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His Niebuhrian Moment


A reader writes:

I have to say Obama’s speech in Cairo was, for me, his most Niebuhrian moment. Religion in this speech became the ally of humility and reconciliation, not a barrier to them. He retained moral resolve without believing God’s purposes were his own. He even refused to turn his back on genuine progress and modernity — what Niebuhr would call the “growth” we see in history — while not being simply or naively progressive.


His invocation of the Torah, the Koran, and the New Testament at the end of the speech pointed towards the enduring necessity, beauty, and relevance of prophetic religion. We all are under the judgment of the One beyond the many, and as such only partially grasp his will — all our earthly projects and ambitions are tinged with sin, marred by our pride and partiality. Recognizing this is the precondition for working together.

A decent conservative movement would embrace the speech. I don’t think we’ll see that happen, but that shouldn’t detract from what was going on in this speech. It was genuinely important, I think. He understands what Niebuhr wrote on the last page of The Irony of American History:

“For if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history, but by hatred and vainglory.”
Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for this posting.  Click title to go to his web page….

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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June 2009



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory