Tragedy demands a response, especially when it occurs at home. This is the case in the aftermath of gun violence in Tucson last Saturday that took the lives of six and harmed others including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The persons we look to for response are our leaders, particularly the President of the United States. Tonight, President Barack Obama spoke to 14,000 at a “Together We Thrive: Tucson and America” memorial service in Tucson at the University of Arizona’s Mckale Center. The speech was an opportunity to grieve and console, remember, honor, and express emotions-in-community.
On these occasions, the President acts as national Pastor-in-Chief. In tonight’s address, President Obama’s pulpit skills helped him lead the nation toward healing. He said Scripture tells us there is evil in the world and he quoted the book of Job. He urged Americans to guard against simple explanations for the violence and reminded us that we “cannot turn on each other.” In his speech-turned-sermon, the President said we should show kindness, generosity, and compassion. We should do right by our children. In pastoral cadence he said that what matters is not wealth or status or fame or power but how well we have loved and make the lives of others better.
President Obama called upon the nation to make sure our reflections about the reasons for the tragedy and our debate is worthy of those we lost. He called for civility and honesty in public discourse as we seek to form a more perfect union.
President Obama’s sermon was good but did not plow new ground. Other presidents before him have offered the nation similar leadership in the wake of tragedy.
Following the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, President Ronald Reagan sat in the Oval Office and gave a brief, powerful eulogy that is remembered today for its simplicity and eloquence. He summarized by saying the last time we had seen the astronauts they waved goodbye and then "They slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."
April 19, 1995, a bomber exploded the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Four days later President Bill Clinton spoke to the city’s citizens and to the nation, saying, “You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
Three days after 9/11, September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush grabbed a megaphone and gave an impromptu response to workers at Ground Zero that became one of his most memorable and uplifting statements: “I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world can hear you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
February 1, 2003, President Bush addressed another space shuttle disaster, this time the Columbia. In a White House speech he said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home. May God bless the grieving families, and may God continue to bless America.”
President Obama struck a balanced respectful tone, honored those lost and comforted their families, reminded us we should strive to be better for our children’s sake, and called for unity and strength in the face of loss. All good.
The President is not a pastor. But in times of tragedy he has to play one on TV. Tonight, President Obama used the bully pulpit in a meaningful if not memorable manner.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011
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