EDITORIAL: Obama Inaugural
I shed human tears twice this last week. Yesterday, I listened to Barack Obama’s inaugural address and found his words about the qualities that make America (and any democracy) great very stirring. Democracy is a way of organizing people that allows us to support one other and pursue our dreams, individually and collectively. At the heart of democracy is justice–the idea that all lives are of equal worth. We cannot pretend to be free if we don’t embrace this ideal in our hearts.
What struck my heart most deeply were these words: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders.”
It’s a big idea, and I hope the new president means what he says. Right now we all live in incomplete democracies: there can be no true democracy in Canada so long as First Nations bands can’t obtain work and safe drinking water and Canadians are free to buy goods from distant Third World sweat shops. There can be no true democracy globally so long as innocents are oppressed and die obscure deaths overseas.
America’s founders were limited too. They believed that the gifts of democracy were designed for white men—and white, landowning men at that. Since that time they’ve had to expand their minds to include women and people of other races. The definition of who is covered by democracy’s blanket must and will continue to expand until everyone in the world is covered by it.
The other time I wept was on Sunday, when I saw a picture taken last week in Gaza City. I’m glad I saw it and at the same time dearly wish I hadn’t seen it. In the photo, a crying man is running down a street, holding up the body of a four-year-old girl. The child had been burned to death, mummified by fire. Then, the story went, her parents had been prevented by Israeli sniper fire from retrieving the body and dogs had eaten her lower limbs. I’ll take that image to my grave.
This past summer and fall, many of us followed Obama’s election campaign closely, believing strongly that here was a man who had the mental and moral capacity to redeem America from the crimes it has committed during the last eight years, from the unleashing of greed and the squandering of wealth it had legislated in recent years. More than that, we believed that the arising of such a man would be the only way to hope to save America’s perhaps mortally-wounded democracy.
Our family listened to an audiobook of Obama’s Dreams From My Father during the course of a long drive this past fall, and we were all moved by the way he told his story, by the compassionate vision he expressed: after each break in the drive, my sons were eager to hear the next chapter. Listening to that book I almost literally couldn’t believe that a person of such quality was within striking distance of the office then occupied by the usurper George W. Bush.
A nation’s democracy doesn’t end at its borders and neither can its vision of justice. When powerless people are killed, a democracy must step in and say ‘no more’. It can’t turn away. America must now say ‘no more’ to Hamas rockets and ‘no more’ to Israeli tanks. And above all, it must say ‘no more’ to a stalemate that after more than sixty years leaves millions of people imprisoned, hungry, and dispossessed in their own land. Here, America clearly has the influence and power to be able to do something in the interests of democracy and simple human justice. And it must. And we all must.
For myself, I’ll be judging Obama’s entire presidency on how America acts toward some of the most desperate, maligned, and downtrodden people on the face of the earth. I won’t care one whit if he restores prosperity to America and achieves racial equality, not if another child in Gaza like the one I’ve described dies so horribly.
As Jesus of Nazareth stated two thousand years ago (in one of a series of lessons we still haven’t collectively learned) we shall all be judged by how we treat the least among us. At home that means the old and the poor and the weak who live next door.
Abroad, and possibly even more importantly, it means that little girl.