Genesis 1 reveals the foundational value of every human being made in the image of God (imago dei):
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
This text is also the theological undermining and biblical rebuke of white supremacy. In American history, one people decided to have violent dominion over other peoples by saying they weren’t fully human and literally throwing away imago dei. White people — white Christians — knew they couldn’t do to indigenous people and kidnapped Africans what they were doing in taking free land, labor, and lives away from other human beings who were created in the image of God — so we said they were all less than human. We even wrote it into our Constitution.
Fast forward 220 years to the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States: a fundamental blow to white supremacy — a black man in the highest office of the land and most powerful position in the world. That was and will always be a great legacy of that election — a historic moment in the longstanding and ongoing movement to undo white supremacy and privilege that challenged and threatened all the ways the original sin still lingers.
I remember election night in 2008 when we hosted an election watch party with mostly twentysomethings filling our house. Early on, Obama was expected to win, and most of the young people in my house were celebrating, even out dancing in the streets of our multi-racial neighborhood.
But I was still with most of the old black guys that lived in our neighborhood — not sure I really believed that a black president would be elected in our lifetimes. If all the “undecideds” went against him in the end, Obama would lose. I was the only one left in the house watching the returns, as the votes he needed for his electoral victory were officially tabulated and the election called. When that happened, I quietly and privately broke down in tears, but soon went out to the streets to join the next generation who were ready to help build the bridge to a new America, along with the majority of minorities that will exist by 2040. We all went to Obama’s inauguration with 2 million other people on one of the coldest January days in history. Our nation seemed ready for that new America that Barack Obama represented.
The white backlash began almost immediately. Republican leaders announced their primary goal to make his presidency fail, before he even began, even though he was trying to reach out to them. The never-ending accusations and falsehoods began with a conspiratorial racist campaign to prove that the new black president didn’t have a birth certificate and wasn’t really one of “us,” i.e. a real American. (Of course, that same lie would help Donald Trump launch political career in 2011.)
There was indignity after indignity: a congressman yelling “You lie!” during the president’s State of the Union speech; continuing false claims that one of the most explicitly Christian presidents (the first to do things like hosting an annual Easter breakfast in the White House) was actually a secret Muslim.
Some of the most hypocritical attacks have come from people on the religious right who claim they are for “family values,” then completely ignore some of the clearest and best family role models the White House has ever seen. Obama as a husband and father, together with Michelle, has shown our nation’s children some of the best demonstrations of healthy and strong family life of any U.S. president.
Take a moment and listen in your mind to all the ugly rhetoric and hateful language directed toward Barack Obama during his presidency and even in the 2016 presidential campaign. Close your eyes and listen to all the painful words you remember. I know it’s hard. But then remember and declare the opening three words of the Genesis 1:26 passage above. “Then God said …”
What God said is so much more important than the words of white backlash to what God has said. It is indeed God’s voice that is the most powerful response to all the language of hate and fear that represents the death knell of white supremacy in this country, despite being one of the ugliest things to witness during the presidency of Barack Obama.
I became a friend of Illinois State Sen. Obama’s shortly after his adult conversion to Christianity and was on President Obama’s first faith-based council. We have often spoken of his personal faith and talked together about how it should best shape public leadership and policy. His legacy has and will always be central to that vision of a “beloved community,” as Dr. King called it, where our public and civil life is rooted in the spiritual foundation of the truth — that all of us are created in the image of God. That is the word, God’s Word, that will ultimately defeat the recurring original sin of American society where privilege and punishment are based on skin color.
Barack Obama’s legacy is the public refutation of that sin and the call to repentance — turning around and going in a whole new direction, making our way to a new and demographically transformed America. And that is also the reason why there has been such a deep racial backlash to that new America — and has now even served as the underlying motivation for a presidential candidate of a major political party.
This isn’t about toeing some party line and always agreeing with Obama’s policies and priorities. Many religious leaders have pushed President Obama to more forcefully push issues of poverty, economic justice, and immigration and have objected to his use of drones; I have been one of those offering challenges. After the public attention focused on so many police shootings of young African-American men and women, Obama more strongly stood up for racial justice in our policing and criminal justice systems. He brought health care to millions of new people who were without it. And in what may be one of his most lasting legacies, President Obama has already had significant achievements and set into place a strong direction for dealing with the urgent issue of climate change. That is a legacy that will benefit all of our children.
But ultimately it will be more than the impressive list of accomplishments that will determine the legacy of President Barack Obama. It will be what he has represented for the future as the first black man to win the White House and how God has used this man to help America further the long process of repenting of our original sin and building that new America.
This column is adapted from Jim Wallis’ foreword to the forthcoming book Mr. President: Interfaith Perspectives on the Historic Presidency of Barack H. Obama, compiled by Barbara Williams-Skinner and Darryl Sims (2017).