Friday, January 14, 2011

President Obama’s speech

A friend wrote asking if I could comment theologically on Obama’s speech. I’m just about to head off for a camping weekend, but here are some thoughts.

Overall, the thing that strikes me is what a work of art it is. Consider some of the structural parrallelism at work.

One – He starts with hope into the future, drawing on Scripture. And he ends with hope, into the future, drawing on the life of child.

Two – Following the opening and just before the closing, is an structural parrallelism, opening and closing personalisations – the short vignettes of each person’s life, then setting up his conclusion with another personal vignette.

Three – he quotes Scripture twice, once from the New Testament, another from the Old Testament.

Four – he has an almost philosophical heart, (Tragedy demands explanations … Debate is essential in exercise of self-government … Scripture tells us there is evil.) This is set up by the intensely personal and emotional, the news he has visited the hospital. Thus he sets up the head by engaging the heart.

For me, the most outstanding feature is the way he has personalised loss. Prejudice is usually based on “they” statements – big bald generalisations. The speech is outstanding the way it lifts up ordinary, human people, and then asks us to consider how we treat every ordinary, human person we meet. (I might even use this as a case study in my July preaching and communication intensive – Living the text in a contemporary context)

He does this through a from of appreciative inquiry, in which he is looking through each person’s life for values and phrases that might sustain his argument. This is a theology of storytelling, in which he makes his argument through narrative. (Just hope his researchers got all the data right and that the “narratives” were authentic for those closest to the victims).

For those who don’t have time to listen to the whole speech (half of which is applause), here are my notes (of the more non-personal-narrative phrases)
Scripture tells us there is a river who’s streams make glad the city of God. (Quotes Revelation?)

Saturday morning the exercise of free speech with “Congress on your corner.”

Lives lost represented what is best in America. (Moves into bios)

Heroism does not require special training or physical strength, but in hearts of people all around us, just waiting to be summoned. In actions, in selflessness. Challenge to each of us, question of what, beyond prayers is required of us going forward.

How to honour the memory of the fallen?

Tragedy demands explanations, to impose order on chaos.

Debate is essential in exercise of self-government. When we are eager to lay blame on those who think differently, we need to pause. Are we talking in ways that heal rather than wound.

Scripture tells us there is evil. Terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. (Quotes Job.) Bad things happen.

We have to guard against simple explanations.

Yes, we cannot be passive in face of violence. But what we cannot do is use tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.

Dose of humility, to listen more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy rather than point finger of blame.

Personal loss shakes us, causes us to look inward and backward. And forward, on the manner in which we live our lives and nuture our relationships with those who are still with us.

Have we shown enough kindness, generosity, compassion? We recognise our own mortality. What matters is not status, power, but how well we have loved. And what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.

That process, of aligning values with our actions, is what this tragedy demands.

Those killed are part of our family, an American family. We may not know them personally, but see ourselves in them.

Debate in manner worthy of those we have lost. Strive to be better friends, neighbours, parents. If there death ushers in more civility … it is because the nation needs a more civil discourse.

May not be able to stop evil, but how we treat one another is up to us.

Live up to expectations of a child.

Posted by steve at 09:40 AM

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