My heart leapt when I saw the tall lean figure of President Obama walking down the polished corridors of a prison block in Oklahoma. In over two hundred years, no American president has ever before visited a federal prison.
Politicians are now lining up to support some kind of prison reform, especially for non-violent offenders like drug users. But none of these politicians are actually visiting the actual prisoners. Prisoners are the most despised segment of American society. They did the crime, now they should do the time. Rehabilitation is an out-of-date concept. Keep them behind bars, the thinking goes. Make sure they don’t get out. And if they do get out, put ex-convicts in registries, and prevent them from assuming any place again in American society.
By actually visiting a penitentiary and making his comments, Obama did more than support a currently fashionable political idea. He actually identified with the inmates by making the observation that, but for the grace of God, he could be behind bars and not in the White House. Obama has always admitted his youthful errors, especially using drugs.
I believe there are two explanations for this remarkable display of humanity. The President is secure in his identity as a black man. He has always identified with the pain and longing of other African Americans. He clearly showed this instinct when he noted after the killing of Trayvon Martin, that “it could have been my son.” It is hard to imagine any other president identifying so closely with prisoners, at least these kinds of prisoners. There is no shortage of politicians who have gone to jail, but they have not gone to these kinds of jails or for these kinds of crimes.
The other explanation is Pope Francis. The pope is secure in his identity as a Catholic and as a human being. Francis does not see himself as better than any other human being. He openly identifies with the most despised members of society. This is not really a new idea -- Jesus did it a long time ago. Francis has simply brought these ideas into modern times. I suspect that the power of the pope’s ideas has had a major influence on the thinking of our president.