food to fill their bellies. Fifty million children die EVERY YEAR of malnutrition-related causes.

I am afraid you are going to have to pardon me if I do not get spitting mad because one man, in one white house, actually acts like the politician he is and occasionally fudges on his principles in order to get things done in a hostile, vicious, overly-partisan environment where a large portion of the electorate doesn't care about all those starving kids and only cares about destroying their enemies, maintaining the status quo, and ensuring that they get as many privileges with as few responsibilities as possible.

I like Barack Obama. I like him for the artfulness of his words. I like him because he's black and I think his current position strikes a pretty potent blow against the racism that nearly makes me want to vomit when I hear it spewing out of the mouths of everyone from small children to adults. I like him because he seems to be trying to do something.

I do not like his office. I do not like the game he is playing. I do not like politics, and I do not like a democracy run by selfishness.When he got up to give his Inaugural Address, I was praying fervently that he would walk up to that podium, get on his knees, and with tears in his eyes confess to the world the sins of this country. He did not, because if he had, his Presidency would have been over. This is, after all, a democracy of selfishness.

Instead, he did what politicians do and told everyone how awesome they all were, and how they were going to continue to win the game of international Risk they were playing. I understand why he did this. I don't know if, in his position, I would have done differently. America is a great place. As broken and selfish and obnoxious as its people are, there is also so much good in all of them (yes, you liberal snobs, in those backwards, opinionated rednecks you like to sanctimoniously mock, too), and so much power and potential to reverse our many ugly trends and impact the world with love. I do believe in the potential of this country, but in the words of Bono, "if you want to touch the sky, you've got to learn how to kneel."

Instead of kneeling, however, we put up our fists and look for someone to fight. We hate and we kill, exchanging the impossible dream of the Upside-Down Kingdom of Love for the tawdry facsimile of a cardboard castle of self-righteousness and scapegoating.

I will not worship Barack Obama. Neither will I refuse to listen to anyone who ever says anything bad about him. For all I know, he likes to torture small furry animals for fun. He's just a man - a man in perhaps one of the worst jobs I could possibly imagine - and I refuse to put my faith in some mere mortal. I think it is just as dangerous, however, to direct my hate towards some mere mortal. The darkness resides in all of us, and I think it far more useful to expend my energy and emotions in a direction where it might do some good... inwards.


If I can do that - if I can honestly face my own lapses of integrity and faith - then it is just possible that in the stillness of my self-reflection a real change might occur. It is just possible that when that happens, in my own very small way I will have changed America. 

As I have felt again and again the frenetic energy of hate that seems to be seething towards a boil in this country, I have repeatedly returned to the words of that classic Eagles song, "Learn to be Still". So once again I will let art speak more beautifully and well than I ever could with mere prose the call that I, for one, am trying to learn to heed...


Learn to Be Still

It's just another day in paradise
As you stumble to your bed
You'd give anything to silence
Those voices ringing in your head
You thought you could find happiness
Just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied
But you never will-
Learn to be still

We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don't know how to be alone
So we wander 'round this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
And one more starry-eyed messiah
Meets a violent farewell-
Learn to be still
Learn to be still

Now the flowers in your garden
They don't smell so sweet
Maybe you've forgotten
The heaven lying at your feet

-solo-

There are so many contridictions
In all these messages we send
(we keep asking)
How do I get out of here
Where do I fit in?
Though the world is torn and shaken
Even if your heart is breakin'
It's waiting for you to awaken
And someday you will-
Learn to be still
Learn to be still

You just keep on runnin'
Keep on runnin' 

5 comments:

  1. I'm also intrigued by the infatuation with and against President Obama. Today I was thinking about how the American political arena has those claiming to be Christian operating in the most unChristian of ways.

    On Facebook I'm bombarded with statements such as this from today: "Just saw Air Force One land at CLT! (don't really care for the man onboard, but the plane is AWESOME!)" This is from a professed Christian that doesn't care for a man but loves a machine. This is patently ridiculous, but what is even more so is that this person does not see himself as being inconsistent with his professed faith.

    Thanks for eating lunch with us yesterday. Gotta love the Cookout!

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  2. I loved the writing in this but I would like to pose a question, there is a lot of talk about people and how bad and wrong it is for them to be judging...isn't that just judging these people in return for their judgments?

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  4. To attempt to answer your question, Anonymousface:

    There is a difference between making a judgement on a certain course of action (which is how everybody processes life) and making a judgement which implicitly argues the inferiority of another person.

    Love & Wisdom say: I disagree with you, so let me try to show you that you're wrong, even as I admit that I'm no better than you.

    Contempt says: This thing that you have done has proven that you are inferior to me. There is no reasoning with people like you, so let me spew vitriolic hatred in your direction. This is perhaps the most popular course of action these days.

    The way of love and wisdom is, of course, ludicrous. Only insane people would follow it. I like being insane. I tend to think, though, that in an insane world it is the madmen who have the corner on truth.

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  5. Brilliant! I love the last few sentences of the last comment!

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