This morning I celebrated mass for the religious community in which I live. I am on the schedule as the presider every wednesday, but this particular wednesday brought me back to another early morning liturgy four years ago. While living in Washington, DC, during my Franciscan formation and theology and ministry studies, I happened — by chance — to be assigned to preach at the morning mass the morning after the last election. I remember the headlines of the newspapers, not just in the US, but internationally. Back in 2008 my German was a lot less rusty than it is today and I tried to keep up with at least one paper, in this case, Süddeutsche Zeitung. I recall the big, bold headline that morning after the election: “America — Rises from the Ashes.” The international community celebrated the hope and the promise that came with the election of Barack Obama in the United States. The world was worn and weary after eight years of the Bush administration’s policies, particularly abroad, and billions of the the world’s citizens looked to the US for what was to come.
The fervor and international enthusiasm led to President Obama’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. People were shocked, myself included. While I will readily admit that I too was enthusiastic about the possibilities that laid ahead, while realistic about the likely political battles that ensued (I did live in DC after all), I couldn’t believe that such a significant sign of typically lifelong achievement had been awarded so quickly. I was proud of our president, but more heartened by what I took this symbolic move to mean for the rest of the world.
And then reality set in. Two very painful, violent, and — at least in one case, if not in two — frivolous wars carried on. Mechanisms for injustice — Guantanamo Bay, international detention centers, etc. — remained in status quo; environmental concerns were left unaddressed in any significant way; and drone attacks broadened our violent imperialism internationally.
What had been the international signal of hope and peace, epitomized by the Nobel Prize, became something of an embarrassment, something that could not really be explained or justified.
Granted, the stakes were high and the absolute disregard for dialogue, progress, collaboration, and bipartisanship on the part of the Republicans in Congress, symbolized by Mitch McConnell’s now famous declaration that the GOP’s primary goal would be to make sure President Obama wasn’t reelected (its goal was not the American people by his own omission), certainly explains some of the roadblocks to achieving even more than the very important and valuable health-care reform, repealing of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the financial actions that prevented a reliving of the early 1930s. Nevertheless, President Obama and his administration need to take their share of responsibility for inaction, lack of serious engagement domestically and internationally in peacemaking and climate change, and the implementation of more domestic policies that would guarantee the rights of all people.
As a Franciscan friar, I am particularly haunted by the specter of the Nobel. Violence may be our biggest concern right now. Some will cry “abortion, abortion,” but as legal scholars and moral theologians have replied until they are hoarse and frustrated, the President of the United States has almost no ability to directly or, perhaps with a few very removed exceptions such as court appointments, event indirectly affect that law and effect the change for which anti-abortion protestors clamor. What the President does have absolute control over are executive orders that authorize drone attacks over seas, the covert engagement of elite military attacks that proceed with impunity, and other policies that directly affect domestic concerns of justice and civil rights.
At the beginning of this next term, the admitted last political office the President will pursue, I have some recommendations, perhaps more appropriately admonitions, to offer. These have everything to do with the Nobel Prize won in the last term, it is my hope that in the following four years it might be genuinely earned.
- End the Drone Strikes — This is one of the worst scars that mar the international and moral face of the United States today. The ethical complexity of these attacks goes without enough consideration and we should end this sort of violent imperialism.
- Seriously Address Climate Change — In the wake of Hurricane (“superstorm”) Sandy, there is no better time than the present to use the position of the President of the United States to take the lead at home and abroad in addressing the way in which our Sister Mother Earth (as St. Francis would say) is being destroyed and, in turn, is becoming increasingly in habitable for humanity and the rest of creation.
- Move Beyond Tax-Code Solutions – Yes, the wealthy must pay their fair share, which includes changing the policies that allow the sinful loopholes that allow people who make money simply by having a lot of money to pay unjustly low rates. However, there are other ways this country needs to get its act together in terms of establishing a more equitable and egalitarian society. Can we have a new FDR-like movement? Can we shift the “anti-government at all costs” rhetoric so popular today to remember what it means to be part of a society that is not filled with individuals, but celebrates our interdependence?
- Put the Poor First — This really follows the previous point and is as self-explanatory as possible. When you have to make a decision, don’t be concerned with what the wealthy, the corporations (which are not people, but juridic fictions), the other politicians, and the plutocrats will think or react — look at your office through the lens of the most disenfranchised, poor, and marginalized. Use your power for good and not the evil that comes with supporting those who benefit from the demise of the populous, which, by the way, is how most politicians in recent history act. Be the change that you encouraged us to believe in!
- Education, Education, Education — By which I do not mean more standardized tests nor hedgehog policies for science and math alone. We need a citizenry that can think and, as an educator and one who moves in such circles, I can assure you that we are not, as a nation, training our young people to think today. We are training them to be mechanical reproducers of a limited pool of information. Education is both an ethical issue and a concern for national security; let’s treat it appropriately!
- Don’t Be Afraid, You Have Nothing To Lose Now — Take strength in accomplishing and inaugurating what requires courage and conviction. You have four more years to do what you intimated that you could: so do it! Don’t let this term turn into the worthless second term of President Bush or the fiasco of sideshow politics in the second term of President Clinton. You are in a unique place, at a unique time, in a dire circumstance to make things happen — if only through authentic and inspiring encouragement and empowering of the people.
These are simply a few of the many things I would tell President Obama if, in some alternative universe, he would seek out my opinion. I am hopeful still, but then again I am a Christian and, as such, I live in Easter Hope. I believe President Obama was the right person for this office in this election, but only insofar as he is able to use these four years in ways resembling what I name here. My thoughts and prayers are with you!