Thursday, October 9, 2008

Brian McLaren on Why He's Voting for Obama

This is a long one, but I think it's worth your time. Brian McLaren has long been a favorite author of mine. His A New Kind of Christian trilogy radically challenged my assumptions and set me on a journey of discovering God that continues to this day. When Brian speaks, I listen. I encourage you to read these words with an open mind and heart, keeping in mind our values as followers of Jesus in the US in 2008.

Reason 1: Framing Story

My top reason for supporting Barack Obama for president centers in the narrative I believe he frames his life and work by, in contrast to the narrative John McCain frames his life and work by. To me, this issue of narrative (or framing story, for readers of my book Everything Must Change) means far more in a president than whether he claims to be liberal or conservative, religious or nonreligious, Christian or otherwise, Democrat or Republican.

Does anyone doubt that Senator McCain lives by a warrior narrative? This is the most consistent theme in his campaign. For him the world is clearly divided into us and them:

We are good; they are evil. We are right; they are wrong. We are about safety; they are about danger.

This dualistic and fearful narrative is deeply rooted in McCain’s generation. They were formed in the simple, binary context of Axis and Allies, and then Communists and Free World. When Communism collapsed, a new antagonist conveniently presented itself (pre-empting the expected "peace dividend" and keeping the famed "military-industrial complex" well funded). This new war became what McCain calls “the transcendent challenge of the 21st century,” the clash of the West with fundamentalist Islam. McCain’s word “transcendent” is significant. It suggests a kind of holy war mentality, because for McCain, these us-them dualisms are absolute and therefore of a cosmic, metaphysical, even spiritual nature.

The dualistic us-them mindset, I believe, is bogus and dangerous. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is, ironically, the same narrative that drives “fundamentalist Islam,” and so by following it, we will become more and more like those we call our enemies. We already have done so in recent years, in fact, with torture and secret prison camps and the like. This warrior narrative is what Senator McCain has most dangerously in common with President Bush. This “transcendent war” narrative is what we are in most desperate need of changing through this election.

Think about where this warrior narrative can lead in the next four years. From war with Iraq to war with Iran, maybe even war with Russia, any of which would likely require the reinstatement of the draft since our troops have been stretched to the breaking point over the last four years. Soccer and hockey moms who are comforted by McCain's warrior posture should keep this in mind, because there may well be an unanticipated downside to his fighter mindset.

Senator Obama certainly believes in a strong national defense. But I believe he leans toward a profoundly different narrative. It is a reconciliation narrative, a peace-building narrative, a collaboration narrative. He made it clear when he said he would change President Bush’s policy of not talking to our enemies. McCain and others tried to portray this alternative approach as cowardice and appeasement, but they were wrong. Instead of dividing the world into “us” and “them,” Obama’s narrative seeks to bring people together in a expanding us. While McCain’s narrative only offers enemies surrender and defeat, Obama’s offers them the possibility of reconciliation.

I favor Obama’s narrative or framing story because of two convictions I hold very deeply and passionately.

First, I am a committed Christian, and I believe a narrative of reconciliation is in harmony with the teachings of Jesus. Conversely, a narrative of domination and defeat is not: it is the way of Caesar, or what Jesus called “the kingdoms of this world.” I believe that at the core of Jesus’ teaching is the world's truly transcendent challenge and call – to rise above the old narrative of “love your brother and hate your enemy.” In other words, rather than to “transcendent war,” I believe God’s call to all people is toward transcendent reconciliation. I am convinced that war is inherently non-transcendent. It is, in fact, anti-transcendent. I feel the God-given call to love enemies and seek reconciliation and eventual collaboration rather than domination and defeat and extermination. I know that many Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists would feel a similar revulsion to voting an energetic promoter of a warrior narrative into office for another four years (or more).

Second, I believe we have crossed a threshold in my lifetime. Senator McCain, because of his age and his viewpoint, lives on the older side of that threshold. This doesn’t mean he is evil, but it means he is responding in ways that are no longer appropriate to a world that no longer exists, and in that way, his viewpoint is no longer helpful.

On his side of the threshold, war – including nuclear war - is an option to keep on the table – so that “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” slips so easily off the tongue. On this side, war is an abomination, a horrible evil that can never be entered into rashly or lightly (or under false pretenses). On his side, wars can be justified if “we” launch them, but not if “they” do. On this side, they are horrible and tragic no matter who launches them.

On his side, evil resides in them and goodness in us. On this side, there is goodness and evil on both sides.

