The Common Good

Obama's Inauguration Speech: Tough Love

President Obama's inaugural address might not have been one for the ages.

But it certainly was the right one for the moment.

Somber, sober, and almost stern, our new president placed a mantle before the nation - We, the people - and gave us a gentle, but clear, kick in the collective pants.

"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," he said. "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."

"We remain a young nation," Obama said, "but in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."

In this last sentence, he was quoting from the New Testament - 1 Corinthians 13: 11 - St. Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, Greece.

I was struck by the implications of this choice of scripture, in a speech where the president explicitly reached out to the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and non-believing population, as well as to his own Christian community.

Most people, if they are familiar with this particular Bible passage at all, probably have heard it read at a wedding. This is the "love chapter" - verses that come before and after the one the president quoted speak eloquently about true love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Then it says,

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

When St. Paul wrote his letter to the church in Corinth, he began by addressing the problems it faced. The church was beset by infighting and divisions, and threatened by immoral influences from the surrounding community, where, for instance, 1,000 priestesses engaged in prostitution at the Temple of Venus in the name of worship.

Corinth was a young city and the church there was a young church, just as we are a young nation. Teenagers, if you will.

St. Paul delivered a stern, yet loving, reproach to the Corinthians, telling them, essentially, to quit their bickering, grow up, and get busy with what they were called to do in the first place: Love.

Love one another. Love their neighbors. Be God's love in the world - the light of the world and a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden, as St. Matthew says in his gospel.

Be love with arms and legs - feeding the poor, comforting the sick, visiting the prisoners, sheltering the homeless.

How interesting that the Bible passage about growing up and putting away childish things (in the name of love) was chosen by our 47-year-old president and his 27-year-old chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau - perhaps the youngest team ever to craft a U.S. presidential inaugural address.

I wonder whether they chose the passage from 1 Corinthians in part to evoke another letter written by St. Paul. In 1 Timothy, the apostle Paul writes to his young friend Timothy, an evangelist in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor.

"Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young," St. Paul told Timothy, "but be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faithfulness, and purity."

Favreau also helped Obama craft his famous victory speech after the Iowa caucuses where he said, in part:

You know, they said this day would never come

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