American-born Robert Whalley, now living in Melbourne, was jubilant at the news of Barack Obama’s election. He explains why.
I’ve cried more on the US Election Day than I have in the last eight years. But tears of joy this time, and hope that the land of my birth is opening a new door. For it seems a graceful sign that a man with the name of Barrack Hussein Obama, with a Kenyan father and a mother from Kansas, a youth spent in Indonesia and an education spanning the Pacific from Jakarta to Honolulu to Harvard, and married to a woman descended from Africans kidnapped as slaves into the American South hundred of years before; will soon be moving into the White House.
In a land where there has been much racism, much to say “Sorry” for, this may mark a surprising turnaround for the image and identity of the United States, one we might not have foreseen in recent times; and I pray it means an opening for mercy, compassion, hope and even a possibility for peace in the future for all of us.
I moved to Melbourne from Berkeley, California, shortly before 11 September 2001 and still remember the affection and support I got from my new neighbours, friends from church, that wonderful memorial service at St. Paul’s, and even one stranger on the Bourke Street Mall who heard my accent and wished me and my country well in that sad time. All showed affection for what the US stood for at its best. So it saddened me (and many others) to see what shortly felt like an avalanche of propaganda and piety, justifying incursions and invasions likely linked to industry and oil and the interests of the rich and mighty.
This grief came into sharper relief when Katrina swept over New Orleans like a parable of judgement.
I was in a local parish facilitating questions about University Chaplaincy the Sunday after the hurricane when one man noted the similarities of the Old Testament lesson for the day – the Israelites getting across the dry bed of the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s army gets mired in the mud – and the situation in Louisiana. As I responded to him I realised that while I had always seen America in a traditional line with biblical Israel, a small people getting past the old tyrannies, making towards the wilderness, to a new community of grace and justice, it could no longer claim that place. For America now was closer to Pharaoh’s army (whether in Iraq or Louisiana) protecting the mighty over the poor and fragile, with lower priorities for those who hunger and thirst. I recalled the words, known to every American, on the Statue of Liberty not far across the harbour from where the World Trade Centre used to stand: Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teaming shore, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
So when this election result came, it brought me tears of joy. If the country of my birth, that great ship of state, can turn around, make amends, repent and move towards being an agent of change and healing, mercy and justice for all colours and kinds, a light to the nations, it may be that the golden door is opening to a new beginning for us all.
Robert Whalley is Senior Chaplain at RMIT University, Director of The Merton Centre at St. Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne, and an adjunct tutor at the Trinity College Theological School.