By Rev. Josh Pawelek
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.
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