Sunday, January 30, 2011

Vilification and Violence…and President Obama’s Leadership

Not long after the Tucson shootings, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County, Arizona made statements blaming the recent heated rhetoric and political vitriol for the shootings: “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous." He added that Arizona had become a "mecca of prejudice and bigotry.” (With the latter comment, he seemed to be referencing Arizona’s notorious S.B. 1070.) Sheriff Dupnik attracted both jeers and praise for encouraging a toned down approach to political discourse.

I must admit that when I first heard of Sheriff Dupnik’s comments I instinctively praised his statements in my mind. My initial gut reaction was that he was right. I have been dismayed by the violent imagery used in some political websites and the uncompromising, intolerant tone employed by some in recent civic discourse. GOP senatorial nominee, Sharron Angle, made references several months ago to “second amendment remedies” in fighting government opponents she viewed as “tyrannical.” To me, that was probably the most chilling political vitriol because of the explicit linking of violence to political disagreement. However, I don’t think Ms. Angle was alone in her views; she was just more up-front and transparent about her attitude.

I do still believe there is a lot of merit to encouraging a more civil approach to politics. But I don’t think it is entirely fair to blame the Tucson shootings on politicians like Sarah Palin (as some have). By all accounts, the Tucson gunman was a very troubled man; he had serious issues that may have prompted violence even in a more temperate political climate. Not long after the Tucson shootings, NPR had an insightful report on the motivations of past political assassinations. The bottom line of their report was that political assassinations are rarely politically motivated.

I listened to President Obama’s speech at the Tucson Memorial Service. His words broke my heart, but also encouraged and up-lifted me. When he was done with his speech, I prayed with moist eyes in thanksgiving for such a wise president.

For those who have questioned President Obama’s assertion that he is a Christian, I think his speech provided ample evidence of the sincerity of his faith. President Obama could have easily pointed a finger at the over-the-top, inflammatory, anti-government rhetoric of many on the right. Many would have thought him justified. After all, he has been the recipient of incessant, ridiculous, baseless attacks against his faith and his citizenship. The current minority leader of the Senate has publicly announced his party’s priority of blocking the president from achieving any of his goals simply to ensure he does not win re-election. In that context, Mr. Obama had the right to chastise those on the right who have attacked him mercilessly with such an over-the-top approach.

But President Obama did not use the attention focused on him in that speech to chastise the right. Instead, he rebuked those on the left who were tempted to point fingers at the right for the Tucson shootings. President Obama called for us all to recognize that we share much in common and to work to make this country as good as Christina-Taylor Green believed it was. He encouraged us to recognize our interdependence and to work for the common good. He also encouraged us to recognize that relationships are more important than anything else in our lives. At a time when he could have sowed more anger and division for political gain, President Obama opted to not do that. In some ways I was surprised that he did not go in that direction. I was very proud and humbled by his speech.

Having grown up in D.C., I don’t tend to get idealistic about politicians. Despite being a pretty optimistic person in most situations, I tend to be pretty cynical about the motives of politicians. But President Obama’s speech lured me away from that cynicism and gave me great reason to admire him. I am grateful for his leadership, and in my own small way, in my own little corner of the world, I too want to make this a better country so that the hopes of idealists like Christina-Taylor Green and Gabriel Zimmerman will be vindicated.

Luke 6:27-37 (New American Standard Bible)

"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
"Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.
"Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.
"Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
"If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
"If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount.
"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.
"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.

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