Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall: Obama and the arc towards inclusion

POOL REUTERS President Barack Obama arrives at his second inauguration at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in … Continued



President Barack Obama arrives at his second inauguration at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington January 21, 2013.

The best description of faith that I know comes from the King James Bible: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The theme of President Obama’s second inauguration was: faith in America’s future. Reading this theme within the context of the definition of faith, we may ask: what is our hope for the future of America? What do we see beyond sight for our nation?

In his inaugural address, President Obama returned to the vision of inclusion and unity that first propelled him to nation prominence, using the phrase “we the people” at least five times in the less than 20-minute address. He brought together past, present, and future in the second inaugural moment.

He invoked our founding documents and the essential idea of America-the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He echoed Abraham Lincoln speaking of a government of, by and for the people, speaking of blood drawn through lash and sword and the impossibility of the survival of a nation that is half slave and half free.

He took us through a flash history that recalled the building of the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, public education, trust busting, and the weaving of a social safety net, including a federal response to natural disasters.

His vision of America is one of collective action. I call this communitarianism. It is a moral space that recognizes that the individual and individual nuclear families are too small to achieve certain goals. Some civic goals that lead to the common good require the efforts of the national community working together with the understanding that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

President Obama described the future elements of the moment as training math and science teacher, building roads, networks and research labs that will create jobs and businesses. Still the vision is one of unified actions.

Living in the past, present, and future of now, we get to the moral “ought” by paying compassionate attention to that which is. Who suffers from our current political economy, from our current social and cultural mores?

When we look with a critical eye, we see income inequality, money concentrates among the richest Americans while far too many of us need every penny of every pay check to get through to the next pay period. Our tax code favors the rich; our schools are inadequate while available jobs go unfilled because of a dearth of qualified applicants. The moral “ought” says: “not this. We can do better.”

The president spoke of climate change and the need to lead the world in developing the new technologies that will preserve the planet and provide jobs. Over and over, he rejected zero-sum, win-lose logic. The moral ought grows from a willingness to think more creatively about the problems facing our nation and our world.

As a just peace thinker who sees President Obama as a just peace president, I noticed the just peace elements in his address. He said: “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual wars.” He spoke of the positive peace that turns enemies into friends, of diplomatic efforts to “resolve our differences with other nations.”

The three pillars of just peace theory–truth, respect, and security–were present in his address. Just peace understands democracy as an expression of truth. International institutions are necessary for the cooperative, power-with (not power-over) process of peacemaking, and the president’s endorsement shows respect for the hopes, fears, and power of other peoples and nations. Just peace also knows that the basic human need for security includes economic security and access to health care.

The vision of America’s future as described by President Obama’s second inaugural address is the vision of inclusion represented by Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. There is much work yet to be done, but, he takes a long view. Each new generation will face its own challenges.

And this is the place where faith as substance and evidence stands to give us confidence that through our common effort, purpose, and I say radical love, we can bring more liberty, more justice and more peace to our nation and to our world.

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