I just got around to reading the speech Barack Obama gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church this past Sunday. Abstracting from its content, its soaring rhetoric makes it pretty dad-gum impressive. Even I--ironic and stolid as I am--might have been swept up in the momment if I’d been in the sanctuary that morning.
But at this distance, I can pick at the content a bit. Here’s how he begins:
The Scripture tells us that when Joshua and the Israelites arrived at the gates of Jericho, they could not enter. The walls of the city were too steep for any one person to climb; too strong to be taken down with brute force. And so they sat for days, unable to pass on through.
But God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that when they heard the sound of the ram’s horn, they should speak with one voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.
There are many lessons to take from this passage, just as there are many lessons to take from this day.... As I was thinking about which ones we need to remember at this hour, my mind went back to the very beginning of the modern Civil Rights Era.
Because before Memphis and the mountaintop; before the bridge in Selma and the march on Washington; before Birmingham and the beatings; the fire hoses and the loss of those four little girls; before there was King the icon and his magnificent dream, there was King the young preacher and a people who found themselves suffering under the yoke of oppression.
"Unity is the great need of the hour" is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome.
Thus the conclusion Obama would have us derive from the story from Joshua 6 is not that, as the Bible says, God has delivered Jericho to His people, but that human unity is necessary. God doesn’t really play a part in Obama’s lesson. He doesn’t tell us to trust in the Lord, but rather to trust in our unified efforts. Now, I’m not arguing that "orthodoxy" requires us only to pray for deliverance and wait patiently for God to answer our prayers, doing nothing in the meantime. But surely orthodoxy requires us to acknowledge that no human community, however unified, can act in the place of God, without depending upon Him.
But I’m not finished. Obama then tells us that unity is required to overcome what he calls our "empathy deficit." And he provides a long list of examples of our empathy deficit. With a conspicuous, but predictable, omission: the unborn. There’s empathy for children sent down "corridors of shame" in "schools in the forgotten corners of America where the color of your skin still affects the content of your education." (Don’t get me started about choice.) There’s empathy for "the innocents" suffering in Darfur. But not a word about "the innocents" suffering in abortion clinics; no empathy deficit there. This despite the fact that, as he puts it, the unity he seeks can’t be "purchased on the cheap." It also can’t be purchased at the expense of offending key Democratic interest groups. Don’t ask Obama to risk speaking truth to power. He’s got to win a nomination, after all.
I have to concede that he’s right about one thing, or at least half-right:
[T]rue unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes - a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.
It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see past our differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. But what makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart - that puts up walls between us.
We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don’t think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The welfare queen is taking our tax money. The immigrant is taking our jobs. The believer condemns the non-believer as immoral, and the non-believer chides the believer as intolerant.
Yes, unity requires a change in our hearts and minds. Religious believers know this, and hence seek to help others change their lives. It’s true that if the only move were condemnation, Obama would be more than half-right. But it shouldn’t be, and often isn’t. Nonetheless, for Obama unity seems to require that the believer abandon his judgment so that the non-believer can let go of his charge of intolerance.
Oh yes, and unity also issues in lots of government action. Consider these examples of things that need to be fixed, and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) lesson about how to fix them:
We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than some workers make in ten months; when families lose their homes so that lenders make a profit; when mothers can’t afford a doctor when their children get sick.
And we have a deficit when it takes a breach in our levees to reveal a breach in our compassion; when it takes a terrible storm to reveal the hungry that God calls on us to feed; the sick He calls on us to care for; the least of these He commands that we treat as our own.
But if changing our hearts and minds is the first critical step, we cannot stop there. It is not enough to bemoan the plight of poor children in this country and remain unwilling to push our elected officials to provide the resources to fix our schools. It is not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block much-needed reforms....
The Scripture tells us that we are judged not just by word, but by deed. And if we are to truly bring about the unity that is so crucial in this time, we must find it within ourselves to act on what we know; to understand that living up to this country’s ideals and its possibilities will require great effort and resources; sacrifice and stamina.
Every time we come together, government has to do something. Our empathy is measured, above all, by our willingness to support government programs and government spending.
To be sure, Obama does at least make a gesture in the direction of self-help and self-transformation:
All of us will be called upon to make some sacrifice. None of us will be exempt from responsibility. We will have to fight to fix our schools, but we will also have to challenge ourselves to be better parents. We will have to confront the biases in our criminal justice system, but we will also have to acknowledge the deep-seated violence that still resides in our own communities and marshal the will to break its grip.
But this is a minor coda in the great Obamian symphony of empathetic government as the expression of empathetic community. Big empathy and big unity require big government. This is the standard fare of contemporary liberalism, however prettily Obama packages it. And you always have to wonder, when government is the instrument of our compassion and the expression of our community, whether there will be any genuine compassion and community left at the end.