"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," reads a Martin Luther King Jr. quotation stitched into a new rug in the Oval Office. King recast this abolitionists' rallying cry on his march to Selma, Ala.
Growing up in a conservative Calvinist Midwestern community, I often heard King's critics object to his calls for racial justice. They scorned King as a Communist who lacked patriotism.
He wanted to redistribute wealth, they contended, by forcing the rich to sacrifice personal fortunes to support the poor. Critics aim similar barbs at President Barack Obama, saying his welfare state runs on the rails of socialism.
The president defended his pursuit of justice in Time Magazine's interview as 2012 Person of the Year. Echoing Martin Luther King, the president asks, "Are we satisfied with an America that is becoming more unequal, in which the combination of globalization and technology are creating a wider and wider divide between a few who do extraordinarily well and the majority of people who see their prospects diminish?
"Do we believe in an America that says some folks are more American than others or more worthy than others or more valued than others? Or do we believe in an America where that Declaration means what it says: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men, women, gays, straights, blacks, whites, disabled, not disabled - that all people are created equal?" (Time Magazine, Dec. 31, 2012-Jan. 7, 2013, p. 90).
Our president's impatience rises against those who raise unjust barricades. King's credo woven into the White House rug is more than a code of honor. It's what inspires Obama's passion to spread fairness. With shrewd analytical skills honed by community service work in Chicago, President Obama shows zest for bold political action. He's outmaneuvered Republican policy aimed at keeping wealth accumulation in the top 1percent.
The president commiserates with an electorate not retired in gated communities. He harnesses their energies against inequity. Obama crafts effective political messages promoting justice. He amplifies the Christian call to protect the weak.
Has the Republican Party veered from traditional American values of practicing charity to the poor? Is it their intent to slash the social safety net and allow Wall Street to run free of regulation? If so, declares the president, the corrupt prosper.
King and President Obama have stayed the course when pressing for a more just society. Their devotion to structural change that fairly treats citizens isn't deflected by belligerent foes. Like King, Obama resents Republicans who stubbornly insist that compromise is selling out on principles.
More than political conviction stirs justice. Furthering justice is at the heart of the Christian message.
At a 2011 Prayer Breakfast, Obama witnessed to how he "came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my Lord and Savior." Such conviction coaxes Christians to press for justice. "We are reminded," Obama declared, "that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we're being true to our conscience and true to God. 'Seek first his kingdom (Jesus' rule on Earth) and his righteousness (Jesus' just concern for the poor), and all these things will be given you, as well'" (Matthew 6:33).
Like King, Barack Obama believes social insurance programs ranging from Social Security to food stamps are concrete, just ways of helping needy citizens. They are favorite targets of those who dismiss welfare as disguised socialism.
Pressing for justice causes battles. In 1944 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed ardor in a prayer he gave to the nation as our troops invaded Europe on D-Day beaches and fought against unjust Axis powers.
On Nov. 6, Roosevelt prayed, "Guide, we beseech thee, the nations of the world, into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the reward of righteousness.
"Make the whole people of this land equal to our high trust, reverent in use of freedom, just in the exercise of power, generous in the protection of weakness.
"Enable us to guard for the land among us the freedom we covet for ourselves; make us ill content with the inequities of opportunity which still prevail among us. Preserve our union against all our divisions of race and class which threaten it.
"And now may the blessing of God almighty rest upon this whole land. May it give us light to guide us, courage to support us, charity to unite us, now and forever more. Amen."
"Amen" means, "so be it, right on, do it!" Justice prevails when citizens and the Congress practice the faith Roosevelt, King and Obama share.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.