On his side, the greatest enemy is “them.” On this side, the greatest enemies are realities both “we” and “they” must face together – environmental destruction, carelessness toward the poor, and the death-wish of security through war, for starters.

I believe McCain’s old warrior narrative is simply too dangerous to live by any more. That’s the first reason I am voting for Barack Obama. He would be the first to say that he’s not the Messiah, and he isn’t perfect, but he represents a turning … a turning away from the fear-based Bush-Rove-Cheney-McCain warrior narrative, and a turning toward a narrative that seeks peace through reconciliation and creative collaboration rather than through domination and a go-it-alone cowboy/bomber mentality. We’re not just voting for a president this year: we’re voting for a framing story our nation will live by, or kill by.

Reason 2: Leadership Integrity

I am voting for Barack Obama because I value personal integrity in leaders. Personal integrity requires a leader to repudiate falsehood, hate hypocrisy, and pursue fidelity to justice and truth, in private and in public. A person shows a pattern of integrity through fidelity to his or her spouse, through his or her refusal to employ falsehood for personal advantage, and through his or her willingness to admit mistakes and forgo excuses or blame-shifting whenever lapses occur. It seems clear to me that Senator Obama surpasses his counterpart on all counts.

Sadly, tragically even, Senator McCain has not repudiated the proven dishonesty and deceit of the Bush-Rove-Cheney years. In fact, his campaign has been outstripping even Bush-Cheney-Rove in misleading the public with a straight face while claiming straight talk. Even fellow Republicans are finding McCain's tactics indefensible. Recalling the old saying about all being fair in love and war, McCain seems to see the world through a consummate warrior narrative (see EMC, Part 5), which leads him to love winning at all costs – including the expense of integrity, which in turn makes fidelity to “the reality-based community” quaint and only advisable when it is advantageous. Yes, all of us have lapses in integrity at times; all of us need grace. As a deeply flawed yet committed Christian, I am the first to affirm this. But when you look at personal and public patterns of integrity over many years, Barack Obama shines and John McCain stumbles badly.

But my concern is not only John McCain. I’m also terribly concerned about the party that nominated him. I don’t believe that a party that rushes to war based on a false pretenses deserves to be re-elected, no matter how loudly it claims to be for "family values" or "small-town values." Do you? Is there an integrity lapse more serious than this?

Some of us believe that the Bush-Cheney administration was sincerely mistaken about weapons of mass destruction in their build-up to war. In this view, we went to war because of a failure of intelligence. It was an honest mistake, some say – being careful to remember that the honesty of the mistake does not minimize its seriousness. Others of us believe that Bush-Rove-Cheney cynically manipulated the data – and us, the American people - to legitimize a war they wanted to prosecute for other reasons. In this view, it was a dishonest abuse of power. Either way, whether because of a deficit of good intelligence or a deficit of integrity, I believe that a party that puts so many American and Iraqi lives in harm’s way without sufficient cause does not deserve to be re-elected. They should be sent into the penalty box for at least one period or given a red card for at least one game. How can they be rewarded with another presidency?

If the Bush-Rove-Cheney party had repudiated their false premises for going to war, it might be different. If McCain had been true to his “maverick” reputation and had stood against the Bush-Cheney failure in intelligence and/or integrity, perhaps voting for him could be reconciled with a high commitment to integrity. But McCain has been the opposite of a maverick on the war’s “weapons of mass destruction” justification, and on the idea of pre-emptive war on which it stands.

Senator Obama has been the maverick. He stood against the war from the beginning. He wasn’t beguiled by “false intelligence” and he wasn’t fooled by a beguiling rationale. This reason alone would put me in Obama’s camp. I’ll raise the question once more: Does a party that creates a pre-emptive war based on false claims or poor intelligence deserve to be rewarded with another term?

Of course, we could add to the duplicity about WMD many other Bush-Rove-Cheney betrayals of integrity: hidden prison camps, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, forged letters, the Valerie Plame incident, and so on. We could talk about the Republican duplicity of giving massive tax cuts to the rich while saddling the next generation with a record national debt, a classic case of robbing an unborn Peter to pay a fat-and-happy Paul. We could also lament how Senator McCain has stooped to the same kind of Rovian electioneering tactics that President Bush used against him so unfairly in 2000, and so on. Beneath all these issues, one issue is obvious: if we reward with another term in office a party that has deceived or misled us, we will get what we deserve.

Reason 3: The Least of These

I’m a Matthew 25 guy. That means that I take very seriously Jesus’ words about caring for “the least of these.” I don’t believe a nation’s moral greatness is measured by how many tax breaks it gives its richest individuals and corporations, or by it's kill-power in terms of weapons and readiness to use them, but rather by how it cares for its most vulnerable people – its children, its sick, its disabled, its unemployed, its minorities.

