I watched the news coverage following the death of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy with interest over the past week. It seemed to me that the assessments of Kennedy’s life pronounced by pundits, politicians and historians fell into one of two camps: 1. those who described Kennedy as the “Lion of the Senate,” a master legislator who helped craft most of the culture-improving bills of his generation, and a crusader for the underdog; and 2. those who described Kennedy as a spoiled dilettante whose political fortunes were handed to him by his rich family, a cad and womanizer who drove drunk resulting in the death of a young woman, and a proponent of big-government excess. How do we reconcile these two images of the same person?
As I heard the praise and criticism of Kennedy, I thought of the many parallels between him and George W. Bush. Even though there are significant differences between the two men—especially when it comes to their political ideologies and the fact that Bush is still alive—there are some similarities that I believe are worth pondering. Both men grew up as younger sons in rich politically-connected families, and neither man was expected to carry his family’s standard but both did to the highest levels of political power. Both were accused of being callow drunks who had their political positions handed to them on the basis of wealth and family rather than talent. Both are reviled by those on the other end of the political divide, but both of them were known for reaching across the aisle to accomplish their agendas. AND both credit Christianity with the significant changes made in their lives: Bush made a profession of faith with an evangelical minister and Kennedy found a renewed commitment to his Catholic upbringing. (Also--read Jim Wallis' accounts of his interaction with Kennedy.)
Those who despise Kennedy and view him as liberal destroyer of family values will bristle at the comparison with Bush; likewise, those who view Bush as a theocratic warmonger would reject the comparison with Kennedy. Yet, I feel there is a spiritual truth somewhere in-between that deserves to be examined. All but the most zealous of Kennedy’s detractors could at least applaud his work to expand America’s immigration policies beyond Western European Caucasians, his opposition to human rights abuses of regimes like August Pinochet and the U.S.S.R., and his support of people with disabilities. Similarly, all but the most virulent of critics could at least applaud Bush’s large increases in foreign aid to fight the AIDS crisis in Africa and the prescription drug program for low-income seniors. Except for the most partisan, I believe most everyone could give some credit to both Kennedy and Bush when pressed. What does it mean then, from a faith perspective, that each person could accomplish great things for the benefit of others despite obvious personal failings?
One thing I hope the legacies of Kennedy and Bush reveal is that the work of God to care for humanity is not limited by partisan politics. Despite those who would claim that God is on one side of the aisle or the other, if one understands every act of benevolence and healing as an outgrowth of God’s saving and healing activity, then it stands to reason that God can work through either a Democrat or a Republican. Another thing I hope the legacies of these two men reveal is that God can work through people even if they have made big, even tragic, mistakes. This is good news for those of us who have made some of our own. Finally, I hope their legacies point to the idea that God can help people to change for the better. We are not bound by the low expectations of others or even ourselves. With God’s help, we can turn away from destructive behavior that enslaves us and wounds those around us. The grace of God ignores the boundaries we erect.
Most of us will not rise to political prominence. We will lead ordinary lives far from the spotlight of fame and fortune. Yet, the grace of God can overcome the differences between us—political and otherwise—as we work to share love with humanity. The grace of God can work through anyone, even broken people, because God offers us on-going chances to change for the better. All these things are available to us, even if we do not come from a dynasty of wealth and power.
Grace and Peace,