NOTE: The following is not an endorsement of all of President Obama’s policies nor an endorsement of the Democratic party. The intention is to reflect on the content of a single speech as it impacted a single writer.
On January 10, 2017, President Obama delivered his formal farewell speech to end his eight year term. The speech had layers of declarations and reflections, but his call for ordinary citizens to take action most resonated with me.
Threats to Democracy
To briefly summarize, President Obama focused on the “the state of our democracy.” He spent much of his time explaining four contemporary threats to democracy. The first threat, according to the President, was a lack of basic unity. Using economics as his main example, he decried growing levels of inequality that separates Americans between those with ample or anemic levels of opportunity. The second threat President Obama identified was that of racial division. He challenged Americans, both in the racial minority and the majority, to see the humanity in every other citizen and emphasize their shared concerns and hopes. The third threat to democracy was giving in to fear. He named an eroding commitment to truth, a lack of willingness to change one’s mind in the face of new information, and the inability to work cooperatively with people of different convictions as dangerous to democracy.
The final threat to democracy President Obama identified was the temptation to take democracy for granted. “All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.” This charge to all citizens of the United States to participate in the democratic process and the high responsibility of self-governance comes at a time of tense and angry public interactions.
“Lace Up Your Shoes”
No matter what place on the political spectrum one resides, the desire for change in the nation and politics is probably strong. In what some view as a referendum on the status quo, voters elected Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. A heated and polarizing campaign demonstrated the disconnect between many Americans. Democrats and Republicans. Conservatives and Liberals. Christians and Seculars. Rich and Poor. Men and Women. The nation seems increasingly divided into binaries that allow little room for moderation and cooperation.
The whirlwind of opinions and complexity threatens to draw ordinary citizens into its vortex and cause them to be at odds with enemies both real and perceived. In such a vitriolic climate, the temptation could be to seek shelter and let others endure the brutal winds of democracy. But the President encouraged citizens to engagement rather than retreat. “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.” President Obama’s words should remind Christians of their responsibility as citizens in both a heavenly and earthly kingdom.
Citizenship in the Heavenly Kingdom
President Obama said, “For all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen. Citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you.” He emphasized our common identity as members of this nation and used it to challenge all of us to action.
For Christians, this language of “citizen” should evoke powerful parallels with biblical imagery. Speaking of the reconciliation of all believers in Christ, Paul says to the Ephesians, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (Ephesians 2:19). And to the Philippians he says, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). Christians, through faith in the Savior, retain a divine citizenship in the heavenly kingdom.
As members of the heavenly kingdom, eternal privileges and responsibilities have devolved to us. In addition to the responsibility to be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 11:44), Christians must also pursue the flourishing of the earthly kingdom where they reside. “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:4) The “city” need not exclusively refer to urban locales but wherever believers live as a prophetic minority in the midst of the waxing and waning kingdoms of this earth. The verse enjoins the faithful to actively participate in the upbuilding of people and places. It opens the way for Christians to work for the public good in every manner of profession and calling.
Faith in Jesus Christ should not only affect our personal piety but extend to the public good. Matthew 5:13-16 speaks of Christ followers living as salt and light in the world. We should preserve that which is good in the culture and illuminate the way of righteousness to an onlooking world. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). We don’t change the world by acting like bashful believers. Instead, we boldly enter into the decaying and dark places to proclaim the good news through both words and actions. Our “good works” serve as a light pointing the way to the Father in heaven.
Obama’s challenge to join in the democratic enterprise of the United States has a much deeper root than he acknowledged. In Genesis 1:28, the Lord commands human beings, “‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” God gave us this good earth to cultivate and enjoy. The command to exercise benevolent dominion as stewards of God’s creation remains even after the entrance of sin in the world. Culture can be good, and it can be redeemed. Christians should celebrate this world as the canvas of manifold beauty the Lord created it to be. We exercise the cultural mandate as artists, teachers, parents, politicians, and more. But God’s command to subdue the earth gives eternal meaning to our quotidian labors.
To be citizens of the heavenly kingdom, to live as salt and light in the world, and to fulfill the cultural mandate mean Christians can and should heed President Obama’s charge to exercise the “power of ordinary Americans to bring about change.” We have the responsibility, because of our faith in God and our citizenship in his kingdom, to be vigorous activists for the common good and human flourishing. As Christians we do not have the option of disconnecting our faith from the the fate of the nation. Belief in Christ should motivate acts of compassion and justice in the public sphere.
Show Up. Dive in. Stay at it.
Yet Christians labor for a higher calling and a greater purpose than the prosperity of America and her citizens. Since our citizenship is in heaven our allegiance is not to a president but to a king. We don’t put our hopes in a new administration that may last four or eight years and is confined to political borders, but we anticipate an eternal administration whose dominion is cosmic in scope. We look forward to the day when our efforts at reform will not yield partial and imperfect results and instead set our eyes on the day when the Lord will make all things new and wipe every tear from every eye (Revelation 21:4). The certain hope of God’s heavenly kingdom coming to earth should fuel our conviction to listen to President Obama’s words of commissioning. “Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”