Thursday 19 January 2017
Eight years ago I had the extraordinary experience of attending the 1st Inauguration of President Barack Obama - It was a hope-filled historic occasion and it is no exaggeration to say that being there on that day was both inspiring and uplifting.
Eight years later and looking back on the Obama presidency I have to confess that I am disappointed that it did not live up to all my hopes and dreams but then with the advantage of hindsight it was perhaps inevitable that it could never live up to expectations which were bordering on messianic. The odds were heavily stacked against a president who sought to overcome the divisiveness of partisan and adversarial politics and to undercut the very divisions on which the American and many other political systems thrive.
And yes I am also disappointed that he failed to close Guantanamo Bay, tackle gun control, and extract the USA from the drone warfare which so many including myself find deeply disturbing.
And yet I could not but be continually impressed by the gracious and dignified humanity of a president and First Family who visibly bore heavily the weight of his office.
And indeed there were many aspects of his presidency that deserve positive acclaim and mention. His empathy towards the victims and families impacted by gun violence, his sincere attempts to bring affordable healthcare to those on the margins of society, his willingness to be converted to the cause of marriage equality, and his nuanced understanding of the importance of inter-religious dialogue and understanding and international and inter-Nicene relations were all groundbreaking and had a hugely positive impact on the USA and arguably the western world.
So what comes next? Sadly it would appear that despite the experience of the presidency of Barack Obama the USA has voted for a 'hopeless' future based on a bankrupt vision of our world which sees enemies everywhere and seeks to build walls and barriers to protect the selfish interests of the privileged minority.
Some will protest that no - this is all about 'change' but in reality it is nothing more than looking after No. 1 and that is no vision for any society. It is traditional that the President elect would end his speech by requesting that God would bless the United States of America - On this occasion we should perhaps pray that God will help the United States of America! :(
I am conscious that many within my own Protestant tradition (especially in Northern Ireland) will find it hard to empathise with Martin McGuinness in his illness and forced retirement, not least those who have lost family and friends at the hands of the IRA. Not having had that experience I do not think it is right that I or others who have been spared such suffering would demand or expect otherwise from those whose lives have been forever damaged and even destroyed by terrorist violence.
In that respect while initially annoyed and disappointed by the dispassionate response of Arlene Foster to Martin McGuinness' illness I subsequently learnt of the horror she had experienced as an eight year old girl when her father was shot and seriously injured by the IRA and how she herself cheated death in a bus bombing when she was sixteen. She demonstrably did not rise above what happened to her but being brutally honest I am dubious that I would have been able to overcome such trauma at a formative age. Knowing my temperament indeed it is entirely possible I would have gone further and involved myself in a violent and illegal retaliation. There for the Grace of God went I!
But that was not my experience (and I am grateful for that) and while my mother grew up in Norther Ireland and my wife is from there the 'Troubles' were not a part of my formation and so I look at the retirement of Martin McGuinness with different eyes.
Yes I see in Martin McGuinness one who is a self confessed terrorist and one who may well have been responsible (either directly or indirectly) for the murder of those who through an accident of birth found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But that is not the end of it - I also see one who was able to move from the path of violence to the way of peace and in so doing was able to acknowledge the journey on which he had travelled. It is that which sets him apart from Gerry Adams whose disingenuous disavowal of his violent past undermines his credibility and his ultimate potential to help others make the transition from violence to peace.
Martin McGuinness came a long way on his political and life journey and in doing so did rise above his formative experience and brought a lot of people with him. As I have said already that is more than I believe I would have been able to do and so he has earned my respect and also my empathy. I do not condone everything that he did, especially in his younger years, but as a priest of the Church I cannot but commend one who turned from the path of violence to the way of peace. Martin McGuinness should not be defined by his worst days unless we are all prepared to be so judged. I wish him well and pray for his healing.