Normally, around January 20 I blog about my son’s birthday, and I do have to say that having an eleven-year-old is pretty epic. But for today I decided to go with the more obviously historic of yesterday’s two big events.
As a Canadian, do I even have the right to blog about the American presidency? Barack Obama has an 81% approval rating in Canada, even though there’s no clear evidence that he’s going to do anything particularly good for Canada. I think his popularity on our side of the border has as much to do with our dislike of George W. Bush, and our longing for an attractive, charismatic leader (since we don’t have any of our own at the moment) as it does about Obama’s policies and attitudes to Canada.
I’ll admit: I like Barack Obama because he is young and handsome and charismatic, and because he’s not Bush. I watched the inauguration yesterday with great interest and curiosity. But whether he’ll be a good president or not — well, only time will tell. He is, after all, a politician, and even if he has the highest ideals in the world, he’s had to make compromises with his ideals to get this far and will make many more to hold the position (everything I know about politics I learned from watching The West Wing, which also gave me an eerie feeling of having watched yesterday’s inauguration before). Jesus Himself, had He chosen the political route to Messiahship, couldn’t have fulfilled all the expectations that some people have of Barack Obama at this point. I’ve never been a fan of the Messianization of political leaders — it’s a mistake we constantly make here in Newfoundland, electing would-be saviors instead of leaders. The man has a tough job to do and I hope and pray he does it as well as possible.
But I did find the inauguration moving for the most obvious reason: it was amazing to me that 40 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the U.S. was electing an African-American man to its highest office. Anybody who says “the race issue” is irrelevant here and not what we should be talking about is missing the point. Of course, there’s no guarantee that Obama will be a better president because he’s a black man — that would be stupid to assume (any more than Margaret Thatcher was a better, more compassionate prime minister of Britain because she was a woman!). But having come to that point is clear evidence that something has changed.
Obama campaigned on the slogan “change,” which is about the safest possible platform for a political leader, and the one promise we know he can keep. The only thing we know for sure is that the United States, and the world, will be different four years ago than it is today. Change is inevitable. Whether that will be change for the better remains to be seen. But the very fact that this man is in this office means something has already changed.
As a Seventh-day Adventist, I grew up with an eschatological worldview that said human history is not capable of changing for the better — things will get worse and worse until Jesus comes to rescue us and create the earth anew. We are, in essence, going to heaven in a handbasket, and our best efforts will not create heaven on this earth. My eschatological theology is muddy these days, but my impression of the “big picture” of human history is that we are still not much closer to heaven than we were a hundred or a thousand years ago — every step forward seems to be accompanied by a step back. If there’s ever to be an Earth made new, I still think we need divine intervention.
But on the micro level if not the macro level, we can change. Situations that seem entrenched and intractable can improve, and I celebrate every evidence of that. Looking at a situation like the one in Gaza today, where the same battles have been fought by the same people for so many decades without change, I need those reminders. We all do. An African-American becoming president of the U.S. is perhaps not as amazing as some of the changes we saw in the 1990s — the Berlin wall falling; Nelson Mandela rising to power in South Africa — but it ain’t nothing, either. No matter what Obama does with his time in the White House, his getting there is significant, because it shows that we — not just Americans, but all of us human beings — are capable of overcoming our worst prejudices and rising above our petty problems. Some of the time, anyway.
And yes, I would have celebrated in the same way if it had been Hilary Clinton who won, because seeing a woman in that position would have sent the same hopeful message of change about another long struggle for equality. I’d like to think that regardless of politics, I’d celebrate the same way if any person of colour or any woman had become president of the U.S. (OK, maybe not Sarah Palin. I draw the line somewhere).
Of course, the real victory, the real evidence of change, will be the day the U.S. or Canada or any other major Western country elects a black man, or a woman, or an openly gay person, to its highest office — and nobody comments on it, because it’s no longer news. Then we will really have gotten past the rule of the old white guys in suits, and have truly embraced diversity and equality.
I don’t know if that will happen in my lifetime. But this did, and I’m glad I was here to see it. Good luck and prayers to the new U.S. president. And I suppose I’ll spare a grudging few for my own prime minister, little as I like him, because every leader needs all the prayers he, or she, can get.