Write In Between

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Exegesis and Analysis of Pres. Obama's Inaugural Address

Today is the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision known as Roe vs Wade. That decision gave women a constitutional right to end the lives of their unborn children.

People who are pro-life in their politics see in President Obama a threat to the sanctity of life, given his pro-choice rhetoric and strident pro-abortion campaign promises. I don’t disagree.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a political analyst, nor an English major. But once upon a time, I was a communications major, and I am also armed with a theology degree. And I’m a writer.

For me, words and combinations of words have meanings.

Exegesis, as I’ve often done in biblical studies, is an analysis of the words and phrases of a text in search of a text’s meaning. Exegesis can also serve us in analyzing non-biblical texts. Teachers of literature ask this of students all the time. By learning a text’s literary forms and vocabulary, the meaning of the text can be interpreted, often on more than one level.

I submit that we look at the closing remarks made by our new President, and look at what it might mean for the pro-life work we do... perhaps we can take his rhetoric and use it as a force for good.

It would seem to me, one could construct a pro-life argument from this section of text. (I know there are certainly gifted scholars who might do this with greater wisdom, but here are my impressions, at first glance, looking at this text. While I will address the subject of an unplanned pregnancy in my comments below, I believe the pro-life cause to be bigger than the subject of abortion alone. It relates to the dignity of the human person in all stages of life, so this argument could extend to many ethical situations not mentioned here.)

These were President Obama’s words toward the end of his inaugural address on January 20th:

With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

“With hope and virtue…”
Exegesis: First, let’s take the opening phrase, with hope and virtue. Hope is a both a noun and a verb. Hope, as a verb, is a want or expectation of something. As a noun, it is confident desire. Hope, for Catholics, is a theological virtue, grounded in our desire for God and eternal life, and the expectancy of grace to achieve it. Virtue is another noun, meaning goodness. Again, for Catholics, we might define it as a habit or the firm disposition to do good.

This phrase is consistent with Obama’s previous rhetoric regarding hope. His plea here is for an altruistic foundation for what he is about it say.

“Let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come…”
Exegesis: These are idiomatic phrases drawn from the context of Obama’s earlier reference to General George Washington’s beleaguered troops hunkered down in a winter storm, in need of crossing an icy river.

These phrases describe times of testing, of worry, of doubt. They describe times of pain and sacrifice, possible confusion, hardship, and inconvenience. But in this context, Washington’s story is used analogously to rally, to inspire, and to provide hope in the face of our nation’s current problems…to brave once more.

[My opinion: Let us apply this strong analogy to the plight of a women with an unplanned pregnancy. Imagine the time of testing, confusion, inconvenience, pain and sacrifice that might encounter a woman who is not ready for a child… or one who might even feel so low as to feel “punished” by a baby on the way? Could we bring her hope with President Obama’s words?

Might we even use President Obama’s mother as someone who had the audacity of hope, such that, even though she was, for most of her life, a single mother whose child was abandoned by its father, she was someone who “soldiered” on despite her circumstances to give birth to the man who would become the 44th President of the United States?

Might we even use President Obama, himself, as such an example, as someone who has braved icy currents and endured storms? (Be sure to see the video link at the end of this post.)

Indeed, is this not the experience of most human beings? We all face hardships that must be braved with hope and virtue if we are to survive. President Obama is not preaching a religious point of view here. He is simply pointing out one of the universal experiences of humanity –the ability to hope and exercise virtue in the face of difficulty.]

“Let is be said by our children’s children…”
Exegesis: Certainly, this is a forward-looking declaration. One could look at the adjective “our”… as belonging to us, or to everyone. “Our” can relate a member of the family as it is used here. It is a deeply personal reference. It affirms the existence of our future offspring, or issue, or heirs. It acknowledges not just “the now” and the satisfaction of the present moment, but reminds us of the next generation of humanity. You could say it infers a duty to this generation yet to be born…let it be said…

[My opinion: Is not the pro-life argument a call to duty, to do justice, on behalf of those not yet born? This is a responsibility we have to our children.]

"…that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter…"
Exegesis: Again, the strong use of idiomatic language by way of analogy. This is a reference, one might say, to not giving up on a problem prematurely, or taking an easy way out in avoidance of a particular destination. It implies responsibility for one’s actions.

[My opinion: The pro-life stance is one that affirms the ‘right to life’ -- as stated in the Declaration of Independence -- for all persons, even those in the womb, yet to be born. Abortion, one could say, intentionally ends the journey of life in the womb. It is a premature and permanent end. Is it possible to challenge those tested by an unwanted pregnancy not turn back or falter by resorting to early termination by abortion? We cannot escape that there are consequences to one’s actions, and even when times are difficult, it does not nullify the need to take full responsibility for those actions.]

"…with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us…"
Exegesis: This is more soaring rhetoric using idiomatic language emblematic of hope and virtue. (Recall, Obama’s own campaign logo of the sun on the horizon?) The speech here makes a reference using the Biblical terminology of God’s grace. This phrase can be taken two ways. The first is to keep one’s eyes fixed on the horizon, as in the future. Or it can mean to fix one’s eyes on two realities at once – that of the horizon as well as the presence of God’s grace upon us. Either way, it shows a way to cope and mitigate present difficulties, by looking forward beyond the present struggle, or, if one believes in God, to look to God’s grace for help.

[My opinion: To someone in crisis over an unplanned pregnancy, the pro-life message can be stated in universal terms using “hope” and “horizon;” an acknowledgement of a this-too-shall-pass mentality. If a person in need of hope can turn to God, so much the better.

For a Christian, there is hope even in negative situations. Recall Romans 8:28: We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.

Grace works somewhat like an electro-magnet, which is a powerful force that draws things made up of a certain molecular structure toward itself. Grace is what God uses to draw human persons into a more perfect relation with himself. Often, the trials in our lives bring us in touch with this specific action of grace.]

"…we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations…"
Exegesis: This phrase states the imperative of carrying forth… moving onward and forward. It mentions the great gift of freedom this country was founded on. It is for all the future citizens of this country. It is a “gift” that must be passed on…deliveredsafely to future generations. This suggests future generations have a stake in our freedom right now.

[My opinion: If future generations have a stake in the gift of freedom we are carrying now, it implies that we are indebted in some way toward them. This defines our freedom as more than one person’s individual right. This suggests that the great gift of freedom is both personal for one person, and at the same time, collective or universal to all. This is why pro-lifers believe that life in the womb is sacred. It is part of the universal whole of humanity. The unborn child has a stake in its mother’s personal freedom, even if she is unaware of it to be true.

I find it curious that the words carried and delivered it safely are intentionally used in the same sentence in this part of the speech. These words are commonly used to describe a pregnancy that is carried to term whereby the child delivered safely.

Is it too obvious to mention that we only have a future generation by allowing them to be born? Future generations ultimately depend on our mothers’ sacrifice and generosity. Indeed, our actions have consequences for tomorrow. We must act responsibly for the sake of others. If freedom was the child we are carrying today, do we have the right to abort it, depriving others of so great a gift? The greatest freedom, or right, is life. No life, no freedom. Life precedes all other rights and must be protected.

So to all those who value life in all its forms, reread the section of Obama’s address. I think it clearly gives us our marching orders. And may we take the message of life to our country and culture with all the hope and virtue we can muster! ]

On a final note, check out this video.

HT to Kate Wicker.

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