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Barack Obama and the Promise of Progress

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2008-07-28-bnet_logo_white.gifThere have been many, (many!) Barack Obama t-shirts that appeared over the long months of the presidential election, but my favorite was the multi-colored portrait of the candidate boldly underlined with the word "Progress." Progress was promised in the policies of the campaign, but also embodied in the man himself. On Monday we will celebrate the life of Martin Luther Kng, Jr, and on Tuesday the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America. One of the many ways we can commemorate this important moment in our nation's history is to recognize and give thanks for progress and progressives.

Progressives examine the world with an unfettered gaze that recognizes injustice and suffering, and then set about the task to make it better for all people. The progressive movement throughout the last century has enlisted political leaders, economists, educators, lawyers, scientists and clergy who strive together to create a more just and equitable world. We have set about this task because we believe it is worthwhile and because we believe it is possible.

Conservatives -- especially religious conservatives -- have long been skeptical of progress. They claim that progressives -- especially religious progressives -- are naïve and don't fully understand the sinfulness of the human heart. This cynicism stems from a convenient theology that diminishes concern for the conditions of this world in preference for an emphasis on the next. As their name implies, conservatives concentrate on maintaining the status quo that often serves their own interest. They approach the world with an unfounded nostalgia for the "good old days" that often never were.

Nowhere is this truer than when confronting the history and legacy of slavery and racism in this country. There were no "good old days" in the race history of our country. We have come from a horrible past and are still making progress towards the future. Sojourner Truth, Fredrick Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr; and the presidency of Barack Obama demonstrates the incremental but determined progress that can be made in confronting and rectifying the injustice of racism in this country. And there is still a long way to go.

The cynicism (they would call it realism) of conservatives is actually instructive here. It is not assured that progress always marches forward. The Jim Crow laws demonstrated that it is possible to take one step forward and two steps back. As a Christian pastor I recognize the reality of sin -- in the heart and in society -- and backsliding in both is always a possibility. We should be wary of those who view Barack Obama's presidency as crossing the finish line when it comes to race. We are still running and endurance is crucial. As the spiritual implores: "Guide my feet Lord, as I run this race 'cause I don't want to run this race in vain."

But on this day let us celebrate progress. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said - "The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice." Let us follow that moral arc ever closer towards the promised land.