Chris McDonnell on Forgiveness and the American Presidency

A time to be reconciled

Chris McDonnell 

Catholic Times

One of the central tenets of our Christian faith is forgiveness. Time and again in the Gospel narratives parables revolve round the issue of being forgiven. Even from the Cross, we hear the words ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’. Very often in the secular world, forgiveness is sealed with a handshake, the sign that those once opposed have been reconciled.

After tense days of counting it is now finally clear that Joe Biden has won the race for the Presidency in the United States. What is evident from the poll numbers is the clear indication of a deeply divided society, a society divided on so many counts in a deep and damaging manner.

Although the Democratic candidate is now clearly the people’s choice, many of those who participated in the election have ended up on the losing side. It is now that the task of leadership calls out for empathy and courage. After the American Civil War was over and Lincoln was trying to help the South get back upon its feet, a woman reproached him for his attitude.

They are our enemies,” she said. “They ought to be destroyed.” “Madame,” replied the President, “how can I better destroy my enemies than by making them my friends?”

Speaking on the evening of November 04, former Vice President Joe Biden said this:

“So once the selection is finalized and behind us, it’ll be time for us to do what we’ve always done as Americans, to put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to one another, to hear each other again, and respect and care for one another, to unite, to heal, to come together as a nation.”

His words contrasted with those of the incumbent President.

“This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election,” he said. This was a petulant tone of a spoilt child rather than the response of dignified leadership.

Democracy the world over has been bought at a high price as people have struggled to make their voice heard, often confronting powerful dictatorships in the process. One such struggle has been going on for weeks in the streets of Belarus where courageous people have gathered to protest rigged elections. The democratic process has to be protected if it is to survive for the benefit of the people. It is not without significance that the American Constitution starts with three simple words –‘We the people…’

Embedded in the democratic principle is not only the power to vote, but also to protest the abuse of power by those in elected authority. Such protest is given voice through the safeguarding of a free press and the right to peaceful demonstration on the streets. Both can, of course, be abused, when the press is controlled by political misuse of power or when those gathered in mass protest resort to or are provoked to violence.

You might not choose the particular companion who walks alongside you but your combined purpose brings you together for a few hours of common interest. And in the principle of making your voice heard, you are at one.

It is sometimes said that you are a democrat for only one day, the day of election. Once your vote is cast you are placing your trust in the elected choice of the people. Those to whom we give such power can be held accountable at a later date, when they stand for re-election. In the meantime we expect honesty in the exercise of the power that we have entrusted to them. Every vote matters and every vote must be counted wherever democracy is exercised. It is a matter of trust that we place in the system.

It is too much to expect that agreement can be reached on every major issue. We share our journey as best we can, respecting our differences and celebrating our common purposes. That is why single-issue campaigns bring major obstacles to the table. We must look for the greater good in society, warts and all. The manner in which the issue of abortion has been politicised in the US is a case in point.

Repairing relationships after disagreement is often a complex and difficult task. Speaking the wrong word can only aggravate rather than heal. We need to think before we speak. Actions and the spoken word have consequences; that is why we have to be cautious. It is the time of the go-between, someone who can talk to both sides, who is trusted by both, a conversation where lies have no place.

Within our own parliamentary system, there are often times during a heated debate when Members can be direct in their comments. What is unacceptable is to accuse a Member of untruth. It is a charge that will bring the Speaker to his/her feet to demand a retraction. If such a statement is not forthcoming the Member can be suspended from the House.

At the time of writing this week’s words, the counting in the US Presidency has reached its legal conclusion, the former Vice President, Joe Biden has been declared the 46th President, in spite of efforts by the incumbent to discredit the vote. Biden is uniquely qualified to heal a divided nation. His years of experience in the US Senate were marked by his willingness and ability to broker deals across the floor of the House. He will now have to call on his evident skills to address the fractured society that he will shortly be charged with leading.

Much has been written of Biden’s Catholic faith. He has been tested with personal family loss over the years. He has learnt his empathy for others through his own experience of suffering. On Election morning he went to Mass, testimony to his commitment and sincere belief. Towards the end of this month, on November 20th, he will celebrate his 78th birthday. Respect for age is dependent on how the passing years have been spent. We are about to see those years bear fruit.

With the race for the Presidency the focus of attention, it is easy to forget that the post of Vice President will be held by a woman for the first time, Kamala Harris. The full significance of this change in the White House will be realised in the coming months. We can be sure that his inauguration speech will be about the health of the nation rather than about himself.

The management of the COVID contagion, the increasing loss of jobs and continuing racial unrest will demand his time and attention. He will start on a journey that will be difficult and complex. A similar task faced Angelo Roncalli when he was elected to the See of Peter. He took the first significant steps of reform in the Church, a path that is still ours to follow.

Maybe the consequence of these tumultuous November days will be to set a new direction for a great nation.

The fractious departure from office of this current President brings to mind those often repeated lines of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.








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