IT'S IRONIC THAT MUCH OF WASHINGTON IN 2003 IS about grasping power, but George Washington in 1783 emphasized relinquishing it.
If you're baking a cake for Washington's Feb. 22 birthday, remember that many of his army officers would happily have made him King George I of America, replacing George III of England. Washington, though, had imbibed from the Bible the Christian sensibility that we should glorify God and not ourselves. He returned to Mount Vernon and would have stayed there, had not governmental crisis forced him to become America's first president.
One person's example touches so many others. For a century and a third after Washington no president served more than two terms, although that was allowed. Even today, George W. Bush wins friends and influences people by showing that he is willing to serve but happy to head back to his ranch.
That's unusual in Washington. I spent a lot of time there in 1995, a heady period right after Republicans gained a majority of the House of Representatives. Predictions of "We'll revolutionize this" and "We'll change everything" filled the GOP air. True believers chastised reservations as signs not of realism but of insufficient ardor. That experience taught me that the hardest thing in Washington, or anywhere, is to be in the game and in the stands at the same time.
Washingtonians (and all of us) need to be serious but not solemn about our work. In ancient days Caesars had functionaries to remind them that they too were mortal. In medieval times kings had court jesters assigned to puncture royal arrogance. Since it's so hard to find good help these days, Washingtonians and all of us need to internalize skepticism about our own pretensions.
For example, some neoconservatives are over-the-top with joyful talk of invading Iraq and establishing democracy there. They don't understand the difficulty of superimposing a political system based on a belief in original sin and the consequent need for checks and balances on an Islamic culture that emphasizes tawhid-unity-and teaches that some leaders are sinless.
Let's pray that war can still be averted without sacrificing the future for the present, and that if it comes, Saddam will be overthrown quickly. But we should recognize that the war might be hard and the peace even harder.
Here's another Washington's birthday thought: His significance also shows the illogic of those appalled at the Christian belief that one individual-first Adam, later Jesus-could make a decision that changed our lives. That an original sin could so affect others, and that Christ could later atone for our sins, does not go over well with those taught as students that each person must do his own work. Why should we be so injured by the work of another, and then so helped?
To see how Washington's life affected all of ours, we go back to the beginning of this nation. To see the power of Adam's fall and Christ's faithfulness, let's go back to the Bible's teaching that in the beginning man lived in a garden and had plenty of time for intellectual endeavors (studying animals so as to name them rightly) and pleasant physical work (tending a garden that produced great flowers and food, not thorns).
Is it strange that Adam's disobedience had consequences for himself and all his posterity, which includes us? No, because Adam represented us, in one sense, as a president at times represents the nation. We're stuck with his decisions, whether we like them or not. Or, we could say that Eve represented us as a mother influences her preborn children: If she drinks heavily, they are likely to have fetal alcohol syndrome.
But all of us have also been affected by another decision, that of Christ, whose punishment takes the place of ours, and whose righteous life substitutes for ours. That's not hard to understand; Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities) wrote of an innocent person voluntarily dying for another. Maybe we don't like to think of how one person living long ago could affect our lives so much, but keep in mind how much we owe each of our ancestors over the past several thousand years. Had any one of hundreds changed his actions in any one of an infinite number of ways, thus affecting (among other things) whether and when we were conceived ... lest that boggle the mind, we can be grateful for God's providence.
None of us is autonomous even in the smallest degree. We are in debt to our ancestors. We owe a lot to George Washington. We owe the most to Jesus Christ.