In his book, Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama tells the story when he was running for the U.S. Senate of flying from Chicago on a private jet to a fundraising event on the west coast. He describes the comfortable chair, the wood paneling, the crab salad, and the constant attention he received from the wait staff. He then goes on to tell of a car ride with his campaign manager from Chicago to the western Illinois city of Galesburg. In a Galesburg diner he met with the town mayor and some Maytag workers who were concerned that their plant was being relocated to Mexico and they would lose their jobs. He contrasts the two trips by saying that when you are flying high in a private jet, it is very easy to lose touch with the struggles and needs of the everyday American. That’s why when possible he chose to drive rather than fly privately.
Recently, we have been reminded how some self-styled elite in our country seemed to have lost touch. Take the case of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who has been trying to sell President-elect Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder. Now he is resisting calls for his resignation and may be impeached, so that Obama’s seat can be replaced. As disgusting as that action is, more disgusting is that all the people around him and many in the Illinois Senate knew he had done this sort of thing before, but looked the other way. Somehow the standards of honesty and decorum don’t apply to the governor or other Illinois officials – or so they think..
Or take the case of the former CEO of Merrill Lynch and Co., John Thain. In the twelve months he has held that post, the company lost more than $10 billion dollars and then was sold to Bank of America. For his stellar efforts Mr. Thain requested that he be granted a $10 million bonus on top of his $750,000 salary, $15 million signing bonus, and a long term pay package valued between $50 million and $120 million. Merrill’s compensation committee denied Mr. Thain’s request, but what kind of gall and hubris does it take for a person to even ask?
We could go on about the AIG executives who got bailed out and then took a luxurious corporate junket, or the auto executives who came to Washington expecting to be bailed out without any plan or the athletes who in spite of these hard economic times still get millions of dollars for throwing a ball or catching a pass – it is all obscene… and it has to end
One can only hope that as Obama ascends to the highest, most powerful position in the world that he won’t forget the lesson he learned en route to Galesburg. Likewise, one can only hope that the likes of Gov. Blagojevich and Mr. Thain can be humbled and cut at the knees to the point of recognizing how incredibly out of touch and arrogant they really are.
During this Advent season I am reminded of the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus when she proclaimed:
“God has performed mighty deeds with his arm
And scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
God has brought down the rulers from their thrones
But has lifted up the humble
God has filled the hungry with good things
But sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1.51-53)
Now I wish I could say that I see evidence of this great reversal of fortunes in our day, but I don’t. I will admit I am disappointed, angry and a bit cynical at the way the so-called leaders have handled the financial crisis. What I see is the poor being forgotten, and top 5% of the income bracket expecting their banks and finances to be bailed out. What I know is that I have tried in various ways to ally myself with those the passage calls the “humble” and the “hungry.” What I hope for is that not only will the poor and lowly be lifted out of their struggle, but that the arrogant of the world will be faced with their own shallow hubris either by personal reflection or circumstance.
During this Advent-Christmas season, we are often reminded to remember the things that are really important in life such as friends, family and good health. I do value these things, but there has to be more. This season I also remember that we celebrate not the birth of a cute baby in manger, but rather One who came to turn the world and its value on its head. This is my prayer and hope and what keeps me going.