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Responsibility for our Neighbor: President Obama’s Jobs Speech

Perhaps I am mistaken, but it sure seems that President Obama began his much anticipated jobs speech with a little political theology. In classic civic fashion he could have referred to an economic crisis that has left “millions of Americans jobless,” or “millions of our fellow citizens jobless.” Instead, he referred to an economic crisis that has left “millions of our neighbors jobless.”

Perhaps I am mistaken, but it sure seems that President Obama began his much anticipated jobs speech with a little political theology.  In classic civic fashion he could have referred to an economic crisis that has left “millions of Americans jobless,” or “millions of our fellow citizens jobless.”  Instead, he referred to an economic crisis that has left “millions of our neighbors jobless.”  If the economic crisis had not already entered one’s home through unemployment, underemployment, foreclosure, lost job security, delayed retirement, or countless other routes, President Obama sought to connect the crisis to our households via our neighbors.  Not just some neighbors somewhere, but rather, our neighbors.

For some, the President would be describing a literal reality.  I found it rather moving and actually hopeful when on CNN Sen. John McCain chided the president after the speech for only mentioning the foreclosure disaster in one sentence.  Sen. McCain went on to point out that nearly half of the homes in Arizona are “under water” (the current value of the home is less than mortgage owed on the home).  This fact left CNN’s Anderson Cooper somewhat stunned.

For others, and I think these were the others the President really had in mind, the reference was to our biblical neighbors.  One might be tempted to shy away from such an overtly religious interpretation and suggest that by using the term the president intended only a more personalized, less dry, reference; one that might signal a theme of solidarity and not mere patriotism or civic duty.  But it would be precisely because of the very biblical history of this term that a sense of solidarity could be evoked by just one word.

If the president and others succeed in getting more of us to think about the economic crisis in terms of our neighbors, they will succeed not only in cultivating greater political and social solidarity, but they will also succeed in rehabilitating the R-word in politics – responsibility.  No biblical use of the term neighbor is ever merely descriptive, instead, it is inescapably normative, and the central normative idea is the many ways we are responsible for our neighbors, especially our vulnerable neighbors.  We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves, but this love is expressed most clearly when we accept responsibility for them.

Responsible “for” our neighbors?  Yes, this biblical notion of responsibility extends beyond its more American focus on the responsibilities that individuals have for their own actions.  It goes beyond the political meaning that President Obama emphasized in the speech; namely, the responsibility of politicians to their constituents.  Instead, the biblical meaning insists that we are literally responsible for individuals we might never meet; the foreigner, the elderly, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and tonight we add the unemployed.

I think the President’s speech would have been rhetorically stronger if he had better described our neighbors and how this economic crisis has affected them; how it has left them so very vulnerable.  Consider the most basic of numbers: the number of jobs lost in the recession, the number of new jobs needed to accommodate a growing workforce, and the rate of job growth necessary to fill these jobs.  According to Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute

The U.S. is currently 6.9 million jobs below where it was when the recession started. But because the working-age population grows as the population expands, in the three years and eight months since the recession started we needed to have added around 4.3 million jobs to keep the unemployment rate from rising. Putting these numbers together means the current gap in the labor market is roughly 11.2 million jobs. To fill that gap in three years – by mid-2014—while still keeping up with the growth in the working-age population—would require adding around 400,000 jobs every single month. To fill the gap in five years—by mid-2016—would mean adding 280,000 jobs each month. By comparison, over the last three months, the economy added just 35,000 jobs, on average.

In his speech, the President admitted that his policy proposals would not solve all the problems created by the economic crisis.  Shierholz would agree.  She estimates that if fully implemented the proposals would generate 2.6 million jobs and boost the economy by a total of about 4.3 million jobs.  That still leaves almost 7 million jobs and 7 million neighbors unaccounted for.  The president could have better accepted responsibility for these 7 million neighbors, but he also could have better challenged those who would oppose his policies to do the same.

One way to characterize the debate over the true nature of political responsibility on economic matters is by differentiating between responsibility “for” and responsibility “to.”  Those who oppose significant government intervention on economic matters would likely say that governments have a responsibility to their citizens to get out of the way as much as possible and let the citizens take responsibility for their own destinies.  Those who support a significant role for governments involvement in economic programs and in protecting the vulnerable would contend that governments have a responsibility for their neighbors.  The difference in prepositions concisely expresses the difference in political philosophies (or dare one say, political theologies?).

President Obama is clearly on the responsibility “for” side and he used his speech to suggest a long history of presidential and congressional actions consistent with the idea that governments are responsible for their citizens.  But the president could have gone back much further than Abraham Lincoln.  In the middle of the 21st century B.C.E., more than a thousand years before King David and more than 2,000 years before Jesus, Gudea was ruler of the Sumerian city of Lagash.  He is called “the shepherd” elected by Ningirsu, “the protective god of Lagash.”  Of Gudea it is written:

He removed (all) injustice in (their) households.  He gave care to the laws of Nanshe and Ningirsu.  To the orphan, the rich man could do no evil.  To the widow, the powerful man could do no evil.  In a household without a male heir, the daughter came to be the heir.  He made justice to shine (and thus) the Sun God (Utu) crushed iniquity.

A century or two before Gudea ruled in Lagash, Nefer-seshem-Ptah was a high ranking bureaucrat of the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom in Egypt.  In a text remarkable for its anticipation of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, Nefer-seshem Ptah declares in the autobiographical inscription on his tomb:

[I gave bread to the hungry,] clothes to the naked,
I landed one who was stranded,
I buried him who lacked a son,
I made a boat [for the boatless]
[and supported] the orphan.
I never spoke evil against anyone to a potentate.

[Source for both quotes is Enrique Nardoni, Rise Up, O Judge: A Study of Justice in the Biblical World, trans. by Seán Charles Martin (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.: 2004) p. 4,25]

One should probably be careful in quoting such texts from Mesopotamia and Egypt, or elsewhere, lest one suggest naiveté regarding either the life of the poor in such times, or the real honesty of political proclamations at any time.  But the texts remain compelling by providing more than a 4,000 year old history of the expectation that political leaders are indeed responsible for the vulnerable in their societies.

Time and again, however, each of us – citizen, politician, and neighbor – seems to return to our primordial human posture: denial of responsibility.  First Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, Cain just doesn’t care, and Noah doesn’t bother to warn his neighbors.  As in the days of Jeremiah, we declare, “I am innocent” (2:35).  But if we have neighbors, and if our neighbors cry out to us, we are almost certainly not innocent, and, biblically speaking, we certainly are responsible for our neighbor’s plight.

Today, the most frequent way we deny responsibility is to blame someone else for our problems, or our country’s problems.  Perhaps my memory fails me, but I do not recall one single expression of blame in the president’s speech.  If we are in fact to see a rehabilitation of the R-word, then it will be beyond blame and to our neighbor and our neighbor’s needs that we will turn.

Joe Pettit is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD.

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