A Gift for President Obama

In early January, I made a decision to spend this year studying the great peacemakers of history. When a friend of mine learned of this decision and knew he would be seeing me the following week in Philadelphia, he brought along his copy of A Persistent Peace by Father John Dear and gifted it to me for my 30th birthday. 

I began reading the book on my flight home from Philadelphia and could barely put it down: in the airport, on the plane, and even in a reading room I discovered during my layover in Atlanta. 

The book is a first-person memoir of one Jesuit priest’s commitment to the nonviolent love of Jesus. It covers a period of about 30 years, from the earliest days of Father John’s faith into the long road for peace he has walked ever since.

In the pages of this book I encountered story, journey, questions, confession, and exploration. And because the story began at Father John’s beginning and tracked his progression of thought, faith, conviction, and experiment, I felt I was traveling with someone from the point at which I was now beginning, too.

As such, this book provided a great introduction to the philosophy of peacemaking and nonviolence I set out to study this year. Not only did I find myself increasingly drawn into the dialogue of this ideology as I continued reading it, but I also found myself being given a path to walk along the way. This is because Father John litters the pages of this book with names and quotes from the great peacemakers — and so many more I’d never heard of before — that it didn’t take me long to begin underlining names, bracketing quotes, and eventually making a reading list for the year straight from the pages of this book.

This book has served as the symbolic figurehead for the road I have been traveling this year. I cannot tell you how dear a companion it has been to me.

But then sometime in August or September, I began to get an inkling. I started to sense that I was meant to pay this book forward to President Obama.

Crazy idea, right? Send a book to the president?

Who sends a book to President Obama and expects him to actually read it?

This idea struck me as nuts. But even more than that, I simply could not bear the thought of parting with this book. So much of my journey is laced inside its pages. Notes, underlinings, brackets, stars, and other marginalia fill its pages and tell me much about my deep heart and convictions and the questions I have carried along this path.

Not only would sending this book to the White House be akin, in my opinion, to shucking it into a black hole, but I found it to be too great a sacrifice. I decided my answer was no.

Ironic discovery — I found this question to myself inside the pages of the book when thumbing through it this past weekend.

Then last week I read some articles by Jim Wallis. Specifically, I read this article, this article, and this article. They are about the war in Afghanistan and make an appeal to President Obama to consider taking a “third way” — not the way of increased troops or counter-terrorism, but the way of a humanitarian and developmental surge. 

I don’t pretend to be an expert on these matters. I don’t pretend that these problems are easily solved. But I have come to believe that violence in the face of violence does not produce the answers that we seek. It only serves to dehumanize both the oppressor and the oppressed, both of whom are created in the image of God, not to mention that war specifically wreaks devastation and destruction wherever it lands and brings unavoidable harm to innocent bystanders. Violence, I’ve come to believe, is not the human way.

Another ironic discovery I found this weekend, written when I originally read the book some months ago.

Earlier that same evening I had been engaged in a conversation with a classmate about the need for greater congruence between my inner and outer world. In a season when I am vastly overextended, I am asking the question, “How can I bring greater harmony between my deep-hearted convictions and the activities I choose to engage in my life?”

Here, in reading the articles by Jim Wallis, I found at least one answer. 

I remembered the book. I remembered the idea of sending it to President Obama. I felt the strong pangs of sadness and sacrifice. I also felt a surge of accompanying hope.

I am under no illusions about this. I still know the chances of President Obama receiving my letter and this book are slim to none, especially when viewing this video that details the volume of correspondence he receives each week and how few letters actually reach his hands.

But I’ve decided that is not the point. 

For me, I’ve decided taking this step has more to do with letting my deep convictions result in creative action that requires a measure of sacrifice. There is something symbolic and sacramental for me in taking this step, whether or not President Obama ever learns of the gesture or not.

While I was putting this package together over the weekend, I re-read the inscription my friend Chadwick had written on the inside flap of the book when he gave it to me back in January. He concluded the inscription with these words: “May this year of peace move beyond the academic to plant seeds in your soul.” 

I can’t help but believe that a step like this — sending the book on as a gift to our president — is something along the lines of what he meant.