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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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A Time for Grownups

It turns out that while President Obama was releasing records of his birth in Hawaii last week in order to rebut the silly accusations of a casino owner, a momentous decision lay on his desk that would shape his presidency for good or ill and have enormous implications for the nation.  Unlike the decisions his predecessor was prone to make, this one was no “slam dunk.”  One only has to look at the picture of the president and his advisors in the White House situation room, published widely this week, to sense the tension surrounding Sunday’s mission.  No wonder the president chided the media last week for their preoccupation with the “Birthers” and their new found messiah while the nation faces serious problems at home and abroad.  To borrow from Paul, it is time to put away childish ways.

The need for grownups struck home again on Sunday night as the cameras shifted from the solemn austerity of the East Room speech to the streets outside the White House where young people and some of their elders chose to mark this historic moment with a scene worthy of a drunken wet T-shirt contest on spring break.  Chants of “USA, USA!” and raucous renditions of the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America looked for all the world like a post-Super Bowl victory party.  Have we raised our young people to see everything as some kind of sporting event worthy of a pep rally?  Remember the boisterous mood that overtook the memorial service for those who died in the Tucson shootings?  Is there no more room for a sense of holy awe in these events of historic significance?  Have we lost any capacity for a sense of the tragic that infuses even moments of national relief or accomplishment with reminders of loss, of ominous possibilities, even of sin and our complicity?

Regardless of how much we might applaud the president for his leadership, or the members of the intelligence community and the military for their skill and courage, people of faith will note that the end game was a violent hail of bullets.  We may not grieve for Osama bin Laden; indeed, many will see justice in his execution.  Yet while the soldiers who conducted this operation undoubtedly demonstrated great courage and put their lives at great risk, there is nothing particularly heroic for the nation about a raid that rescued no hostages, freed no prisoners, or averted no impending attack.  For nearly ten years we’ve been taught to treat the post-9/11 era as a kind of Wild West shoot out, a morality play of good versus evil in which the icon is a poster of bin Laden – “wanted, dead or alive.”  It’s no wonder the twenty-somethings outside the White House behaved as they did.  Given the public theology they’ve been exposed to for a decade, why shouldn’t they simply assume that “the good guys finally won!”

Grownups know better.  They know that victims’ families still grieve, that first responders still face debilitating chronic illness from the toxins they inhaled in those early days of rescue and recovery.  They remember the countless lives lost or damaged in Iraq where cynical deceptions lured us into a meaningless crusade.  They watch events continuing to unfold in Afghanistan where no good end is in sight.  They see that Guantanamo remains open and that apparently no one will be called to account for our national leaders’ embrace of torture.  Grownups know that our relationship with the Arab world remains profoundly troubled, that events in Israel and Palestine slide toward catastrophe.  And they know that God will not bless a nation simply because it executed a notorious criminal, regardless of how much we might like the president who utters that benediction.

The world may be a safer place with Osama bin Laden dead, though that seems open to serious debate.  Some who grieve may have found a bit of relief.  Domestic political dynamics may have been changed for the better or the worse, depending on your point of view.  Grownups pause to reflect, experiencing a quiet mingling of gratitude and lament.  Their world view refuses to divide white hats from dark hats squaring off at high noon.  For them tragedy is woven through the fabric of even the most hopeful events.  Theirs is a different sort of Te Deum from the scene we witnessed outside the White House Sunday night.  And if the world is to become not just a safer place, but a better place, it’s these grownups who need to step forward in our nation, whether to follow or to lead.

John H. Thomas

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