The Common Good

Inauguration Journal: Scattered Thoughts Over Four Days of History

Sojomail - January 22, 2009


Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

- Civil rights veteran Rev. Joseph Lowery, in his benediction to close the inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama. (Source: God's Politics)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Inauguration Journal: Scattered Thoughts Over Four Days of History

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It’s a better country than I thought it was. I honestly wouldn’t have thought this possible. I guess I would have agreed with the older generation of African Americans in my neighborhood: This day would never come in our lifetimes—but here it is.

For four decades, I’ve been fighting against all the bad stuff in America—the poverty, the racism, the human rights violations, and always the wars. At a deeper level, the arrogance, self-righteousness, materialism, and ignorance of the rest of the world, the habitual ignoring of the ones that God says we can’t, the ones Jesus calls the least of these.

From the time I got kicked out of my little white evangelical church as a young teenager, and plunged into the student movements of my generation, the issue that drove me was racism. Now the son of an African immigrant and a Kansas white woman has become president. I keep pinching myself.

And he talks differently—about almost everything.

I’ve known him for a decade, but I watched him grow as a leader all through this campaign, and now each day. I have never met a more self-disciplined political leader, with one exception—Nelson Mandela. And Mandela had the advantage of 27 years of spiritual formation in a South African prison.

I am used to White Houses who want to arrest me—22 times over 40 years. This White House wants our advice. Leaders from the faith community have been virtually inhabiting the offices of the Transition Team over the last weeks, with our advice being sought on global and domestic poverty, human rights, criminal justice, torture, faith-based offices, foreign policy, Gaza and the Middle East. A staffer joked one day, “We should have just gotten all of you bunks here.”

I took my two boys to the Opening Ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, which I thought was just going to be “a concert.” But it turned out to be a wonderfully musical civic lesson about the best of America, the history that has been a shining light to the world at our best, and one that has attracted the most diverse population on the earth. I watched my boys watch and listen, and even felt proud of my country for the first time in a very long time. Bono and Springsteen weren’t bad either, and Tom Hanks’ reading of Lincoln might have been the high point for me. Everybody was very happy and even hopeful.

Then on this year’s celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., one day before the inauguration of the nation’s first black president, one could almost feel the warmth of Martin’s smile. The freedom fighters of the civil rights movement who are still with us, like Congressman John Lewis, said that while the election of Barack Obama wasn’t the fulfillment of King’s dream, it was, nonetheless, a hefty down payment.

Joy and I were blessed to attend the private prayer service for the new president that began inauguration day for Barack and Michelle Obama. Then there was the swearing in, which was almost unbelievable as the world watched. And then the speech. The more I listen to it, the better it gets. Here was a leader who wanted us to face how serious our situation really is. What some have called the “fake optimism” that often attends such inaugurals wasn’t there, but rather a serous invitation to make the hard choice of hope, which has always been the strength of this nation when facing the most difficult times. And here was a leader who said this wasn’t really about him, but about us, and what we would decide to do together. He called for a “new era of responsibility.” And bridging the polarized left/right debates of the decades, it was clear that he meant both personal and social responsibility.

Read the speech a few times. But some of the highlights for me were:

That the national security strategy of Donald Rumsfeld will now be replaced by the wisdom of the prophet Micah—that our security depends upon other people’s security.

That the secret governance and detention centers of Dick Cheney will now be replaced by the rule of law and the renunciation of torture as not American after all.

That the money changers of the temples of Wall Street will be replaced with the call of the prophet Nehemiah to rebuild the broken walls and establish the common good.

And American “manifest destiny” will be replaced by a new relationship to the world, more characterized by “humility” (he actually said the word) and leading by American example more than by American domination.

In concert with and in challenge to the new president, Joseph Lowery prayed:

Help us then, now , Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and no one shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

The opportunity that has always been the American promise must now be extended to all, including those at the bottom of the economy, said the new president, who also pledged that the poor of the world would not be abandoned anymore.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

He also gave a stern warning to the country about the results of misplaced policies and priorities.

This crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

Obama sometimes did sound like the prophet Nehemiah, who after he carefully surveyed the broken walls of the temple, called the people together to start the rebuilding and to “commit themselves to the common good.”

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

Afterwards, as we were leaving the Capitol, my son Luke whispered in my ear, “Yes, we did.”

Simply put, these last few days were a moment of answered prayers for me—the prayers of decades.

Participating in the Presidential Prayer Service at the National Cathedral was a fitting end to the week’s inaugural events. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus stood to pray for the president as the first family sat just a few feet away.

It was acknowledged that it was time now for the new president to go to work. And so should the religious community. Our job now is to offer prayers and support for the new president, as we did in the Cathedral yesterday. But it will also be our job, our prophetic religious responsibility in fact, to offer challenge when necessary, as it certainly will be for this president like all presidents before him. But I think this president has the capacity to understand that challenge can be the deepest form of support.

So let our work begin.

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