So when I come to an election, I don’t just ask, “Which candidate will do the most for me and my nuclear family?” I extend my concern.

I extend it to my extended family, which includes people with special needs and disabilities, people with chronic illnesses, gay people, poor people, people of advanced age, people with histories of addiction and crime and mental illness. How will they be treated in a McCain administration? How will they be treated in an Obama administration?

I extend my concern even farther. How about people who live less than an hour from my front door – in inner-city Washington DC, in impoverished sections of Baltimore – how will they fare? Which president will be most concerned about them? Or how about people in states like Ohio and Michigan … where hundreds of thousands of people are unemployed because too many American corporations shipped jobs overseas? Or people in Katrina-devastated areas of Mississippi and Louisiana? Or people in the coal country of Kentucky or East Tennessee and West Virginia, whose lives are being devastated by the “externalized costs” of “cheap coal?”

I don’t stop there either. I go beyond the US. I think about slums where I have walked, people I have met, shacks I have sat in and shanties I have eaten meals in … from Mexico to Chile to South Africa to Burundi. Which candidate will do the most for the least of the least of these?

And when I ask these questions, it’s not just a matter of foreign aid, as important as that may be. It’s a matter of trade as well: which candidate is most interested in trade policies that avoid exploitation abroad as well as at home? And it’s also a matter of war, because a nation at war has fewer resources to be generous.

The gap between rich and poor is growing greater and greater, in this country and around the world. So I ask myself, which candidate is concerned about strengthening the economy in robust ways that will not simply help oil companies, coal companies, and job exporters make higher profits, but will instead support the development of new “green” businesses that have the most promising future and can provide meaningful jobs here and abroad that workers can take true pride in?

Which candidate best understands poverty and economic vulnerability through the closest experience of it? Which one promises to bring the most resources – energy, intelligence, creativity, and commitment – to helping the least of these?

I don’t doubt that Senator McCain would make national defense his top priority as president, and I don’t doubt that he would be most ready to sustain or expand our war-making activities around the world. But I’m ashamed of our nation being known for rushing to war. I would like to be known for helping the poor.

In the end, I truly believe that a nation that helps the poor will have fewer enemies – and therefore more national security – than one that pursues its own national interest through war. As the Apostle Paul said, “Do not look out only for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Your attitude should be that of Christ Jesus.” That other-oriented mindset is, to me, a powerful reason to support Barack Obama for president.

(You may be wondering, “What about the unborn? Aren't they among the least of these? And what about other living creatures - endangered species and the threatened ecosystems on which they depend? Aren’t they among the least of these?” I plan to address these issues in upcoming posts. Stay tuned. For more on Matthew 25, check out the Matthew 25 Network.)

I believe that Senator Obama is an extraordinary candidate. While his opponent indulges in surprisingly dishonest and divisive attack ads, Obama has resisted responding in kind, instead focusing on critical issues and "a new spirit of unity and shared responsibility." But even if Barack Obama were merely mediocre, simply based on the failures of the Republican Party to hold their president and vice president accountable for their lack of integrity (and/or intelligence) over these last eight years, I believe it’s high time for a change.

The American people have been fooled once already in this new century. Those who fooled us should not be rewarded with another term. I hope we won't let ourselves be fooled again.


Judy said...

Wow Matt, thanks for posting that. I was already decided for Obama but this was an eye-opening read.

Tony's 2 Cents said...

Reason 3 is the most compelling by far for my vote (but I'm still not 100% sure). I agree with reason 2-but I think to be fair-neither party (go figure ) has been willing to confess it's own mistakes but is real good at pointing out the others. The Dems/Obama team have some sin (as we all do) in the camp, too. We just can't paint either side as flawless. I appreciate Mclaren's decision to vote not just based on his own nuclear family but the country and all people who will be effected. I love being influenced by Matthew 25.

I plan to blog on this, but it's just too disturbing how we tend to worship presidents. It's all too cyclical how humanity looks to humans for hope and saving. This is not new. Christ is our king.

Everyone must read SHANE CLAIBORNE'S, "JEsus for President."

Jack said...

Michigan jobs shipped overseas because of the useless unions who support anything remotely Democrat. If they would have negotiated reasonable wages for workers instead of outlandish increases, the whole system of capitalism would have worked. What you see with the jobs going elsewhere is a company striving to make a profit. No one wants to buy a $40,000 compact car, but that is where we are headed because of the unions that are in existence today.

