Rev. Barack Obama let loose a few homiletic zingers this week from his bully pulpit.
“Bully Pulpit” is a phrase coined by Pres. Teddy Roosevelt over 100 years ago to describe the White House, and how it gave him access and authority to speak out on any issue. “I suppose my critics will call that preaching,” he said, “but I have got such a bully pulpit!”
By “bully” he meant jolly good! Today we might say “awesome!” We still occasionally use “bully” this way; “Bully for you” means congratulations, good job.
But mostly when we say bully these days it’s negative, meaning “the use of force, threat or coercion to abuse, intimidate or aggressively dominate others….especially in a setting of imbalance social or physical power.”
Depending on how you feel about Obama, you can say, “Bully for you!” Keep it up!
Or, if you are a right wing Evangelical Christian with a victim complex, you whine and say, “Stop bullying me.”
I am usually in the former camp, as I was this week after his sermon at the annual White House Prayer Breakfast.
(I’m trying to be a little ironic, or sarcastic here – I hope you notice - by calling him Rev. Obama, referring to his speeches as sermons. His critics object to him being so “preachy,” which I gather means that he tells other people how they are wrong and should do something different. As a volunteer guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium I am encouraged to tell visitors about the environmental crises facing the ocean and what they can do to help. But some of my fellow guides object, saying they don’t want to sound “preachy.” To which I say, “Right on, preach it, sister!” I have heard as many bad patronizing sermons as the next person, maybe more, but I still object to “preachy” as a putdown. It just means to break open the truth in love. That’s my sermon.)
What appalled right wing evangelical Christians this week was this section of Obama’s brief remarks at the annual White House Prayer Breakfast:
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.
And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.
Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth -- our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.
Predictable critics like Glenn Beck and Southern Baptist leaders tried to say that the Crusaders and the KKK weren’t “really Christian,” that they had not been supported by the mainstream, that it was all in the past, that this was a false equivalency, that Obama was a disgrace to America, etc. It was all pretty predictable, and pathetic, and embarrassing, and depressing, and annoying.
These folks often do this fake victim thing, poor us minority Christians, why are people so mean to us? They might have even have said they felt bullied, but they probably wouldn’t have wanted to admit Obama has more power than they do. Glen Beck came close when he demanded the President “Stop lecturing us. Please Mr. President, pipe down” about how bad we Americans are.
By contrast, one pastor who was there wrote that the references to Christian violence and sin were a small part of a larger talk that received a standing ovation and that the media reports were unfair distortions of a “confessional, bridge building” talk.
Another pastor wrote a good description of Obama’s remarks as a faithful example of liberal Protestant theology in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr. He especially noted and appreciated Obama’s assertion that faith at its center should include humility and doubt. His critics on the right go crazy when he talks like this; to them, faith means having no doubts whatever, and that to practice humility is weak wimpiness.
If we’re looking for bullies in America it would be Cheney and his gang, backed up by this Christian right exceptionalism and triumphalism. Obama is the anti-bully. He’s the kid on the playground trying to reach out, find common ground, admit where he is wrong and invite conversation. Teachers say bullies are usually insecure kids who have been deeply hurt at home (or who have watched too many Glenn Beck shows.) They just want attention. Ignoring them is always a good response. That’s what I try to do.
But to Obama I say, Bully for you. Preach it, brother.
Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter