If the trumpet give an uncertain sound

I thought it was striking that the President quoted Scripture at the memorial for the Newtown victims on Monday. Traditional Democrat tendencies (at least in recent decades) might have been to shy away from such Christian rhetoric — especially given the “inter-faith” nature of the event. But Obama, by his own account a practicing Christian, spoke from a position of that faith. In my view, this was entirely appropriate. Inter-faith dialogue does not mean that faiths are checked at the door, but rather — exactly to the contrary — that they are welcome to come in as they are. Moreover, if respecting others’ faiths means anything, it means expecting that one’s own faith (or lack thereof) will be respected in the same way. For the whole idea is that each individual’s speaking-position is something she or he can’t just lay aside. Thus Obama, as a Christian, showed maximum respect and humility for the dialogue by speaking Christianly. He would have been condescending and inauthentic — he would have been speaking in bad faith — if he had offered only the usual post-modern and non-sectarian homilies. You know the sort of thing: let’s all come together, rise above our troubles, seek the light, etc.

And yet: I thought the President’s choice of scripture was pretty striking, too. He quoted 2nd Corinthians 4.16-18, in the New International Version (NIV). I did NOT know that just from reading his address; I had to Google the quote, just like everybody else. As a matter of fact, I was initially unsure, despite his “Scripture tells us,” that Obama was quoting the Bible at all. The second letter to the Corinthians is pretty obscure, I think (Biblical scholars are welcome to correct me), lying as it does in the massive rhetorical shadow of First Corinthians (with its through a glass darkly, faith hope charity, etc.). 2.Cor.4.16-18, specifically, is one of the relatively few passages in any of Paul’s Epistles that make no mention of Jesus, or the Church. It is one of the very few in Paul that sound rather like a non-sectarian post-modern homily — a lot of generic stuff about not losing heart, seeking inward renewal, looking to eternity, etc. The incredibly bland prose of the NIV, which would not be out of place in a self-help book, doesn’t help. (Obviously, I’m a King James man myself). Add it all up and you have the President quoting Scripture at the Newtown memorial, but in such a way that he was almost not quoting Scripture. It was as if he was trying to sneak the Bible in; to screen it, rather than to show it.

I think that’s unfortunate. For two reasons. First: the careful choice of such an unscripturey scripture does tend to weaken, along the lines I’ve already indicated, the authenticity and sincerity of Obama’s speech. And second: The President was speaking at the advent of a domestic political crisis that contains within itself the potential for a tremendous social renewal. Across the media and political landscapes of the United States, people who have previously hidden their support for gun control, or have actively campaigned against it, are suddenly and as if through an awakening standing up and saying that the wind has changed. If the President is to lead  on this issue, if he is to seize and augment the progressive momentum that has been unleashed since the Newtown shootings, he will need to be, not just a manager, or a figurehead, or a decision-maker — but a teacher, a father, a preacher. In the idiom of St. Paul, Obama will need to prophesy. And this not in any generic mode, but in a manifestly Christian one.

After all, the gun-madness of contemporary US political culture (like the reactionary-right-wing-madness of which it is a subset), is not a Jewish or a Muslim or an interfaith problem. It is a Christian problem. The politics of firearms extremism in the US is intimately intertwined with the politics of evangelical Christianity, in all its dogmatic self-caricature. The way to cut this knot is not to concede Christianity to ignorant reactionaries, but to reclaim it from them. And although I am not myself a practicing Christian (or anything else), I know enough of the Bible and of Christian tradition to believe quite passionately that such a reclamation is entirely possible. I have always thought it one of the long-term disasters of modern American politics that progressive leaders have abandoned Christianity, which is so deeply-rooted in so many areas of American society, to the reductive right-wing. Less than fifty years ago, it was not so: the civil-rights struggle would never have succeeded without the churches, and the transformative work of Martin Luther King was saturated with the Bible through and through. Obama, perhaps more than any Democrat since King, may have the capacity to re-articulate for Americans the meaning of the Christian testament. And if he doesn’t, I do not believe that he will be able to achieve very much on gun control.

So I hope that Obama will speak to this issue, precisely as a Christian, sincerely, fully, and openly. I hope he comes out swinging, with Jesus and Paul and John. I’m afraid, though, that prophet is a role he does not quite want; that passion threatens his coolness. I’m afraid he will flinch, as he did at Newtown, when asked to speak from his faith.

And then who shall prepare for the battle? (1 Cor. 14.8)

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). In 2012, I initiated the international conference series "Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World."

2 thoughts on “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound”

  1. As always on your blogs, I completely agree with about half of what you wirite…. Maybe I will start more in-depth comments here

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