Monday, January 19, 2009
What It Means to Me
I was 5 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated. I came home from kindergarten and watched the news on our black and white TV. I remember going outside, climbing the dumpster at our Fort Riley, Kansas, Army quarters. There I pondered the significance. To my little mind, you might as well have said, “God has been killed.”
I was 9 years old, living in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Though I am African American, I was not really aware of who he was until he was killed. Dad tried to explain it to my innocent mind, “Martin Luther King was like the President of the Negro people.”
When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated only months later, I was much more alert. In my naive mind I still intertwined patriotism with religious devotion with general decency and strangely with academic excellence. That year my family took at least two trips to Washington DC. One was to see the national sites and structures. I cherish the pictures of the four of us kids standing obediently against the backdrop of the Washington Monument and facing the Lincoln Memorial. The other trip took us to 14th and U to see the devastation of the riots after the MLK assassination.
Two patriotic tracks began to emerge in my mind: one of continued pride and one of continued criticism. I insist that both were patriotism. In those days our family holidays were times to gather friends, often servicemen and women whose families were far away. We would, of course, feast; we’d watch sports; we’d listen to music; and we’d talk about issues. On the issues I was allowed to disagree even with my own Army officer father.
In high school I had the rare opportunity to continue those issue discussions with a couple other Black guys. During the 1975-76 school year at Punahou Academy in Honolulu, Hawaii, Rik Smith, a junior; “Barry” Obama, a freshman; and I, a senior had a standing date roughly once a week to talk. We discussed the social climate on our cosmopolitan campus (whether any of the non-black girls would date us black guys). We talked about sports and religion (I was a Christian; Rik and Barry were agnostics). We talked about our classes and the charges that a black person with a book was “acting white.” We talked about the social issues of the day and whether we would see a black U.S. President in our lifetime.
In my 1976 high school yearbook, I was given 1/3 of a page to express whatever I wanted to, to accompany my senior picture. I included this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” The quote has been a part of my life ever since.
Despite my hopes, by the time I was old enough to vote, my political cynicism was beginning to grow. Few Presidential candidates got my attention. Republican/Independent John Anderson got my attention in 1980. Democrat Jesse Jackson got my attention in 1984. Neither one prevailed, but they both interested me because their platforms were decidedly Christian and not particularly partisan. By 1988 Jesse Jackson had become a partisan Democrat, Anderson had faded from the picture, and my cynicism was completed. I continued to vote for Presidents, but today I can’t remember with assurance who I voted for each time. There was no excitement, no conviction; and as the culture wars ratcheted up, my Christian convictions were torn between party platforms.
When I read the memoir Dreams From My Father, which my brother Keith discovered in a remainder bin of a Boulder, Colorado, bookstore in the late 90’s, I was pleased by Barack’s transformation from an agnostic to a Christian. Despite my surprise, his account of coming to faith rang true to his thoughtful, fair-minded nature and his ability to continually grow.
Then I, like most of the country was taken aback by the soaring rhetoric first displayed nationally at the 2004 Democratic Convention. For me the voice sounded very familiar, like the conversations we had in high school. Still I was astounded by the audacious courage of saying in the Democratic keynote speech, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America!”
Then I heard the speech about the place of his Christian faith and politics at the Call to Renewal event in July 2006. After that speech, I began hoping that my high school friend would audaciously dare to run to be President of the United States. Over Christmas 2006, I heard that he was pondering such a run. I actually prayed for his decision during those days.
He announced, and then he ran a campaign that continued to stretch my pride. And my political cynicism began to melt. Barack Obama's Christian values showed through the nature of the campaign. He demonstrated how we can “disagree without being disagreeable.” Again I felt echoes of our days together. Barry and I have had in common a lifetime of learning to navigate different worlds. In our culturally rich state at a particularly cosmopolitan school and from each of our uniquely multicultural backgrounds, we were used to bridging communities.
And as he spoke with hope and inspiration, I never asked whether he had the “stuff” to back it up. I knew. I wasn’t saying, like most of America (some people for WAY too long), “Well, we don’t really know anything about him.” I knew. In Barack Obama I see a man who puts his God-inspired judgment above politics. He puts America above party.
That message of hope resonated with everyone in my family, and none of us had paid much attention to politics before. I was privileged to watch the debates with my white wife, white children, and white grandsons (ages 9, 13 and 17!). We met together to early vote, taking the younger grandbabies with us. On election night we all gathered around anticipating and cheering the inevitable.
So these days are partial fulfillment of many of my dreams. I am certainly proud at this moment because Barack Obama is a black man, like me. I am proud because he is “Hawaiian,” like me. I am proud because he was shaped by Punahou, like me. I am proud because he is a Jesus Follower, like me. And I am proud that long ago we actually discussed the possibility of a day like this.
I don’t believe this is a messianic new age. I don’t believe the new President will be a Savior or even a king. I stopped believing a long time ago that the President is God. But I do believe that character, intelligence, and ability matter. And I believe we will all reap the benefits and blessings of those values.
For the first time since I was 5, I can find excitement about the possibilities of the political process. And I am thrilled that when my almost 5 year old white grandson, Damon, hears "President," he pictures someone who looks like Peepaw and he knows it's Barack Obama. And when my granddaughter, Chelsea, is 5 years old (and Damon is 9), her only Presidential memory will be someone with the character of Barack Obama.