I say all of this as a lifelong resident of Michigan and a former union member. I eventually got so fed up with the shady dealings of the union, I had to end my membership. I felt as if I were a member of organized crime. During election years they demanded we vote a certain way, the way of the democrat, no matter what the issues were.

Secondly, no one man will "fix" our economy nor the world's for that matter. Regardless of what promises are made. If you want to fix the rising global economic crisis, look to OPEC. When oil was trading at $29/barrel, there were no world issues. Only when OPEC cut production and got prices up towards $150/barrel did things start to go belly up. Don't blame Bush or any republican or democrat for these issues we are facing today. Place the blame exactly and squarely where it lies... Overseas in a swanky room with a bunch of Arabs.

I'm not racist at all, I'm just stating the obvious. It has nothing to do with 9/11 or why conspiracy theorists think the US invaded Iraq. When I was younger and I had purchased alcohol and hid it in my bedroom, I refused to let my parents in my room. Why? Because I knew I had things that I shouldn't have. It was only when they went in with force that they found my stash. But of course they didn't find it all. I had bought enough time to hide some of it in other rooms. That doesn't make me wonder at all if Saddam had WMD when he wouldn't allow the UN into his country to inspect. Despite the warnings, he invited the world to invade him and did it while trying to look like a martyr in the muslim world.

I'm not a republican either.

I'm a follower of the ONE TRUE Christ... Jesus, and upon Him do I place my hope and trust.

Didn't mean to go on a rant, but I used to have respect for McLaren. After reading this, I've pretty much lost all of it for him.

Matt Nightingale said...

Jack, thanks so much for posting. I value your opinion and I'm grateful you expressed it.

Kerry said...

This is cool to read and really helpful. I find myself leaning towards Obama for most of the reasons McLaren talked about, and I basically agree with them. But I think we should be careful in how we approach this.
While I agree that Obama as a candidate voices and expresses things that are very much in line with our Christian convictions (even on abortion - even though he's pro-choice, he's articulated programs that he would want to put into play to reduce the number of abortions in the nation; as a pro-lifer, I can get behind that), particularly regarding war and poverty. But I think we need to be cautious. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are corrupt, and end up pushing their own goals and agendas on the voted for candidate once he's in office. I see McLaren's point on Obama's integrity as a leader compared to that of McCain, but let's not forget our history. Back in 2000, Bush seemed like an ideal candidate in the wake of the Clinton administration. Personally, I never was able to support Bill Clinton because I saw him as a man who lacked great integrity, particularly in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Plus, it seemed like he failed to respond appropriately to terrible situations in Somalia, Sierra Leone, and other places where tribal wars and genocide were occurring. I think most of us who voted for Bush back in 2000 saw that, because he voiced his devout faith, that he would be the leader of integrity that Clinton was not. And look what happened - the Republican party more or less used him to wage a war in Iraq. Cheney and Rumsfeld had WAY TOO MUCH influence in Bush's decision making when it came to moving the war on terror from Afghanistan to Iraq, and how Iraq was subsequently handled.
All this to say, just because someone like Obama might get elected, even if he is a man of integrity and is guided by a narrative that we as Christians can align ourselves with, that doesn't mean that the ideals and agendas of the Democratic party won't make their way into Obama's administration. We can only hope that Obama won't fall into the traps that previous presidential candidates we had high hopes for fell into, and that Obama can better control the Democrats so that the kind of leader has been so far will be consistent in his administration.
Also, while I agree on a reconciliatory approach in how Obama would handle foreign relationships, especially with the Middle East, I do think that he's a little naive. While McCain's mentality is not right either, it's wrong to assume that just because we approach Iran's president with an attitude of reconciliation that he'll automatically listen to us and do the things we ask him to do. Even with Joe Biden at his side (which is a plus when it comes to foreign policy issues), I think Obama is assuming too much that Middle Eastern leaders are just going to welcome him and listen to him with open arms because he's not Bush. He's still an American who does not understand Middle Eastern mentality and culture or the allegiences and values that define someone like Ahmadinejad. We should be VERY cautious to ally ourselves with a leader who has openly expressed the destruction of the people of Israel (or any other people group). Doing so uncritically would be very foolish and naive, and it seems like Obama is approaching it this way to some degree. Again, I'm not suggesting that McCain's approach would be better, but Obama should have some of McCain's scrutiny in approaching relationships with the Middle East. Maybe Obama does have that, but it hasn't been clear to me. Those are my thoughts.

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