When speaking about Israel’s Exile in Babylon, the prophets speak of it as a period of judgment in which the silence of God was deafening. During this tragic period, the remnant of God’s people struggled to find their identity and they fought to return to a sense of divine purpose. Yet, even in the midst of depression, Israel’s prophets spoke about a time of renewal and hope. Jeremiah captures this sentiment as he voices the promise of God, “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
This past Tuesday, as I watched with many others the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States, I recalled this period in Israel’s history and the hope about which the prophets spoke, even in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles. The somber and often depressing morale that has recently characterized our nation due to a greed induced financial crisis that weighs heavily on the poor and middle classes, the continuation of two seemingly endless wars, and the decline of America’s moral reputation on an international scale have gripped this nation much like the period of Exile tore at the Hebrew people. But as those people heard the promises of God through the voice of their prophets, I felt on Tuesday that we were perhaps hearing the voice of God after a period of divine silence.
To describe my thoughts in religious terms, I felt a great awareness of God’s presence. This is not to say that Barack Obama is a messiah figure, for the moment was greater than the man upon whom the day was focused; indeed it must be. Nor do I mean to imply that we are now becoming a “Christian” nation; indeed we cannot. But to use religious language to describe my thoughts on Tuesday, I felt that I was not witnessing so much the inauguration of a president, as I was participating in a revival meeting that was calling all of us to repentance, redemption and renewal.
I use the image of the Exile, for in my mind, although certainly not in the minds of others, the voice of God has been conspicuously missing in our leadership over the last eight years. This does not mean that religion or references to God have been missing, or that we must be religious to be moral. But I have sensed for quite some time that our government has failed to be the voice of justice, peace, and hope. Instead, the message of the last eight years has been one of arrogance, violence, and fear. While leaders can often throw the name of God around in order to give some divine credibility to their decisions and policies, this does not mean their words or their actions reflect the character of God.
The past eight years remind me very much of the words of another prophet, who spoke judgment upon the leaders of Israel because they had failed to lead as God had willed. Ezekiel declares God’s disgust for the leaders of Israel, rebuking them for not feeding the sheep. And in a strong statement of reproach God tells these shepherds, “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:4). Have not the actions of our recent leaders done the same?
Yet, the inauguration of a man whose race has historically been disenfranchised, ridiculed, and persecuted stands to symbolize a starting over. The inauguration was a moment of healing and transformation for our nation; a moment when we could all acknowledge as a collective people of diverse races, religious or non-religious, republicans or democrats, and all the differences that often divide us, that the time is now for moving out of the grips of prejudice and intolerance of all kinds, unfair economic policies that hold down the poor, and a foreign policy that is haphazard, provincial, and fueled by the power of fear rather than power of the common good.
As a person of faith, I heard the voice of God speak through the moments and the words of the inauguration, even to the end when Rev. Lowery voiced a benediction that served as a call to respond. For in the historic moments we all witnessed and shared on Tuesday, we were called to return to the moral center of what is right, good, and just for our nation, and indeed the world. We were called to look outside ourselves, embrace all others through love and service, work for justice and peace in our world, and face the challenges our recent Exile has brought upon us.