Applying Obama’s Wisdom to the Church


No matter our political persuasion, I trust we can all agree that President Barack Obama is a remarkable orator of a kind we have not seen in a long time. Why? I think it’s at least partially because he knows how to build unity and a sense of belonging among his vastly diverse listeners – even when addressing controversial issues, as he recently did in a speech at the University of Notre Dame. His wisdom rang like a bell for me as something I want to share with you. Obama’s insights can help nurture our dialogue on GLBT inclusion in the church.

What Obama says about our national disagreements is also true about our church disagreements: “The fact is that at some level the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction.” And he goes on, “But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.”

Surely we in the church can do the same. After all, we are called to love our neighbor, even she who disagrees with us.

Obama went on to commend finding common ground between those who disagree. Finding common ground, he says, is “recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a ‘single garment of destiny.’ ” We must, as Christians, agree. Even those Presbyterians who have left the PCUSA for other churches are still children of God, still members of the body of Christ, still, as Obama says, “those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.” How much more is this so, then, for all of us continuing in the PCUSA.

Finally, Obama reminds us that surely there is enough suffering near and far for those who disagree to find where we can work together because we know, “when they struggle together, and sacrifice together and learn from one another—then all things are possible.” We Presbyterians are already doing this by rebuilding houses in New Orleans each November side by side – regardless of our convictions about the place of GLBT people in the church. And I can tell you that sanding sheet rock all day gives ample time for good dialogue. But we can do more good together, as long as we talk while we are doing it!

I will take Obama’s advice and “extend the same presumption of good faith to others” that I desire from them. I will trust that common ground is holy ground and I will seek to find it with everyone I meet, but, especially, with those with whom I disagree. I hope you will join me.


Reverend Janet

2 Responses
  • Mike F on May 30, 2009

    I believe, in retrospect, we will look upon the speech the President gave at Notre Dame in the same light as many of the watershed speeches (Kennedy, King, Lincoln) that we now, regularly return to for inspiration and direction. I am sorry if on the surface that sounds a bit overstated but I do not think it is. It was a wonderful moment for people interested in the hope of peace in a divided world.

    There was however more than one person speaking that day at ND. Fr. John Jenkins, the President of the university, introduced President Obama with an equally compelling message. What follows is a brief quote from his introduction.

    “More than any problem in the arts or sciences—engineering or medicine—easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge of this age. If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.”

    “Difference must be acknowledged, and in some cases even cherished. But in the service of the Church, we can persuade believers by appeal to both faith and reason. As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith. We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept.”

    As Fr. Jenkins notes there are at least two places people of faith go to inform their views and actions. Of course, faith in things unseen but believed is one of those places but it is not a very potent faith when reason is left completely at the door.

    As it applies to all of the difficult issues of today, whether it be the right to life, as was the context of these words at ND, or equal treatment for our GLBT brothers and sisters, we must continually strive to inform our reason.

    Approaching divisions in thought as opportunities for peacemaking is a powerful place to
    start. If we cannot solve the differences we have regarding the nature of human experience (who is my gay brother?) and how to treat one another on our journey of dialogue while working side by side during it, there is little hope we can solve more thorny problems like easing the strife on the West Bank or ending ethnic cleansing in Africa.

    We cannot sit back in our armchairs and wonder how people half way around the world just can’t get over themselves while how we behave here is different only in degree. When we come together to improve the lives of others in any context we make it possible for the same thing to happen in EVERY context. When we fail at this we are not moving closer to a more peaceful world but farther away from it. We must be willing to do what it takes to bridge our divides. What other choice do we have?

  • Janet Edwards on May 31, 2009

    Dear Mike, Deepest thanks for sharing the words of Fr. Jenkins to which President Obama referred and for your wonderful words of encouragement. May your own comments strengthen your heart in all your efforts to meet division as opportunity for peacemaking too. Peace, Janet

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