By Dr. Brian Bantum, Divinity '03
Assistant Professor of Theology
Seattle Pacific University
On Friday October 9, 2009 it was announced to much surprise and bewilderment that President Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. This announcement was met with a fury of support as well as disbelief. “He hasn’t accomplished anything yet,” was a refrain repeated by Facebook statuses and opinion articles alike. One CNN report framed Obama’s accomplishment in this way, “Unlike his predecessors, Obama was chosen not for substantive accomplishments, but for inspiring "hope" at the start of his term.”
I am not sure President Obama deserved the prestigious award any more than Al Gore did in 2007. I am not sure you could point to Gore’s documentary as a turning point in environmental policy. But both Gore and Obama represented something. Each posed a significant question to the world through their candidacy or their advocacy. But what is so interesting to me here is not the question of whether the peace prize was deserved or not, but how the question of representation is so central to this issue and to the reality of our modern world.
The Obama presidency has come to exemplify the complication of minority identity in the modern world. On the one hand the arrival of dark bodies into a place of power is met with the inflammation (or explosion) of resistance (see a sign to “nigger rig the Obama healthcare plan”) or more explicitly “you lie” from a now emboldened southern congressmen. But Obama also faces a surreal elevation of his capacities and possibilities that are difficult to imagine any one achieving. Obama is trapped within these violent refusals or violent incorporations. He is quickly becoming bound within the tragedy of modern racial representation.
Obama’s presence within the walls of American power has seemingly coalesced a people who have long felt themselves under threat. For many the “American Way of Life” is under siege from a President who ironically personifies the “American Dream.” Congressman Joe Wilson’s donations have ballooned since his comment and represent a marked discontent for this particular president. But this resistance is more than a disagreement about policy. Cries of “socialism” could be seen as a simple euphemism for the racial estrangement some people now feel from “their” country. And now without a perceived ally in the White House, but even worse a “foreigner,” all that is left is to persistently undermine Obama’s progress because his progress can only mean the devaluing of “American” identity. These objections have little to do with Obama personally and have everything to do with what Obama represents.
But on the other hand Obama suffers from the elevation of post-civil rights yearning to claim some movement forward, perhaps even some easement of a burdensome white guilt. Many are so elated to have finally turned a corner in American racial politics that they will endorse his presidency a success just by virtue that he is a black man. Yet, this claim has little to do with Obama and more to do with how many hope to represent their own place in the world. They support a black president and therefore are progressive, forward thinking people, unlike other backwards-looking people. While the committee of the Nobel Peace Prize undoubtedly admired Obama, were they really seeing the man and his accomplishments or what they hoped for him and for themselves? Through these means of unequivocal support Obama comes to represent an ideal of Americanism or global citizenship.
But what is lost in the midst of these movements of refusal or assumption is who Obama is. People cannot extricate themselves from the veneer of his race to see how his ethnicity, his life, his relationships all participate in actually animating his decision making. Instead his blackness has been co-opted into a representation of his foreignness or refracted into a statement about white (European) hope.
Sadly, this is the predicament of minority existence in the modern world. We, non-white people are either refused because of our racial demarcation through perpetual interrogation of our qualifications, our intentions, our methods. Or we are quickly subsumed into a hope for a multicultural university, or institution, or church, or world. Our pictures become parts of marketing campaigns and we are invited to every lunch. But we are not heard, we are not made a part of these machines. We are used. We are represented and then deployed for a purpose that often has more to do with the one’s representing than the one who is represented. Our lives become represented for us rather than being heard for the complicated realities that they are and in that particular story we come to find hope and the possibility of change.
This reflex of co-opting representation is not new but sadly it is a mark of our human condition. The representation and deployment of bodies for those of us who claim the name of Christ must see this within the optics of theological representation and transformation. In Christ’s birth God was represented to us, shown to us. This presence was not for our redeployment but for our transformation. We consume Christ’s body to become something different. Instead we consume Christ in order to re-create ourselves. As we co-opt Christ into our world, our hopes we re-deploy Jesus to serve an agenda that has little to do with Jesus and everything to do with us.
The representation of Obama as facilitator of peace or as an evil foreigner has little to do with Obama and everything to do with how we must begin to think about ourselves anew when confronted with people of difference. For Obama (and all people of color) this is the tragedy of modern identity. We, people of color, become deployed within worlds of white assumption or refusal and are repeatedly left for dead in the encounter.
If we are to imagine a way forward we can no longer represent others for ourselves. We must enter into the life of God “represented” to us and as us. Jesus was bound between expectations of what could and could not be. His death and resurrection assumed these refusals and accommodations into his own body so that we might imagine ourselves in the life of another. Obama is not Jesus. But this violence of representation to him arises out of a condition of sin that Christ came to overcome.
Instead, we see in the vilification and the “heroification” of Obama a tragic reiteration of our human condition. In capitulating to an economy of representation and distancing we all make real personhood impossible.
I pray that Obama (or his work for us) does not die simply to sustain our hopes about ourselves.