Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Three Public Prayers for Obama



Bishop Gene Robinson

Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest and vocal gay rights leader, opened President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration with a prayer on Sunday's kick-off event—‘ We are One’ concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, due to technical malfunction—some say political conspiracy—the bishop’s prayer was not broadcast. It was a good prayer, worthy of preservation and reflection.



He invoked the “God of our many understandings” and asked that our communal Deity would…
Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

• Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

• Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

• Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

• Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

• Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

• Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.


He then gave thanks for God’s child Barack, that God grant him “wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.”

Bishop Robinson’s prayer to the “God of our many understandings” was decidedly not a Christian prayer. In an earlier interview, Robinson said he was "horrified" to find, in reading over inauguration prayers of the past, how “specifically and aggressively Christian they were.” And he promised “that this will not be a Christian prayer, and I won’t be quoting Scripture or anything like that. The texts that I hold as sacred are not sacred texts for all Americans, and I want all people to feel that this is their prayer.“

I thought it was a sincere attempt to appeal to America’s diversity of religious (and lack of) religious faith, and also not to offend those who object to specifically Christian prayers or overt signs of religious life in the public sphere. Perhaps it succeeded. But at the heart of the prayer, it seemed to me, was a genuine and powerful invocation of the Almighty in the best tradition of public prayers for all people.


Rev. Rick Warren

The choice of Rick Warren outraged most gay marriage advocates. They were offended that Obama would invite a high profile, outspoken, evangelical pastor to a national and international podium. Warren is a post-evangelical conservative who is actively involved in combating global warming, fighting world poverty and working for an AIDS-free world. But the current spot light is on his opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights.



Obama defended his decision saying that America is a nation of many beliefs, including: those who defend a woman’s right to choose and those who defend the rights of the unborn; those who affirm traditional marriage and those who want to expand the notion of marriage and family; and that there is a place at the table for many views on these and other subjects.

People forget that Warren was prophetic in challenging evangelicals to get involved significantly in HIV/AIDS work in Africa, and led the way lobbying the Bush administration to fund ARV drug treatment in Africa with breakthrough results. Few have done as much about calling world attention to AIDS in Africa than Rick and Kay Warren.

As Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, rose to offer the Invocation, he struck a pose and posture suggesting openness and receptivity to what I assumed was the energy of the Spirit. With open palms and outstretched hands, he began by reciting the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One." He also invoked a frequent line from the Qur’an: "You are the compassionate and merciful one."

Though he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the task, I was impressed by passion and courage to pray an explicitly Christian prayer--one in Jesus Name. I thought he chose his words carefully, and tried to minimize possible offense to those who don’t like prayer and religion mixed with politics and government. Evangelicals, especially Baptists, have to pray In the Name of Jesus. Otherwise, it would not be ‘powerful and effective’ (James 1:19). But they can do so more as a testimony than triumphalism. Warren struck the right tone, when he said: "I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life: Yeshua, Isa, Jesus (hay-SOOS), Jesus…”

I think this was as humble, inclusive, and sensitive as one could expect from a theologically conservative, evangelical, Baptist preacher who sincerely believes in a God that is "loving to everyone you have made.”

In previous Inaugurations, most ministers avoided explicitly using the “Name that is above all names” which always trigger controversy and lawsuits for explicitly Christian prayers. Then, Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, an African-American pastor of a 10,000 member church in Houston, dared to do it and offended many by praying In the Name of Jesus at President Bush’s Inauguration. I’m sure Rick Warren offended some in his more humble and sensitive use of the Name.

But why insist on a watered down public prayer from a Southern Baptist? Why prefer a generic prayer in the public sphere? Why require religious leaders to put away their particularity in an ecumenical, interfaith setting? Christians are christo-centric in praying in the Name of Jesus in the same way that Muslims are theocentric in praying to Allah as the One and Only God. I would expect a Jewish Rabbi to look like and sound like a devout Jew praying to Yahweh with hands lifted up. And I would expect a non-believer to simply invoke the people and not a Deity. Multi-religious diversity is not served by expecting devotees to deny their distinctive traditions and walk on egg shells so as not to offend the distinctive traditions of others. Let those who affirm a particularity in religion pray in the name and spirit of their distinction, with respect and tolerance for those who do not share their particularity.

Warren concluded his rather long Invocation of Christ with the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. Many around me quietly and reverently bowed and prayed the “Our Father…” led by Warren. I joined in too, feeling like I was participating in the official prayer for the new President on his first day of office.


Rev. Joseph Lowery


My favorite Inaugural prayer came at the end of the ceremony. Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist minister and respected civil rights leader, offered a Benediction in a traditional African American style.

He began by quoting the third verse of "Lift Every Voice and Sing": “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.”



In praying for the 44th President of the United States, Lowery called God ‘Lord’ (a relational term of spiritual intimacy that manages to offend progressives who dislike its hierarchical meaning). And he asked the Lord to work through Barack to heal our land:

“For we know that, Lord, you are able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor, of the least of these, and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.”
The preacher got prophetic when he prayed for forgiveness for Americans that have “sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption…”

As Isaiah and Amos before him, the prophet Lowery waxed eloquent when he invoked God’s hands of power and heart of love to help us “work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

Obama smiled as the old man concluded his prayer with his vision of that Day of new beginning: “ when Black will not be asked to get in back, when Brown can stick around, when Yellow will be mellow, when the Red man can get ahead, man, and when White will embrace what’s right. Let all who do justice and love mercy say Amen.”

Barack’s spiritual understanding is that “America is a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and those with no religious faith.” There is a place at the table for a Bishop Robinson who prays to “a God of our many understandings”, and for a Rick Warren who prays in the Name of Jesus. And there is a place for an aging civil rights leader who asked the Lord for help and named the ways that he would like the Lord to challenge and deliver the ‘black man, brown man, yellow man, red man, and white man’ on that Day when justice and mercy prevail.

Barack, the community organizer, was right in choosing diverse representatives of the Christian faith to pray at his Inauguration. He would have been more right to have included Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders as well. For in Obama’s America, there is place for everyone at the table of the common good, where there is liberty, equality, peace and justice for all.