“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).
Yesterday, Barack Obama, took the oath of office—the first African-American to do so. It has been repeated so often that now it is a commonplace, but one worth rehearsing again: Regardless of your politics, yesterday marked an important day in the history of this country. One hundred years from now children in schools all over the world will be reading about what happened on the Capitol Mall yesterday—a day in which America took its own proclamations about equality seriously enough to inaugurate a man who, only a generation ago would have been escorted to the back of the bus, a man who, only four or five generations ago stood a better than even chance of being someone’s property, listed on an inventory between head of cattle and bales of cotton. I happen to have a prickly relationship with American history—bearing in mind the ambivalence it, I think, rightly evokes. However, yesterday marked a proud day, one which we can only hope will be a new chapter in that history. One thing’s for certain, though—it will look decidedly different from the history and the politics on which those capable of reading this cut our teeth.
I was struck by President Obama’s use of this reference from First Corinthians—about growing up and putting away childish things. He clearly alluded to the past as a touchstone for where we should be headed in the future. Of course, he was talking about the petty maneuvering that “strangles our politics.” But I also heard whispers of how the missteps of a young country, specifically with respect to race, ought to give way to a mature and confident adulthood. Having taken the oath of office, the bi-racial son of an immigrant father and Midwestern mother, he stood as a symbol for what the future might hold, if we ever see our way clear to growing up. It’s a tough situation, though. No question.
Paul, in writing to the Corinthian church, realizes the tough pastoral care situation he faces. The church at Corinth was in turmoil—divisions and arguments over spiritual gifts, immorality and a disregard for the poor, political scheming and legal confrontations between members. In short, the church had failed to mature. The situation angered Paul. So Paul’s comments about putting an end to childish ways are a reaction to a group of people who seemed bent on destroying one another to advance particular agendas. But these weren’t just any people—they were Christians. Paul seems to think that this distinction ought to make a difference.
But why, though? Why does Paul think that being a disciple of Jesus ought to clean up an otherwise fetid swamp? I think it has to do with the odd line about seeing “but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” nevertheless declaring that there will come a time when “we shall see face to face.” Paul says to the struggling church in Corinth that though we cannot see it now, we are headed on a journey because of who we follow that will result in the ultimate goal of “knowing fully, even as [we] are fully known.” We will one day—by the grace of God—grow up.
Whether Barack Obama can lead America down its own path to maturity remains to be seen. But our biggest hope is not the healing of a nation (as important as that is), but in the redemption of creation. And only God can deliver on that promise.