NOW that Barack Obama is indeed President of the United States, the public focus rightly falls on what he does, more than on the symbolic element that was so much to the fore at his inauguration. It may seem odd, then, if I take readers back for a moment to that event; but I want to share with you an aspect of the occasion that offers a significant image of our civic change, even though it was not much noted at the time.
For a Californian, of course, it was a delight to see the new President escorted to the podium by two fellow-Californians who hold significant positions in the new Congress — this, after a long period when California seemed almost to have been excised from the Union by a highly partisan Republican regime. Not only were they Californians, but they were fellow residents of the San Francisco Bay area. And not only that, but both are women: Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Still more important for me, though, was a serendipitous overlaying of images called forth by Senator Feinstein’s short speech that launched the ceremony. The previous day, I had seen the film Milk, recounting the life and assassination of the first openly gay person elected to office in San Francisco — or, for that matter, the United States.
At the beginning of the film, in a collage of images, was some television footage from 1978 in which Senator Feinstein, as President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, announced the deaths of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, both assassinated by former Supervisor Dan White.
Senator Feinstein had heard the shots, summoned the police, and found the bodies. She was deeply and visibly shaken as she fulfilled her duties as the city’s ongoing leader. Just over 30 years later, the same person, now jubilant, presided over a moment of political fulfilment.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr had happened ten years before. All three events have fallen within my adult lifetime as well as hers. I do not believe that anyone, 30 or 40 years ago, could have foreseen that the same person would preside over two public moments so opposite to each other. Only visionaries such as Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk could even imagine the present state of affairs. But I saw written on Senator Feinstein’s face a moment of astonishing fulfilment.
President Obama, in spite of his intelligent and energetic start, will not get everything right. But, whatever happens over the next four years, my country is not the same place it was 40, 30, or even ten years ago.
As a Niebuhrian sceptic in all matters that touch on both God and politics, I have no illusions that we have finally become free of sin. But I am deeply grateful for the legacy of past visionaries and martyrs, and for the grace of a new, and, it appears, more hopeful era.
The Revd Dr Countryman is Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.