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President Obama’s Christmas Message 2009 (Guest Post)

January 6, 2010

by Keith Helmuth, a member of FCNL’s General Committee

I have been moved to compose this imaginary Christmas message for President Obama because his moral defense of the use of military force is a profound opening for dialogue. His thinking has a background understanding of moral development like no President before him. Every time he speaks he plays the role of national, and at times international, teacher. Based on his Nobel Prize acceptance speech and subsequent interviews, this is a Christmas message I can imagine him giving. Agree or disagree, he is offering all who ponder the question of moral development and the human future the opportunity of deeply thoughtful engagement.

– Keith Helmuth
Composed from a waking dream.

Every tradition of world religion has a collection of stories that carries its special truth to the heart of its followers. Yet, true seekers of the common good find in each tradition a story of relationship that speaks to the moral core of human development.

At this season, when several religious traditions have chosen to highlight the core message of their stories, we have a special opportunity to find the convergence of insight, understanding, and, yes, even love that will build the path of peace and diminish the resort to war.

I have no particular moral standing from which to speak of these things. I offered to lead a nation at war and my offer was accepted. My moral standing is thus radically compromised. But I know this: Although our nation is traveling through a dark time of war-making, we can be better than we have been. We can, through sacrifice, persistence, and heroism, bring this time of violence to an end, or at least, greatly reduce the size and growth potential of this malignancy. To this outcome, I pledge my leadership and my sense of moral development.

As a token of this quest, I am ordering an end to the flights of drone aircraft and their rocket attacks that are killing and maiming mothers and children in the villages of Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan.

Think about it: We mourn the lost potential of children in our country who are killed young. Who knows what spiritual leadership, scientific contribution, artistic inspiration, or social and political accomplishments are being cut off, never to be realized, when children are killed by these attacks?

Are not the lives of these children of equal value in the eye of God? There can be no legitimate concept of God’s love that does not hold all children in equal care. And children need mothers.

The Christian faith, my faith, begins with a story of Divine presence in the birth of a baby. Surely this event – the birth of a baby – can be universally recognized as the way the gift of life and love comes to us whatever our cultural and religious traditions.

We live in a time when the stories of our religious traditions, and their understanding of both wrong and right relationships, are converging as never before. The human emergency of an expanding population on a resource limited and environmentally deteriorating planet, along with historic and seemingly intractable inequity, has now put the question of moral development at the center of the human future. If we act according to the gift of life and love as it comes to us in our children, and make the well being of children our moral compass, surely our religious traditions have within them the potential of rising to challenge of the human future.

I understand that there are those in some religious traditions that reject both the idea and the reality of the common good. These folks interpret their religious stories in a partial way, a way that concerns primarily the well being of their sectarian, ethnic, or national group. This is understandable. My own tradition has a background story that is built on this partial and sectarian world-view: Understandable, perhaps, but not sustainable, and not in accord with the understanding of the larger human story to which we have now been lifted.

I have the honor of having been chosen to act for a brief time as President of the United States of America. Speaking from this position, I recently argued in my Nobel Prize acceptance speech that war is sometimes a tragic and sad necessity that can be supported on moral grounds. I was careful to point out that war is always the result of human failings and deeply wrong relationships. It should never be glorified. It is inevitably a moral catastrophe that, paradoxically, can sometimes claim moral standing.

While this argument makes sense, I know it does not suffice as a guide to the moral development to which we aspire. We live in a circumstance that requires us to hold this paradox in mind.  Yet despite the burden of this situation, I am determined, as President, to work unceasingly for a better way.

In this spirit, I want to share something from the heart of my tradition that I believe offers a profound anchor point of experience for a growing sense of human solidarity.  It is not an accident that the Christmas tradition has become centered on family, and most particularly on the hopes and dreams of children. Despite the commercial exploitation of this reality, it remains true that, at this time, the mystery of a baby’s birth – the gift of life – and the formation of family ties is brought to us in a story that never grows old.

Overarching all the theological accretions that have been attached to the story of the birth of Jesus, we have the fundamental story of new creation, the story of the way life comes to us, and the unfolding potential, in human terms, of this Divine gift.

At this deepest level of awareness, my tradition can joins hands with all other religious traditions in respect and reverence for the gift of life we all share.

At this season, we are especially aware of how mothers and infants, and the building of the family circle are central to all we hold dear and most meaningful in human experience. For Christians there is no clearer image of the Divine than mother and child. And this central motif of creation can join all religious traditions in a bond of recognition around right relationship, and in a quest for the common good.

When I think about the way war fails this bond and this quest, and, in particular, the way it destroys and damages the lives of mothers and children, I am caught in an unbearable circumstance. Many others are also feeling the weight of our terrible war-making situation and, together, we press with all our resources to reach a better time – a time when war is ended and every effort is bent, henceforth, toward its prevention.

I said in my Nobel Prize acceptance speech that although human nature is not perfect, it is not an idle or useless quest to work for the perfecting of the human condition. We know this to be true. The evidence is all around us in the great humanitarian work that continues to be done, and in the steps, as faltering as they may be, toward global cooperation on securing a better human future.

I am not naïve. Stopping the drones and their rocket attacks will not absolutely end the killing of children and mothers in the present conflict, but it will be a step in this direction, a step we can take that honors the way all sound religious faith comes together in a quest for the common good.

Maybe, just maybe, this small gesture of respect for the lives of children and mothers will help move the hearts and minds of those who wish us harm to seek another way of bringing their hopes and faith to the table of our common humanity.

– 23 December 2009


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