Sunday, January 18, 2009


Philippians 2:4 “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

I have been keeping a box of tissues near the television this week. For some reason I am much more likely to cry in response to heroism than in response to tragedy, at least on the national scale. I think I must be a closet pessimist, expecting the worst, so when disaster strikes—either in the form of an accidental disaster or an intentional horror—I am angered and motivated to right the wrong, but don’t feel personally disappointed enough to shed tears. Sadly, harm is what I generally expect, much as I hate to see it happen. Somebody drilled that original sin/fallen humanity/bound for hell mentality into me a bit too deeply.

But then there are weeks like this one—a week of heroes. While I mean his mother no disrespect, overcoming a name like Chesley B. Sullenberger, III is no small feat in America. I can’t imagine what his Jr. High years must have been like. But somewhere along the line he beat the rap, became simply “Sully” and rose to master his profession as an airline pilot. And when a flock of geese flew into both engines of his plane full of passengers, he kept his cool and landed with perfection in the Hudson, saving every last person aboard. And he walked the length of the frigid-water filled plane twice before bringing himself to safety, just to be sure. And he’s known at home for his work in the community. And he raises guide dogs for the blind. And the media covered news so fabulous it became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” non-stop for days. So I got out the tissues.

And tomorrow we celebrate another hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A man of faith—we read his Letters from a Birmingham Jail in seminary; a man who took Paul’s teaching seriously, risking his life and ultimately giving his life for the freedom of a people. He was a man who believed that violence solved nothing, no matter how natural or understandable a violent response might seem. His dream was of harmony, not discord; unity, not division; peace with justice for all. There were some who couldn’t bear it, and one shot hope through the heart. Or tried. The hero died, but not the heroism—the man, but not the dream.

Now there is Tuesday and the inauguration of that dream to the highest office in the land. If you remain unmoved by the history unfolding before us, then I wish you tonic for your heart. While every presidential candidate, and ultimately every President, puts a large red target on his chest, if you think that isn’t magnified a million-fold as an African American, then you haven’t been paying attention. A black church was torched on election night, specifically to register racist anger at the election of a black President. The perpetrators went back to the scene and laughed. And that was in 2008. In Springfield, Massachusetts.

In the face of such actions and the still vile, bigoted evil spoken of him online and elsewhere, our President-elect stood up in three historic cities yesterday and called for “An appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.” That any African American can believe in humanity’s “better angels” is a wonder to me. And I hold the box of tissues a bit tighter.

Whether Obama will carry that heroic spirit into the grueling work that lies before him remains to be seen, but by some miracle the inner pessimist in me is quieted. The part of me that thinks Bernard Madoff is just the tip of the financial corruption iceberg is willing to give ground to the hope that Barack Obama actually can inspire those better angels in all of us.

That’s actually what Paul was trying to do in his letter, written from prison, to the church in Philippi. This verse leads into what may well be the earliest hymn in the Christian tradition, the hymn that urges us all to have the “mind of Christ” and to follow Christ’s example in sacrifice. It is a call to do more than recognize a hero. It is a call to be one. As Christ was, so we can be. We can be—indeed are called to be—both saints and heroes, simply by looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.

It remains to be seen whether Obama can land our damaged national plane as perfectly and with as few casualties as Chesley B. Sullenberger, III. But, as a passenger on that flight, I’m pulling for him. And I’m willing to follow his instructions to stow my inner pessimist in the overhead bin and inflate the life jacket of hope beneath my seat.


Post a Comment

<< Home