Listening to President Obama's eloquent and moving speech night in Tucson this past week, I jotted down a line that struck me as important: When (I paraphrase) our brief lives on this earth come to an end, we will be judged not on our fame or money or success, but we will be judged on how we have loved."
This strikingly Christian theme, which is shared with other religious traditions, connects very simply two profound themes: love and justice. A just society, based on the values of the community and the common good, must entail compassion. And in practical terms, compassion and love for one's fellow man should mean a reduction in violent, emotional political language and actions.
The theme is one I shared with my students in a Dante class, which ended on the day after the speech. Dante would have applauded the line, and the speech. Obama has read enough theology (Niebuhr, et al.) and thought deeply enough about the politics of reconciliation that he was able to connect major ideas from the Judaeo-Christian tradition with his own feelings about the senseless tragedy that took place last week in Arizona.
Whether his words will have any effect is open to discussion. But it seems to me that the very discussion his speech is having is important. He has defined, most dramatically in his career, a tone of civil speech that can effect changes more subtle than what we are likely to see in Congress or the political arena.
If just a few websites can drop their cross-hairs and just a few leaders examine gun laws in their districts and fewer speeches include the language of death and hatred, that will be a beginning.
By coincidence (or was it?) I happened upon a new book by the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, "You are Here." Respect your anger as you respect yourself, he writes; treat your emotions the way all life is to be treated: tenderly. And keep breathing mindfully, knowing that each breath can bring us inner peace.