I was in the United States on the day of Barak Obama’s inauguration as President. I watched the remarkable proceedings on screen, deeply moved, together with the students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. I remember weeping when President Obama said that before him in Washington stretched a street where only decades earlier his father might, or might not, have been served in a café. I thought, ‘It was to witness a moment like this that my grandfather survived Dachau and devoted his life to better understanding between peoples’.
The world has developed in threatening, often evil, ways since that date eight years ago. About Obama’s legacy there are differing opinions. But I have not heard it doubted that he is a moral man with good intentions.
Now America is on the brink of a new era. I know no colleagues in the States who feel confident about what President Trump’s leadership may offer. For this, many factors are to blame for which he is not responsible: Islamist terror; Russian militancy; resurgent racist nationalism, including anti-Semitism; inadequate attention to climate change; callousness towards the poor; the perils of a capitalism unguided and unlimited by intelligent compassion for our fellow human beings and for the earth itself.
Professor Vernon Bogdanor spoke yesterday about the shift from a politics of ideology to a politics of identity. Across the globe, people are anxious about who they are, who cares about them, and what the uncertain future holds. They seek assertive leaders who offer not just security of hearth and home, but something more intangible as well: identity security.
It is partly on this current that Donald Trump has come to power. On the journey, he has not eschewed the language of racism, sexism and contempt, or distanced himself from supporters who embrace it. But leadership, though it may corrupt, also holds the power to chasten and transform those interrogated by its responsibilities.
My prayer therefore on this day of his inauguration is that he should have an open mind and heart; that he should experience many hours by day and by night which challenge him to his very essence about what it means to be human, to be hungry or homeless, hated or forgotten; many hours which haunt him about the very state of this beautiful earth. I prayer that these hours, which we should all experience, for we are all leaders in the domain of our own lives and influence, lead to inspiration and action.
Near the start of the Book of Exodus, which we begin tomorrow, Moses ‘goes out to his brothers’. Since he was brought up in Pharaoh’s royal palace, it is fair to presume that these may have been his fellow Egyptians, the taskmasters and slave drivers. But when he sees the burdens of those who are being made to suffer, he realises that it is the latter who are most deeply his kin. Henceforth he knows it is they who are also his true brothers.
It is in that moment that he becomes a leader. That is Moses’ inauguration.