“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
President Obama has been widely criticized for shaking hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Newt Gingrich was on the Today Show yesterday morning, and on Fox News, calling it a sign of weakness, and a terrible signal to send to the world.
At a news conference, Obama brushed aside the criticism, saying, “It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.” He went on to observe to the reporters, “I don't think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.”
In the election it seemed important to many voters that our President be a Christian. Much was made of the seemingly eternal myth that Obama was a Muslim. But apparently, for many Americans, being a Christian means something other than being a follower of Jesus.
In his criticism of Obama, Gingrich compared his actions to the “weakness” shown by Jimmy Carter. In the mind of the former Speaker, “weakness” was the foreign policy strategy of the Carter administration. I think historians will say that Carter did achieve enormous progress on peace in the Middle East, and he did advance the cause of human rights. But we should never let history get in the way of political rhetoric. Conservatives now refer to Carter in the same way that Liberals once referred to Hoover, as the prime example of political failure. But there is also an issue of how we understand the public practice of Jesus' teachings. President Carter was in many ways the most self-consciously Christian president in our history. (We need to be careful in that observation. Lincoln was our greatest theological thinker and Teddy Roosevelt was a Social Gospel preacher. Many other presidents leaned heavily on Christian theology. But Carter was publicly self-conscious about his faith in a way that others have not been.) Christianity, in practice, often appears to be weakness. Most people, even most people who call themselves Christians (it seems), believe in hating your enemies.
Why does hatred (and fear) so easily masquerade as strength, while love is often mistaken for weakness? In the First Letter of John, the writer says that “perfect love casts out fear.” If we are sufficiently committed to love one another, even our enemies, then we are no longer afraid of being thought weak.
Just so we’re clear, I am not holding up President Obama as the embodiment of Christian love or Jesus’ teaching. And I don’t think he was trying to make a Christian witness in extending his hand to Hugo Chavez, although that would have been wonderful. My guess is that he was just being polite, which is not a bad place to start.
But there is more at stake here than shaking hands.
If we cannot begin, even in the smallest and most innocuous way, to embody some faint shadow of Jesus’ teaching in world affairs, then what hope do we have? If we really do not believe, even in the smallest way, in the transforming power of love, then what hope is there for world peace?