The summer after Obama took office, he had the Oval Office redecorated. The new décor featured a custom-made 23 x 30-foot oval rug, in the perimeter of which could be read five quotations.
"The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself," Franklin D. Roosevelt
"The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But it Bends Towards Justice," Martin Luther King Jr.
"Government of the People, By the People, For the People," Abraham Lincoln
"No Problem of Human Destiny is Beyond Human Beings," John F. Kennedy
"The Welfare of Each of Us is Dependent Fundamentally Upon the Welfare of All of Us," Theodore Roosevelt
I imagine those were words which Obama knew would ground and encourage him. He positioned them so he would see them often -- whenever he prepared to take a step, or sit down or rise up. He knew the challenges he faced in that room would be difficult and complex, and he wanted reminders and encouragements to keep him oriented to the values he held dear. Because he was the President. His words and actions mattered.
We all face challenges which are painful and difficult. Now, for example, White Americans are having to learn how slavery’s successor structures have worked for decades to preserve and protect White supremacy. It is painful to accept complicity in sustaining that privileging/oppressing system, and the call to dismantle institutionalized racism is threatening. For White Americans, anti-racism work is a wilderness in which they come face to face with evil.
Whatever our issue, whatever shape evil has taken in our lives, we do not go into the wilderness alone. Like Jesus, we go “waited on by the angels.”
And we do not go there to lament or give up. We go to get stronger and clearer. To get better at recognizing the sound and look of evil, better at resisting its temptations, and better at knowing what sustains and encourages us for the struggle.
When we leave the wilderness, hopefully there will be good news we can share.
Like God in this week’s first reading whose good news after the 40 day flood is the promise of “Never again.”
Like Jesus in this week’s gospel whose good news is that “the realm of God is near.”
That’s the point of going to the wilderness in the first place. Because who we are and what we say and do matters. And we are getting ready to be the good news.
Photo: President Obama reads briefing material in the Oval Office at the White House. (Pete Souza)