I am a bit skittish about posting this piece. While I write about my involvement in legislative advocacy and social justice work quite a bit, it is rare for me to write about actual politicians, parties or political campaigns. I admit I’m fairly partisan in my political views. I lean far to the left and so do most of the people in my various circles. I write about issues and causes that are dear to people on the political left. But I don’t generally write about politicians. So I hope this piece doesn’t feel partisan, for that is not my intent. I’m not trying to make a political statement. I’m making an observation about what it means to offer a pastoral presence in the aftermath of violence. And I just happen to believe President Obama does it remarkably well.
During last winter’s furor over the provision in the federal Affordable Care Act that requires employers to offer health insurance that includes no-cost contraception (even when those employers are religiously affiliated institutions like schools and hospitals), some conservative commentators started referring to President Obama as “Pastor in Chief.” For example, see the Rev. Joshua Gening’s February 28th blog post at First Things. In this instance and others, the phrase “Pastor in Chief” is sarcastic. It’s a negative criticism. It was uttered by people who felt the President was infringing on their religious freedom through the Affordable Care Act. They were not experiencing him as pastoral—not even remotely.
But in the wake of last weekend’s horrific shooting in Aurora, CO, I think “Pastor in Chief” might be an appropriate title for the President who appears to be demonstrating a remarkable pastoral sensibility. I say this primarily in response to the speech he gave after visiting with victims and their families on Sunday. While I don’t claim to be an expert in the art of pastoral care, I am a pastor and I know a few things. When the President said, “Words are inadequate,” he was speaking a truth most pastors know all too well. There is often nothing that can be said in the wake of violence and trauma. In fact, words are usually the least helpful thing a pastor can provide. The best pastoral care comes not through our words, but through our presence. When the President spoke of giving hugs, shedding tears and even sharing laughs he was describing a pastoral presence.
Taking this one step further, in the wake of a trauma it is critical that those who lived through it (either as victims or as first responders) be given the opportunity to talk about the experience. The pastor’s role is to listen, to bear witness, and to affirm the reality of suffering. This allows the speaker to begin integrating the traumatic experience into their own life; to literally “own” the experience as part of their life story; to gain some control over the experience rather than being controlled by it. The listening pastor also enables the speaker to feel the breadth of their emotional response to the trauma. While the act of debriefing trauma in this way is never pleasant, this process of speaking and feeling is essential to the long-term healing process. Being able to talk about a traumatic experience helps reduce the severity of post-traumatic stress. In his speech the President acknowledged that the shooter had received much of the attention in recent days, but he also said that this attention would fade. With these very simple words he gave the story of the shooting back to the victims, their families and the first responders. He gave them–and the nation–a way forward. This is what an effective pastor does.
Barack Obama is immensely skilled at speaking to the nation in moments of senseless violence. Recall his remarks after the Fort Hood shooting or the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. Some will say he is simply a master politician playing the role he needs to play in that moment. That may be true. But even if it is, I think there is more to it. As I watched Sunday’s speech I saw not only a President with deeply pastoral instincts; I saw a human being who went to Aurora to be present to horrible suffering, who interpreted that pain very personally through his own lens of being a father and a husband, and who then found just the rights words to say to a grieving city and nation.
Some have suggested that the President missed an opportunity to rally the nation towards a more sane gun control policy. Maybe he did. But scoring political points is clearly not why he went to Aurora. He was making a pastoral visit. Hail to the Pastor in Chief.