I awoke Tuesday morning with the voice of Barack Obama in my ears. NPR is my alarm clock, and the president was speaking live to a roaring crowd in the Johannesburg soccer stadium—a stadium much like the one where I saw Nelson Mandela address a similar rally right after his return from prison in 1990. Obama was paying tribute to his hero. I hung to his words until the newscaster interrupted to bring us other news, the weather and a business report. I read the whole text later in the day, and the commentators rightly branded it perhaps the greatest address of his life.
“Emerging from prison, without force of arms, he would—like Lincoln—hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. Like America’s founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations—a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power."
“He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet.” A reference, I am sure, to Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea, from Prison”: “Stone walls do not a prison make,/ nor iron bars a cage”—both love and liberty soar above all unjust restraint.
Obama soars with the lines, “Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit…we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”
Catholics are familiar with that concept. It is called the Body of Christ, where St. Paul says: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12: 12-14).
He challenges us to apply Mandela’s principles to our own lives. “For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love.”
He concludes with a quote from William Ernest Henley’s popular poem “Invictus,” which was an inspiration in the film about Mandela’s commitment to South Africa’s soccer team.
Just as I was two feet away from Mandela in 1990, I brushed that close to Obama when he used the Saint Peter’s College gym for a packed political rally during the New Jersey primary. As the students and neighborhood people ganged around him at the end, he treated each one as an individual. I wasn’t going to try to shake his hand when so any other young hands were reaching for it.
On Thursday, Dec. 5, Obama appeared on Chris Matthew’s “Hardball” on MSNBC, as part of a series of broadcasts from university campuses. The format was thoroughly informal, so Obama had no script. He appeared not as an elevated person but rather a man struggling frankly with some bad weeks in Washington. He remained determined to keep working in the time he had left for a more just, more equal America. He told the young people that a president—and they themselves—had to feel a connection with the American people. Lincoln, FDR, Truman and Kennedy had this connection that enabled them to remember the people they met who were down on their luck, but of good character and trying to figure out how to support their families, or the child with big dreams of going to college. “If you feel those folks in your gut every single day,” he told the students of American University, “that will get you through setbacks.”
His basic rule is to remember that “I am my brother’s keeper.” Pope Francis, Obama said, was showing himself to be that “extraordinarily thoughtful and soulful messenger of peace and justice.” “I haven’t had a chance to meet him yet,” he said, but he clearly wants to.
I have some problems with Obama; I think his drone war, as conducted, is immoral. Too many innocent people have died; and he has assumed personal responsibility for each raid and its targeting. It’s not clear to me how this humanitarian can be so cold-blooded in this regard. But perhaps he has actually categorized this engagement in the Middle East as a war in which “collateral damage” is inevitable and therefore acceptable. If I were in his place, if I had stayed in the army in 1957 rather than join the Jesuits, I could have ended up in Vietnam killing innocent people “indirectly” because I had been ordered to lay an artillery barrage on an “enemy” village. Maybe he looks in the White House mirror at night and doesn’t like what he sees. Maybe he reminds himself that Mandela was not always a saint. He used the weapons available. Obama got his loudest cheers in the stadium when he reminded the audience that Mandela was not a saint, he was constantly aware of his “doubts and fears, his miscalculations along with his victories.”
“I’m not a saint,” Mandela said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” And we all know now that Pope Francis has defined himself as “a sinner.” I think he and Obama would have a lot to talk about.