Barack Obama

Original post: January 21, 2008. I thought I’d repost this as an interesting insight into some of my thoughts when I was introducing then-Senator Obama to (and trying to win over) friends and family who had never heard of him.

When I arrived in the US in the summer of 2006, I had never even heard the name of Barack Hussein Obama. That changed within a month of being here. A friend of mine, shocked at my ignorance, directed me to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Obama was the keynote speaker. I watched the video. I was blown away.

[You can read the transcript here.]

Here was a man who inspired me to believe in hope for the future, even at a time when we were still entrenched in Iraq, chasing the wind of Al Qaeda and catching nothing, and our foreign policy had led us to become largely isolated from and resented by the rest of the world—coming from the UK, I experienced a fair amount of this. Here was a man who exuded responsible government, who spoke of the audacity of hope, who seemed to speak for everyone. Here was a man of charisma, of inspiration. Yet there was something more, a sense that these were more than just words.

And as I watched him and listened to him, I began to believe.

Unity

For conservatives, he’s too liberal; for liberals, he’s too conservative. For some black people, he’s too white, for some white people, he’s too black (his dad was from Kenya, his mother from Kansas). He attracts support from among Republicans and independents as well as his own Democratic party; his divisiveness springs from his desire to cultivate unity, a desire which threatens the status quo and those who would cling to it. He spurns the traditional models of running for president by tearing down and throwing dirt at the other candidates (though on occasion he has had to confront false accusations forcefully). He has drawn comparisons to Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in his ability to inspire people to band together for a greater cause. And this is one of the main things that attracts me to him: his desire to join people together to work for good.

This is not to say that the message for unity is easy. A TIME Magazine article in 2006 explored the fine line that Obama treads:

Obama’s debut on the national stage, his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, mesmerized people because he seemed to speak for almost everyone, black and white, liberal and conservative, immigrant and native born. But in the Senate, where voting means you have to take sides, Obama has found that preserving his Everyman appeal is almost impossible.

While Obama has drawn praise from Democrats and Republicans for his intellect and diligence, he’s struggling to please all those who expect something from him: liberals want the formerly feisty antiwar candidate to be the standard bearer for their causes, Democrats in Washington want him to take on Bush, African Americans want the only black Senator to speak out on racial issues, and moderates and Republicans like McCain want to see Obama’s bipartisan side. It’s a complicated balance, particularly for a man who would need the support of all those disparate groups to become President–a possibility he already has his eye on. “People have enormous expectations of him,” says David Axelrod, one of Obama’s top advisers. “And to live up to them is difficult. He’s just a person, and the minute you start casting votes, you make some people happy and some people unhappy.”

Barack Obama doesn’t want to be president of the blue (Democrat) states, and of the red (Republican) states. He understands that the only way to get things done—to really get things done—is to get people to work together. He wants to be president of the United States of America.

Faith

I can tell you now that I don’t agree with Barack on all of his policies; I can tell you now that if he is elected president, I won’t agree with every decision he makes; I can tell you now that he will make mistakes. I could tell you each of those things about all of the candidates. But what sets Barack Obama apart for me is that I trust his character, I trust his integrity, I trust his faith in God and his faith in people.

I believe that his faith shapes his life, shapes his choices and decisions. He was not raised in a Christian, or in any kind of religious, household; his parents had Muslim, Baptist and Methodist roots, but the Bible, Koran, and Bhagavad Gita shared shelf space with books of mythology. He is a Christian now (contrary to circulating reports about him being a Muslim), but I’ll let his own words speak for him. Probably the most widely-publicized are his words in The Audacity of Hope, in which he writes:

It was because of these newfound understandings—that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved—that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ [in Chicago] one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth. (208)

In January 2007, reporter Cathleen Falsani (who also wrote an article on Bono’s faith), asked him the question, “Are you an evangelical?

Gosh, I’m not sure if labels are helpful here because the definition of an evangelical is so loose and subject to so many different interpretations. I came to Christianity through the black church tradition where the line between evangelical and non-evangelical is completely blurred. Nobody knows exactly what it means.

Does it mean that you feel you’ve got a personal relationship with Christ the savior? Then that’s directly part of the black church experience. Does it mean you’re born-again in a classic sense, with all the accoutrements that go along with that, as it’s understood by some other tradition? I’m not sure.

My faith is complicated by the fact that I didn’t grow up in a particular religious tradition. And so what that means is when you come at it as an adult, your brain mediates a lot, and you ask a lot of questions.

There are aspects of Christian tradition that I’m comfortable with and aspects that I’m not. There are passages of the Bible that make perfect sense to me and others that I go, ‘You know, I’m not sure about that.’

