History, Barack, and Jesus

I didn't vote for Barack Obama, just so we get that out of the way up front.

I'm also wondering whether Jesse Jackson is crying because of the historical significance of the moment, because it's not him on the stage, or because he didn't get to maim Obama before he had the full protection of the Secret Service (just so we get my one tasteless joke out of the way up front).

Tonight is a big deal. You can acknowledge it or not. You can love it or hate it. You can hope or fear. You just can't change history, and tonight is history. It's not merely history for black Americans. I just listened to Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark and a black man, talk about the conversation he had tonight with his mother who participated in the civil rights movement. She told him that this is not a victory for black America; this is a victory for a greater conception of America. And even though I strongly disagree with some of Obama's positions and generally distrust Big Politics of all flavors, I believe Mrs. Booker is right.

Look, I don't care if you're wildly liberal, deeply conservative, or utterly indifferent to politics and elections. We live in a culture and a country with a long, twisted history when it comes to human rights. We have both blazed trails into new frontiers of human liberty and virtue and scraped the dark corners of the horrid barrel of cruelty and greed. In many ways we still live in that tension, though perhaps the subtlety of much current injustice blinds us to our sins in the way our ancestors were blinded to theirs. (For some reason we often need the vision of our offspring to see our narcissistic errors for what they really are.) We are human, and our humanity carries both an endowed dignity and a certain proclivity for selfishness and, frankly, evil.

Though that human duality plays out in many different ways, there is no escaping this reality: for the greater part of American history, black (or partially black) folks were decidedly on the losing end of it. We are just over four decades removed from the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts – four out of over twenty three decades. Much progress has been made in those 44 years, but it is not rational to assume that we're "over" the racial issues that accumulated over the previous 188 years of our nation's history (not counting the pre-Declaration years, during which slavery was already being woven into the fabric of a burgeoning social and economic revolution).

In that context the election of a black president is undeniably historic, and Mrs. Booker is right – it is historic for all of us. It represents yet another step of maturity out of the indignities of our collective legacy; indignities that not only robbed generations of black Americans of basic freedoms, but also stripped many white Americans of their humanity through hatred, ignorance, or apathy. If the essence of humanity is bearing the image of the Creator—an assumption not all will share, but one many of us cannot escape—and if God is love, then we are clearly least human when we fail to love.

None of this makes white people bad or black people inherently good. I am not making an argument for entitlement or a case for white guilt. The painful history of the country is neither a blank check for black
Americans nor a never-ending IOU around the necks of white Americans. I am also not naive, and I understand that folks of all colors unscrupulously continue to use race to help themselves and undermine others. This is not news and it does no good to rehash it as though it is. Our focus, instead, should be moving forward in love and forgiveness no matter what misguided things others are doing. We do no one, including ourselves, any favors by sinking into this cycle of hostility and distrust by continuing to point out this speck in one another's eye.

So I suggest we put to rest all of the complaining about black people endorsing or voting for Barack Obama simply because he's black. For one thing that knife cuts both ways, and we all know it. More importantly, you do not win an election in this country—and certainly not by such a significant margin—because black people voted for you based on your skin color. And that, in part, is why this moment is so historic. Barack Obama, a man of color, was decidedly elected president by the majority of voting Americans, period.

Does that resolve our racial problems? Of course not. Are there aspects of his election that actually highlight some of the lingering racial divide and distrust among us? Certainly.

And it's still historic. And it still marks a moment of progress—imperfect, incomplete, tainted progress—for this mass of people living in the wake of 232 years of distinctly American history.

I know many of my friends and family, particularly those who are Christians, will struggle with many other concerns about Obama being elected. I don't ignore those, nor do I exalt racial progress over the other serious moral concerns at stake in the United States and the world. As I mentioned, I did not vote for Obama. (I didn't vote for McCain either, but that's a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say neither of them embody a life ethic I can support in good conscience with Jesus and his Kingdom as my party and platform.)

My only request to my fellow Jesus-followers in this moment, no matter how deflated or how excited you feel about the outcome of an election, is that you act like Jesus, who neither wrung his hands over the morality of Caesar nor called Pilate a murderer, though there was sufficient human cause for both responses. He saw the big picture of God's plan for the world, and he didn't fret about who carried the title of Caesar. He didn't spew angry words at a government sanctioning cruel killings – even when they were sanctioning his tortuous death on a cross.

Instead, he showed the world what God looks like: speaking truth, but doing so with love – modeling humility, never using the fact that he was "right" as a tool of mockery or condemnation – loving those who hated him, and insisting his followers do the same – serving those who the religious establishment thought the least of – giving his own life as a sacrifice for undeserving wrecks (like me and like you).

So I'm not asking much of myself for of my fellow Jesus people. Just this: If you follow that guy, act like it.