Obama’s Change Paradox

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Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, by Marco Palmezzano (Uffizi, Florence), painting ca. 1490

By John R. Talbott

The press is happy this week. They love a good fight and President Obama has finally come out swinging. He’s accused Republicans of deceiving the public, working against the good of the country and unpatriotic behavior. He seems to have lost his wimpiness and finally stood up for something.

David Brooks and I are sad.

Brooks is sad because he wanted Obama to follow through on seriousness, constructive engagement, compromise and integrity. He wanted Obamaism to represent real change. He wanted Obama to be a kind of messiah. Except to denigrate, though, no one ever calls Obama messianic any more. Is this because Obama actually reflects some characteristics of a messiah?

“Messiah” is an inherently religious word that refers to a redeemer figure, and “messianic” refers to the power to bring improvement of the state of humanity. Islam, Judaism and Christianity have many messiah figures, but most of us are familiar with Jesus being called Messiah by the Jews of his time. People expected messiahs to bring about political improvement and to lead battles against oppressors, but Jesus didn’t do what they expected. He began his public ministry with a new “ten commandments” which don’t sound much like a political rallying cry. In fact, they sound a bit wimpy.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Matthew 5:3-12)

Jesus did not last long saying things like this. He made people very uncomfortable. They could not see overthrowing Rome with these words. In three years, the people turned on him and sent him to his death just as they had so many before him.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not see these words as passive. He saw them as the foundation for non-violence and the avenue for the only real change in the state of humanity. These words bring hope because they speak of a better day where people do live together in peace.
These words speak change. But violence always resists people who speak these words and many, like Jesus and Dr. King, wind up dead.

I do not want to compare Obama to Jesus. Since his brilliant speech in March 2008 about race in America, he has been quiet about his religious life and has refused any religious branding. I’m glad for that because I’m actually scared of politicians who take on Christianity or Islam or Judaism as a brand (especially when they do it with a gun in their hand).

What I want to know is whether Obama’s vision for America was influenced by these words. Does he value compromise because he knows that poverty of spirit is a better way than the poisoned politics of Washington today? Is he willing to be meek because he believes that a proud fight will just destroy the earth? If so, he disappoints his base and brings glee to his enemies. Every day, we hear words from all quarters asking him to fight for what is right and give up his dream of reconcilliation. It seems he is listening, and now he’s fighting. Does this mean that his hope is dying? Have we killed it?

John R Talbott is an elder in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. He is also working on a sustainable management MBA at the Presidio Graduate School.

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4 responses

  1. John,
    I am also disappointed in some ways, and yet I also recall that the fight for justice sometimes calls for pointed words. President Obama’s calling out of the GOP candidates for failing to stand up for a gay service member was the right thing to do. Jesus was also said to have used speeches to call others (especially the Pharisees, who were known for their holier-than-thou attitudes) on their hypocrisy. The willingness to engage in dialogue, keeping the door open, tells me that Obama’s perspective hasn’t changed, just that more pointed words were needed.
    And to switch to your boxing analogy, it was getting very hard to watch opponents hit over and over with no counter. I think he verbally gave them bloody noses, at least.

  2. The literature is pretty clear. The only thing people with firmly held beliefs respect is other firmly held beliefs and willingness to fight for them.

    This article smacks of tone trolling.

    Bronze age goat herder myths are just that, myths. Why not any of the 6,999 other supernatural myths, including Dungeons and Dragons?

    This article also completely destroyed my irony detector since Obama’s opponents are putatively Christians.

    Let’s see them turn the other cheek first.

    1. Sunsetbeachguy – I happen to believe that my beliefs about what is right and wrong, whether informed by faith or other beliefs, should inform how I vote, candidates I support, and causes I support. Is that “religion in politics”?

      Also, to your earlier post, you’re right that assertions to believe in Christian values are refuted by actions from many. When they used to assert “what would Jesus do?”, I’d laugh and think that Jesus would have been appalled at their actions.

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