The tag-line for Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign was ‘Change we can believe in.’ Like all good marketing labels was short, easy to remember, and resonated deeply with the electorate.
The most appealing thing about it was that Obama was going to do it all for us; we could just sit back and he would make it all better.
It seems reassuring, therefore, that we read in the British newspaper, the Guardian, that sitting behind the desk at the Oval Office at 8.35am after a late night of inauguration balls:
President Barack Obama devoted his first full day at the White House to ditching in quick succession one discredited Bush administration policy after another - proposing the closure of the Guantánamo Bay prison and offering a new relationship to Iran.
Out with the old, in with the new! It was important that he be seen changing things - and ‘in quick succession’. But can we believe in it? And what is the goal of the change? Will it actually lead to greater justice and peace, and truer freedom, or is it just peace and freedom ‘Obama-style’?
Underlying all the euphoria and optimism is the already sadly failed but still very popular idea that ‘we can fix it!’ Of course, this implies that we are certain it’s broken. One thing is for sure, Obama will leave his mark on every facet of society. My own hope, not well founded, is that his wisdom will learn to reach beyond facile legislation, money-throwing, or that ultimate sign of human powerlessness, war.
Until we find a leader who truly understands what a human being is in all his God-given dimensions nothing will change, absolutely nothing, because change we can believe in ultimately comes from within the heart of man.
By the strangest of coincidences another aspiring world leader hits the campaign trail this week. Like Obama he is not well known and, like Obama, he has inherited a gigantic mess. He’s campaigning under the same tag as a former Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, who used it with great success - ‘It’s Time’ - but to this appealing little phrase he’s added another borrowed word, a word which takes us totally by surprise – ‘Repent.’
Repent is an interesting word with interesting synonyms – turn away from sin, atone, be sorry, do penance. Imagine Obama on the hustings speaking to the gathered millions under a banner reading: Change you can believe in – repentance! The shift is from we can fix it to you can fix it - but it would never work. Why? Because it tells us that we are the problem and therefore, unavoidably, the solution. People don’t like hearing this; they want politicians to fix it for them; they want to be left alone.
Jonah preached repentance to the Ninevites as John the Baptist preached it to the Jews at the Jordan. Jesus preached it incessantly on his mission of salvation not because he lacked originality but because he knew there was no other hope for humanity. Repentance is, in fact, the only change we can believe in because it puts God and humanity back into a right relationship; the fundamental precondition for all real growth.
Undeniably, the world is in a mess and it’s getting worse. You may think I’m speaking about the global financial crisis or global warming and I am, but not primarily. Primarily I am referring to the normalisation of fornication, adultery, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and so on; the blind contempt shown, even celebrated, in a multitude of ways, for the rights of God and the dignity of the human person. This is the real disaster of our modern times.
Fortunately, the unquenchable human thirst for goodness, absolute truth and beauty cannot be destroyed. We were created by God for God and there is nothing we can do to change that spiritual DNA. The really sad thing is that we stubbornly go on ignoring our roots and seeking to make ourselves into something which doesn’t need God.
Obama can offer all the change he wants and beg us to believe in it; George Bush did it before him and so did Bill Clinton, as well as our own Kevin Rudd. None of them dare to say the words ‘repent’ and ‘believe in the Gospel’. To hear these words we have to go to the only leader capable of delivering what he promises, Jesus Christ, the one who makes all things new.