Seeing the throngs of men, women and children in Chicago’s Grant Park cheering the nation’s first African-American president-elect; hearing civil rights lions like Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Roger Wilkins and Andrew Young grope for words when describing their feelings about the election; listening to black schoolchildren on television express in simple phrases what Barack Obama’s achievement meant to them; watching replays of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declaim “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; and downloading videos of jubilant crowds in the Nairobi slums chanting a Kenyan surname over and over—all this made me think of a passage from the New Testament: the Magnificat.
Fifty-six million voters did not vote for Senator Obama; some reports claim that almost 50 of the 267 active U.S. Catholic bishops stated that it was a grave sin (some called it cooperation in murder) to cast a vote for the Illinois senator; many priests warned parishioners against making such a choice; and millions of Catholics, even if they did not agree with their pastors, did not vote for Obama because their overall political views were more closely aligned with those of Sen. John McCain.
But were there many Christians, even Obama opponents, who watched their African-American brothers and sisters weeping tears of jubilation and pride, whose hearts were unmoved by the transformation among a people who had suffered for so long? Many must have heard echoes of Mary’s words in the Gospel of Luke: “He has...lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things....” In Mary’s song of praise, God visits an oppressed people and restores their fortunes “according to the promises he made to our ancestors.”
The civil rights movement sprang from African-American churches that believed God would rescue the poor, that the Spirit would lead them and that Jesus loved them. Dr. King used familiar biblical imagery—in particular, the exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egyptian slavery—to call a community to hope in the face of fear. “One day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together,” he said in 1963, paraphrasing Isaiah. This is prophetic language. It looks ahead to the “one day” when God’s justice will set things right.
But who would have thought that the upending of the status quo would happen so quickly? Robert F. Kennedy, for one. In 1968 Senator Kennedy said, “Things are moving so fast that a Negro could be president in 40 years.” It must have seemed outlandish at the time. Five years earlier, Dr. King had been arrested in Birmingham. And just a year earlier, riots in Newark and Detroit had stripped the country of hope. But the prophet sees that some day “one day” will be today.
John LaFarge, S.J., adverted to this hope in one of his most popular books. Father LaFarge, a longtime editor of America, was deeply involved in interracial issues in the 1930s, when Robert Kennedy was still a boy. In The Race Question and the Negro, published in 1943, he examined the perils of racism and confidently concluded that even someone infected by prejudice will “by the logic of his own principles and by the light of his own experience...come to this road at long last.”
That is why the scenes in Grant Park were so moving. The “one day” had come “at long last.”
Despite the passionate rhetoric used to describe Mr. Obama, he is neither a messiah nor the anti-Christ. But his election is a sign that believers downplay only if they wish to downplay God’s activity in the world. It is a sign that the “lowly” can be lifted up—to previously unimaginable heights. That the “hungry” can be filled with the nourishing food of jubilation, pride and hope. That the valleys shall be exalted. That the mountaintop is a real place.
Not every Christian rejoiced in the election results. But every Christian who knows the Gospels, even those who disagree with Barack Obama’s politics, can be gladdened to see this particular sign of progress. “We rejoice with the rest of our nation,” wrote Archbishop Donald T. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., “at the significance of this time.”
For this sign our souls should magnify the Lord.