A simple ‘yes’ would have been much easier. But it would have been too simplistic. Faith is not simplistic. It is simple, but it is not simplistic. In 2006, Obama delivered the keynote address for the Call to Renewal conference and it was described by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. as “what may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican.” Here are some snippets (that definitely do not encapsulate the inspiration of the speech):

Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts. You need to come to church in the first place because you are first of this world, not apart from it.

[Conservative religious leaders] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice.

[When a gang member] shoots indiscriminately into a crowd … there’s a hole in that young man’s heart—a hole that the government alone cannot fix. [Contraception can reduce teen pregnancy rates, but so can] faith and guidance [which] help fortify a young woman’s sense of self, a young man’s sense of responsibility and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy.

Our fear of getting “preachy” may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide. They’re tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that’s not how they think about faith in their own lives.

Of course, people will say, “But George W. is a Christian, and look at all the bad decisions he made.” Christians make bad decisions; non-Christians make bad decisions. Nobody is immune to this malaise. But one of my lecturers put forward this comment as food for thought on the place of values in the political arena: “I disagree with George W. Bush vehemently on a great number of issues, but I’d be far more comfortable with my daughter working in Bush’s White House than in Bill Clinton’s.”

Character

Probably the biggest draw for me is his character. I admire Barack Obama because he preaches and lives out integrity and accountability—in his work as a state senator, as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, as a lawyer, in his life as a father, husband and Christian. I admire the fact that he had the conviction to vote against the war in Iraq when even I thought it wasn’t all that bad an idea. I like that he has won the unofficial endorsement of Colin Powell, a man I greatly admire; Powell serves as an informal advisor to Obama, which counts in my book. He is a politician who has been described as ‘humble’ (by CA Senator Barbara Boxer); largely, he seeks to demonstrate kingdom values (I believe) by seeking the protection of all human life, the protection of the environment, the propagation of peace (as far as possible).

Candidates for Change?

Change is going to happen; that is not in question. Whoever is elected president of the United States in November will bring change to this administration, and to the way this country is run; every presidential candidate is pushing themselves forward on the way that they will be different to George W., and so it’s not a mere probability that something will change—change is going to happen.

But what kind of change? Every presidential candidate brings something to the table, something good, something inspiring, something that might want to make you vote for them. Barack Obama stands for the kind of change that I want to see: change that means unity—across red and blue states, change that means accountability, change that means transparency, change that means integrity, change that means a fierce defense of not just the American people but of all human beings.

In the End

There is much more I could write about the junior senator from Illinois. I could write a book about him if I had the time, resources and inclination. But I don’t. I merely wanted to share something about a man who has captured my imagination and given me license to believe that hope is not a bad thing, that change for the better is possible, that the world does not have to be going to hell in a handbasket. And I realize that much of this is written in generalities. You may want to know what his stances are on immigration, the economy, abortion, and so forth. I want to tell you what I think of him.

Three years ago, before I’d even heard of Barack Obama, I figured that American unilateral action in Iraq and its belligerence on other matters of foreign policy had relegated the world’s richest and most powerful nation to the role of global bully and isolated it against the rest of the world. I figured that the Republicans had cornered the Christian vote, that people who voted both pro-life and for the death penalty (a contradictory position for those who believe in the sanctity of human life?) would also vote red. Then along came a guy who introduced me to the nuances of the interaction between politics and faith, re-emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between church and state while maintaining that his faith is not something that can be detached from his character and his decisions. I figured that the only way to work for change was to challenge governments to do things by getting people to make enough noise, as Bono did with the One Campaign and Make Poverty History (and continues to do with other matters). Then along came Barack Obama, who made me believe that the system, while flawed and broken, is not impossible to work within, though much grace and perseverance is required.

Ultimately, we vote for who we want to, for who our conscience, and our hearts and minds tell us to vote for. I’m not claiming that Barack Obama ought to be the candidate you ought to vote for if you’re Christian or not, black or white or Asian, if you’re rich or poor. How you decide who you vote for is your choice.

Barack is mine.

Beckham and Being Here

I realized that I forgot to blog about one of the events of the last couple weeks … I met someone.

Haha. No, that wasn’t it—if I’ve told you about it, I’ve told you about it. If not … I might tell you about it.

