Tag Archives: President Obama

Nobody’s Perfect

Nobodys Perfect

When I was young, my mother made embroideries with inspirational messages for my brother and me to hang above our beds. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” read my brother’s plaque, while mine simply said “nobody’s perfect.” Mirroring our different temperaments, the messages were both uplifting and grounding at the same time. My embroidery was a picture of three owls sitting on a tree branch, with one hanging upside down. Garrison Keillor would have a field day with them in the Lutheran world of Lake Wobegon. It was a message of strength and humility I needed to hear.

This week it is US President Obama who seems to be the “odd man out” with his “crusade controversy” at the national prayer breakfast. So it seems fitting to share a lesson that has preoccupied me since childhood. Even if you feel you know the truth and are right to say or do something, sometimes it is better to refrain judgement until you are sure. The reasons for circumspection are various. Sometimes it’s not the right timing and sometimes you are just wrong or out of context. I think that both were the case in Obama’s ill-informed statements.

Errors in judgement are human and with everyone watching every word of the President, all of the time, there’s little margin for error. President Obama shouldn’t have used the national prayer breakfast to draw an unjust moral equivalency between past and present wrongdoings. It would have been sufficient to re-emphasize that America is not at war with Islam. Too often, critics have accused President Obama of “lecturing” instead of leading. This time they are unfortunately right. Not only is it detrimental to his integrity as President, the poor timing undermines what is ostensibly a meeting of the minds around the world that the current and ongoing brutality by religious extremism is singularly and absolutely wrong.

While I sometimes applaud the President for his good intentions, I am now reminded of the proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and of its biblical reference in Matthew 7:13

Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter through it.

Sometimes it is harder *not* to say something than it is to say it. And many are those in the era of social media who are quick to spout off in public when a more quiet forum of reflection is called for. Too often our ego leads us to say things we later do (or should) regret. By making a broad brushed historical comparison, President Obama missed the mark. His speechwriters should have known better.

But, again, as my mother would say: “nobody’s perfect.” All we can do is learn from our experience and move forward with humility and commitment to do better in the future. As much as the President likes to tackle hard issues head-on, he should also follow the advice in the iconic 20th century prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.

In this case, the President should have left a millennium old discussion to the historians and used his wisdom and courage as President to focus on his current leadership duties.

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Sheep vs. Goats

Screenshot 2014-07-09 11.32.36 Source: UNHCR

If Christian life is full of hardship, whose suffering is worse: the fate of a lost and hungry child or that of the family “forced” to take the child in? Wasn’t it also the fate of Jesus to wander in search of those who are loving and faithful – not only to the Son of God, but also to each other.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.

Matthew 25:35

The United States prides itself as an exceptional nation and a beacon for the poor and downtrodden. Conservatives across the country are quick to declare their moral views and family values. When faced with the current refugee crisis on the southern border, however, these good shepherds look more like the euphemistic goat.

Americans outraged by the inflows of children and their mothers from Central America should consider this – you are not alone. Just this year more that 68,000 refugees from Africa crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy, slightly higher than the number of “illegals” entering the US during the same time frame – and the European refugees were mostly adults, not children. In fact, the most recent UNHCR data shows that many other countries are shouldering a much larger burden than the United States. The number of refugees to the US pales by comparison with Europe for example. At only a quarter of the size of the United States, Germany took in 600,000 refugees in 2010 compared with less than 300.000 refugees to the US.

While the humanitarian refugee crisis is also hotly debated in Europe, it’s mostly a debate about an acceptable level of care for refugees and their equitable distribution within the EU while giving the refugees due process to plead their case. In the US, on the other hand, the debate centers around how to beef up border security and “protect the homeland” against “illegals.” Shutting their eyes to the real source of the humanitarian crisis in Central America, unchristian-like protesters prefer to blame President Obama and block busses of immigrants from entering their communities. Ironically, the more generous European policies are arguably the result of enlightened post WWII politics which were shaped at least in part by the United States.

The reality is that the United States AND Europe ARE beacons of hope for many around the world. Increasing numbers of refugees are not the result of failed border controls, but a symptom of the growing income inequality in parts of the world that Pope Francis discussed with President Obama during their visit in March. Clearly the United States and Europe cannot integrate all of the world’s suffering people into their countries – and yes they have many of their own problems to solve. Unless Americans wake up to the true reality and invest more time and energy in the political and economic development of their neighbor states (instead of fighting long distance wars), the refugee crisis will continue.

In the meantime it would be a welcome change of tone if more Americans would demonstrate a little more patience and Christian-like compassion while working with the President on meaningful long-term immigration reform. Progressive or conservative, most Americans should be able to find common ground. I pray that Washington just gets it done.

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40

Refugees in EU

Let leaders lead.

Ironically, the day after the Washington Post published an article about President Obama’s  failures as a leader, it praised the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI as a true act of leadership that gave way to Pope Francis. Their conclusion: “sometimes the most meaningful way to lead is to know when it’s time to leave.”

While the newspaper and many other critics of the US President rightly point out that “the poor messaging, the lack of commitment to strong, effective government, and the president’s aversion to treating the problem with an aggressiveness that equaled its magnitude” have undermined the president’s authority, it would hardly be considered an act of leadership if the President of the United States simply walked away from his job. To be clear, the Washington Post did not suggest that the President should resign amidst  doubts about his leadership, but the proximity of the two articles and an ongoing debate about a crisis in Washington does suggest a loss of faith in the president and his ability to govern.

Leadership is not and never should be just about charisma and the bully pulpit. If that were the case, the chances for Chris Christie in 2016 are still pretty good. It should also be about the issues. For those of us who believe that Obama can and should do more to fulfill the spirit of his 2008 election there is still (fading) hope, but only if the nation at large finally gets behind him. Good and effective leaders, after all, need a congregation ready and willing to follow.

As it is written in St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews 13:17,

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

To the faithful freedom fighters that may sound heretical, but unlike the papacy, governing in a democracy is as much about the system of government as it is about the person who governs. People are elected with an open and well debated agenda and elections are supposed to matter. Unfortunately, gerrymandered congressional districts and a fractious, belligerent political arena too often stands in the way of change as populist forces can just wait out their opponents from their save havens of political combat. It’s as if the preacher had to put up with spitballs from the front pew with willing parishioners idly standing by.

The real virtue of the 86 year-old Pope Benedict – who as reported by the Washington Post admits that he no longer had the “strength of mind and body” for the job – was the courage and humility to let the Church move on when he could no longer keep up with it. President Obama, while no doubt tired and worn down after 5 years of public groaning, still has plenty of vigor left in him. It’s time for the public to stop bellyaching and focus their soul searching instead on what we can do to make things better until the next election. Then we can decide on a new course.