President Barack Obama was brought to tears last night as he reflected on themes of faith, hope and family in his farewell speech. Whatever one may make of his politics, the profound faith of America's first black president should be one of his enduring legacies.
A comprehensive summary of the life, faith and politics of Barack Obama would not be possible in this short space. Michael Wear, former White House faith advisor to President Obama includes two excellent chapters on the faith of Obama in his superb memoir-cum-manifesto 'Reclaiming Hope', which you can read our review of here. Obama did not discuss publicly discuss his faith as much as some of his predecessors, but in the times where he did, we see something personal, rich, and profound.
Obama was not raised in a Christian home, but would discover Christian faith and calling after college, being baptised at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in the early 1990s. Faith and the call to "a higher purpose" inspired him into public life, and the rest, as they say, is history. Two statements from President Obama highlight the way his faith influenced his life.
The promise of hope
In 2010 the President spoke at the White House's Easter Prayer Breakfast, and shared the following reflection on the promise of the Resurrection: "And such a promise is one of life's great blessings, because, as I am continually learning, we are, each of us, imperfect. Each of us errs -- by accident or by design. Each of us falls short of how we ought to live. And selfishness and pride are vices that afflict us all.
"It's not easy to purge these afflictions, to achieve redemption. But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered -- by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul. Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope."
Who could doubt the Christian conviction of the man who spoke those words? Many did, and the President faced many absurd allegations questioning his faith or suggesting he was a Muslim, despite his plain statements to the contrary. That many conservative evangelicals doubted the faith of Obama, and then practically baptised the openly abusive, mendacious and unrepentant figure of Donald Trump with an overwhelming vote of confidence is upsetting to say the least.
It isn't that Obama's faith validates all of his political choices, or shields him from any kind of critique. Rather it is to say, positively, that we see in this figure a man of stature, kindness and integrity, who was passionate about peace, justice, and unity amidst division.
It's not about us
Obama's life and convictions were rooted in love of God and love of neighbour. We glimpse this in other comments he made, this time at the Prayer Breakfast in 2011:
"When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to give me the strength to do right by our country and its people. And when I go to bed at night I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to forgive me my sins, and look after my family and the American people, and make me an instrument of His will.
"I say these prayers hoping they will be answered, and I say these prayers knowing that I must work and must sacrifice and must serve to see them answered. But I also say these prayers knowing that the act of prayer itself is a source of strength. It's a reminder that our time on Earth is not just about us; that when we open ourselves to the possibility that God might have a larger purpose for our lives, there's a chance that somehow, in ways that we may never fully know, God will use us well."
As Obama himself said, "Each of us errs." All of us will make poor choices from time to time. Obama made promises that he didn't keep, and made judgements that many would consider to be unwise or simply wrong. He had limits, like we all do, but it would be deeply uncharitable to hold that against him. In his farewell speech, Obama called on American citizens to think the best of one another, and Christians should do the same for him.
As we ponder his legacy, I believe Obama would have us consider another life than that of his own. The life that makes all other life possible, the life that he trusted would be a guide to his own. It is no small thing to have a President who says that day and night, he prays to God for help, and lives in service to him.
Humility and hope should be remembered as legacies of this President. They are simple virtues, but in an age wearied by tyrants, terrorists and tycoons, they are the ones that we will need.
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