Seriously, the event was, of course, David Beckham’s debut for the LA Galaxy in a friendly against Chelsea last Saturday. My friend Micah was generous enough to get me a ticket for the game (for my birthday), and so I went with him and Christie, and his dad. It was okay …

Who am I kidding? It was awesome! I got to see Becks, and Landon Donovan, and all the Chelsea players (though I would’ve preferred it if it was Arsenal, and Henry hadn’t left). And, Posh and Katie Holmes were in the box behind us, so we saw them, and … I was fairly excited the whole time.


I really hope he raises the profile of soccer in the States—it was the first sellout that the Galaxy had had in a while, and the highest rated soccer match on ESPN, so there were some positive signs. But at times it felt more like a spectacle than a soccer match, solely focused on Becks. I think, for the game to take off, people are going to have to see it as a viable career and a credible sport to keep playing after high school.

As for me, until I get my fitness back (which I hope will happen soon), I’ll keep putting my beaten-up body out on the pitch once a week (and twice a week in the summer) to kick around with Fuller folks. One of my friends invited me to try out with him for a semi-pro side, but until I can offer more than a hard sprint every two minutes, I’m going to pass.

“Be Here Now”

On another front, the first lot of Fuller folks whose admission I helped process (coz I work in the Admissions Office, for those of you who don’t know) started at Fuller this summer. I’ve been at Fuller for coming up to a year now, and I feel like part of the old guard, watching all these newbies come in, excited and looking forward to their time here.

Not that I’m not enjoying my time here. But you can tell the people who’ve been at Fuller for awhile. Well, I can tell that I’ve been at Fuller for awhile.

In many ways, it’ll be interesting to see what happens over the next couple months—to see how new friendships form and new relationships (there are always new ‘special friends’ popping up), to see what friendships last and which ones don’t. It’s been interesting, and a little sad, to note that of the people I hung out with the most when I first started at Fuller, I only still hang out with two of them.

[
At the end of my first week at Fuller, with Rachel, Stephen and Nikki.]

So I wonder what’ll happen with these new friends that I’ve made (and will make). I wonder what’ll happen in the coming months as surgery looms, and my second year of Fuller, and internships. Will I have any more time this year than I did last year to write music and to find a creative outlet? What will God reveal to me this year about my future?

At times like these, I often have to remind myself to chill out and trust God. Ecclesiastes 11:9 has been a regular verse for me during these last few years:

You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your hearts give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

In other words, as a friend said, “Be here now.”

In the meantime …

I just watched the latest episode of 24. There are six episodes left until the end of the season, and having finished tonight’s, I was left profoundly dissatisfied. Not because it wasn’t good or exciting (thankfully, it’s picked up in the last few episodes), but because it wasn’t finished. I was tired of the lack of conclusion, of the fact that there isn’t a happy ending for Jack Bauer, at least for another six episodes. (And even then, we know he’s gonna have at least two more crappy days, based on the fact that 24 will be running for another couple seasons.)

I suppose it’s analogous to watching The Lord of the Rings, and having just finished The Two Towers, realizing that, amidst the jubilation following the Battle of Helm’s Deep, there’s still at least another three hours until a happy ending: Frodo and Sam still have a ways to go before they get to Mount Doom, Aragorn still hasn’t claimed his throne or gotten together with the girl (and that’s only going to happen if he survives). Maybe I’m alone in wanting happy endings, things to be all okay, and people to get along. But I don’t think I am.

See, I think it’s in all of us, this desire for a happy ending. It’s even in creation itself, according to the Apostle Paul, which “waits with eager longing, … groaning in labor pains” (Romans 8:19, 22) for the happy ending to come. From that statement, we can note a few things.

First, this desire for a happy ending – for an end to senseless war and violence and killing (yesterday, more than 30 people at Virginia Tech were shot), for an end to millions of people dying in Africa everyday because of lack of clean water and AIDS and other preventable diseases, for an end to dysfunctional relationships, betrayals of trust and heartbreak – this desire is natural; it is inherent in creation itself.

Second, there is a happy ending: it’s not just a pie in the sky theory that might possibly come true; it’s gonna happen, whether we want it or not; Jesus is coming back, whether we want him to or not (Isaac Newton predicted that Jesus would come again in 2060; only 53 years to go …).

And finally, it’s gonna hurt in the meantime, it’s gonna be hard. Now I’ve never experienced labor pains. And I’m glad I never will. But I have many friends who have given birth, and have shared their experiences (one of the wonders of living on a hallway with families). [Episiotomy: enough said.] It’s not going to be easy, being in this place of tension and longing for what’s to come.

But here’s an encouraging final thought: in the meantime, we’re not alone. Jesus said: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (i.e. until he comes back again)” (Matthew 28:20). And life with Jesus now … it can also be pretty good. Go figure.