Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
President Obama: Keep Faith
by Rick Lowery
My wife, Sharon Watkins, was on her cell phone praying with the president and a handful of other pastors as I shepherded her and our luggage through security at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. We were on our way home after several weeks in Beirut, having finished our time in the Middle East with a week of meetings between American Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders and people in Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel working for Middle East peace. It was a few minutes before midnight -- mid-afternoon Washington time -- two days before Christmas.
The United States Senate was in the final stretch of its long and messy march toward passage of a landmark health care bill that hopefully will guarantee health security for the vast majority of Americans and serve as the framework for truly universal coverage. Within hours the bill would stand for the constitutionally mandated simple majority vote, having earlier garnered the sixty-vote supermajority required by the Senate's bizarre rules to allow senators to vote on vital legislation.
Several days before, our male and female Jewish, Christian, and Muslim group had knelt in Friday prayers at the Mosque of Moses just outside Jericho, where tradition says the immigrant leader Moses looked across the border into a promised land he could not enter. Later, in south Jerusalem on Shabbat, we shared a joyous liturgy of prayer and song with Kehilat Kol HaNeshama, a progressive Jewish community committed to democracy and social justice. Earlier on the day we flew home from Ben-Gurion, we slipped briefly into Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. Each of us -- Muslim, Christian, Jew -- gathered for a quiet moment around the site where, according to ancient Christian tradition, a homeless teenage political refugee, Mary, gave birth to Jesus, who, though brutally murdered by Roman imperial authorities, would soon be celebrated as "the Prince of Peace." It was a fitting end to our monthlong sabbatical exploring this question: how can our diversity be a source of unity and strength in situations of conflict?
I can't say anything specific about my wife's prayer time with the president -- as a matter of principle, she doesn't publicly discuss it. But I am confident that the prayers offered by the pastors with the president on that day and others echoed, in various ways, a point she made in her sermon at President Obama's inauguration: in these challenging times, we need the president to hold to his moral center.
Whatever the November election means for White House political strategy going forward, I am convinced that this exhortation is even more important now. President Obama must hold to his moral center and call the nation to do the same. He must articulate a moral vision for our country that is rooted in a deep commitment to a common good that includes support for the most vulnerable -- the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the hard-working laborer vulnerable to exploitation.
In the president's Christian tradition, this focus finds its clearest example in the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus, a ministry that stands squarely in the justice traditions of Jesus's own Jewish faith, powerfully articulated in the pages of the Torah and prophets. It is a tradition also reflected in A Common Word Between Us and You, the groundbreaking declaration issued in 2007 by 138 Muslim scholars, clerics, and intellectuals from around the world. It describes the shared commitment of Muslims and Christians to the love of God and the love of neighbor and proposes this as the foundation for our common life together. That commitment, of course, is shared, perhaps in slightly different formulations, by Americans of many religious, spiritual, and non-religious stripes.
From pre-biblical times, the hospitality-based cultures of the ancient Middle East obligated all people to provide assistance to those in need, to give food and drink to travelers, and to do so without concern for personal gain or economic advantage. The biblical traditions that stand at the heart of Western legal and political philosophy adopted these broad Middle Eastern values and enhanced them.
The biblical obligation to care for others is explicitly connected to our shared humanity and our creation "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:26). There is, in the biblical idiom, something fundamentally sacred about human being. When we look on the face of another, we catch a glimpse of God.
In President Obama's Christian tradition, this conviction is best expressed in the vision of the "final judgment" in Matthew 25: "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?"
"I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me!" (New Revised Standard Version, Matthew 25:37-40).
We are responsible to one another because we are bound together as the family of God. We are descended from a common divine parent. We are flesh-and-blood kin. We belong to each other.
Though in biblical tradition everyone has a responsibility to care for other members of God's universal human family, people who have greater political power and wealth are charged with special obligations in this regard -- the wealthy and kings, most of all.
Americans decided to put "the people" in the role formerly occupied by kings and queens.
To the extent that America stands in a moral tradition rooted in biblical values, we the people are obligated to provide for the protection and care of the vulnerable, our own flesh-and-blood. All human life is sacred. And vulnerable human life deserves particular attention and care. Americans, like people of faith everywhere, take care of each other. It's just what decent people do.
The president's Christian faith compels him to seek common ground with his political opponents in our shared desire to provide a secure and prosperous life for the nation, especially for those who are poor and vulnerable. It requires him to seek strength in our diversity, to explore solutions that bridge the partisan divide.
Seeking common ground must not be mistaken, however, for compromise of principle.
Proposals that require us to cut basic security for the economically and socially vulnerable so people who are already rich can get richer still are immoral. On that score, there is no room for compromise, not much else to say.
I have no cell phone connection with the White House, but my prayer for the president in this new political season is that he will seek common ground with his opponents and that he will listen to their wisdom and be open to new ideas about how to solve the problems that vex us, but that he will never compromise on the fundamentals of his Christian faith, our shared American value to love our neighbor, support the vulnerable poor, and call the rich and powerful to meet their obligation to the common good.
Rev. Dr. Rick Lowery teaches the Hebrew Bible at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla., and Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky. His wife, Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, serves as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.
Source Citation: Lowery, Rick. 2011. President Obama: Keep Faith. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.