, , , , ,

Here is another section of Barack Obama’s list of unfinished justice business, matters over which he has some hope he can make a difference in his remaining time in office. Although he agrees that “all societies ills can[not] be cured through government” he notes that in order for “initiative and enterprise,” “hard work and personal responsibility” to pay off, communal resources are often needed to level the board.

War Forever?

We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our citizens seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace, and not just the war. Who turn sworn enemies into the surest of friends. And we must carry those lessons into this time as well. We will defend our people, and uphold our values through strength of arms, and the rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully. Not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.

This President inherited two wars from an administration which was arguably dedicated to a policy of perpetual war. (After all, a “war against terror” is war without an end.) He has ended one war front and is on track to end another, thus staunching a budget-busting hemorrhage of national resources. The Commander in Chief has no plan to start another war; he is actually more interested in making friends with former enemies than in boosting sales figures for Halliburton, Boeing and Alliant Tech Systems. Then, again, before we get too warm and fuzzy, this is Obama, the President who has elevated the use of drone warfare to unheard-of levels: six strikes a day on average. Peace talk is cheap; many want peace walk and justice.

Why Wage Justice and Peace?

Not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes; tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.

Here the President restates and reaffirms his concern for these matters of justice. He does not say he is concerned solely because of altruism but because if one is not working to advance these principles then one is losing ground. Here the President links life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with traditional liberal concerns such as tolerance. (No notion is more “liberal” than tolerance! ‘I will leave you alone if you will leave me the same’; that is pure and simple tolerance, the basic liberal idea: “your right to extend your fist stops somewhere short of my nose.”)

For Obama the extension of these principles to every person has to do with what happens in societies when the wealthy become a small, powerful and isolated elite. Such societies have seeded their own destruction. As one pundit puts it, ʻwhen capitalism serves only a few, it has reached its cancerous phase.ʼ

Although the political side of full and multifaceted life is but a small aspect for most people, when money and power are grotesquely out of whack the way they are in our society, the issue of distributive justice looms large. There is no power on earth that can sustain elites who suppose all happens for their benefit. The prophets Amoz, Micah and Isaiah as well as the author of Proverbs, John the Baptizer and the apostle James all discuss in vivid and sometimes gross detail what happens to the wealthy in such circumstances.

Why, after all, did the über-rich Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, become the first progressive President? When his boss, President McKinley was shot dead, as dead as James Garfield had been shot twenty years before, Roosevelt looked into the maw of chaos, the black hole of an increasingly desperate electorate and he had a kind of epiphany. He came to realize what Karl Marx had been writing a mere fifty years before: if you will not extend opportunities for God’s blessings to all the people you will have the Devil’s nightmarish curse on your hands. Enlightened, self-interested progressivism was born in a cauldron of fear, unrest and hope.

A Third (Civil) Right(s) Cause

We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

Seneca Falls? Many search engines were humming to pull up references to this place after the speech, mine Included:

The Seneca Falls Convention was an early and influential women’s rights convention, the first to be organized by women in the Western world, in Seneca Falls, New York, July 19–20, 1848. It was planned by local New York women upon the occasion of a visit by Philadelphia-based Lucretia Mott, a Quaker famous for her oratorical ability, a skill rarely cultivated by American women at the time. (Wikipedia article)

It was an early, incisive and influential feminist gathering. The long and contentious feminist movement led, among other goals, to the full suffrage of women seventy-two years after Seneca Falls and it led eventually, to the feminist movement of the 1970s. We are all better for this. (There is nothing less interesting than a submissive woman unless it is a submissive man!)

“Selma” was a high point in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, when, in March, 1965, people involved in a non-violent voter registration drive were marching from Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery, to protest a murder of one of their own by a policeman. On Sunday, some 600 marchers were attacked and dispersed by local police. Early on Tuesday, some 2500 marchers crossed a bridge outside Selma and were driven back by club-wielding local and state police, using tear gas. Finally, two weeks later, a much larger crowd, under the protection of over four thousand federal troops, FBI personnel and federal marshals, made their way over ten days to the Alabama state capital where the marchers unsuccessfully petitioned Governor George Wallace for relief and protection.

I was sixteen years old, living far from Selma in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois. I remember the Selma march quite well. “Selma” was afterward synonymous with the justice of the civil rights movement.

And Stonewall? This was the third name in the triplet which brought so many people hope. In the opening lines of a Wikipedia article:

The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. They are widely considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for gay and lesbian rights in the United States.

In late June of 1969 a young married guy, just back home to Philadelphia from my sister’s wedding in Winnetka, I missed any mention of Stonewall in the media. Had I heard about it I probably would not have thought much of it. Times and attitudes have changed since then: which was the President’s point.

In U.S. history, the feminist movement has brought great strides for women in the direction of inclusion in those three essential conditions for building a good life. Same for Blacks since Selma. And Obama’s point was, same for gays. Using an official state document, an Inaugural Address, the President explicitly and implicitly linked the gay rights struggle with the fraternity of other efforts at inclusion in the unalienable rights which, when they were first inscribed, were only meant for white men who owned real estate.


Thank you, God, that justice is right and so satisfying to those who pursue it. Thank you that justice is also smart and that those who can rouse themselves from the fear of change and of “other people” long enough to realize their own long-term best interests can also become seekers of justice. We thank you, Lord, that millions of folks in a matter of a few years have realized the justice of marital rights for all. May we come far and soon on many other issues which we face, especially the degradation of a livable climate on this earth. I pray for this President, Lord, that in his desire to honor you and his hope for fair renown, he may make a good difference in his moment in this nation and this world. In the name of our king, the Lord Jesus, Amen.