Adventus

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

And now that it's all over....


Before the whole thing slips away, a final word on the Inauguration; or rather, the prayers at the Inauguration:

I'm not a fan of "public" prayers, so I tried to ignore Rev. Rick Warren's prayer at the inauguration. But it caught my ear when he ended with The Lord's Prayer; caught my ear, and bothered me. And then I found out that specifically Christian reference was hardly unique in recent history:

the absence of non-Christian religious leaders was felt even more deeply starting in 2001, when Graham's son Franklin ended his invocation with an exclusive statement: "We ... acknowledge you alone as our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer. We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit." This was not a prayer offered on behalf of all Americans but on behalf of Christians alone. It bookended George W. Bush's Inauguration with a benediction by Kirbyjon Caldwell that declared, "We respectfully submit this humble prayer in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ," and instructed, "Let all who agree say 'Amen.' " If you didn't agree, there was apparently nothing for you to do but shuffle your feet.
I'm not even sure what a religious invocation is doing in a secular ceremony, one the Founding Fathers sought to keep as secular as possible, considering the oath of office they wrote into the Constitution. Per the Time article, this practice started with FDR, who invited a second pastor and prayer as a specifically political act. Apparently nobody else picked up on the politics of the matter until a few decades later, and then it became all evangelical Protestants, all the time.

So I'm more than a little sympathetic to Atrios' response to the Inaugural. And that's why I'm uncomfortable with public prayers: who are they for, anyway? Some Protestants don't recognize the forms used by Catholics and Anglicans, but would consider the source (especially Roman Catholics) as false Christians. Extreme Protestants dno't even recognize other Protestants as "true" Christians. When I offer a prayer as a pastor, I don't do it as a man with a closer connection to God than the audience, but as a minister on behalf of a group of like-minded persons, as a representative, if you will. Whom do I represent, whom do I speak for, in a crowd as diverse as that on the Mall yesterday, or watching around the world? As Atrios says, he's a non-believer, and he exists, and even the slight mention of such persons in the Inaugural Address was significant because of that. But for whom does the religious figure (pastor, priest, rabbi, prelate) speak at a ceremony as deliberately secular as the Presidential Inauguration? (The words "so help me God" are not part of the Constitutional Oath of Office.) If I were to open my prayer with: "The Lord be with you," how many people would know how to respond? But the words present my understanding that prayer is a communal enterprise, that what I offer is a "common prayer." If I offer a pastoral prayer, in the Zwinglian tradition, I offer a prayer on behalf of the congregation, out of a pastoral relationship. What prayer can I offer on behalf of 1.8 million people? If I offer a more personal prayer, aren't I, as a Christian, running afoul of the admonition in Matthew not to pray in public? Besides, if I offer an "invocation" at a non-religious service, which god do I invoke? Or whose?

And that highlights my other problem with such prayers: the pastor/priest/rabbi/what-have-you is too often a servant to Mammon. How can you not be, when you are offering a prayer, not on behalf of your congregation, or your church, but for a politician, for the person who invited you there, and for the secular occasion everyone came for? How do I, as a Protestant, offer a non-Protestant prayer? Would I expect an Orthodox Priest to offer a non-Orthodox prayer, a rabbi to offer a non-Jewish prayer, a Buddhist to offer anything but a Buddhist prayer? If a shaman were to burn sage and wave it around, how should I respond? If a Tibetan Buddhist were to whirl a prayer wheel, what would that mean to me? My religious traditions are not Buddhist, or Hindu, or even Jewish or Orthodox. What might be meaningful words or actions to them, are meaningless phrases to me. And what, then, is the purpose of the prayer? Ritual? Symbolism? An empty gesture of tolerance or, worse, like FDR's original invitation, of politics?

Pastor Dan has an excellent analysis of what he sees as the failings in Rev. Warren's prayer, and essentially he finds that it violates Public Prayers 101. He points out:

Warren...fumbled through a recitation of variations on the name of Jesus, followed by a clumsy transition to the Lord's Prayer. Any pastor worth his salt knows that you only drag that out when:

1. You want to conclude with participation from the congregation, and/or

2. When you don't know what else to say.
In other words, if you can't offer a good ecumenical and universal prayer, don't offer one at all, because what you end up offering is just a mess. And yes, this minefield can be navigated well. PD also points out Rev.Lowery's prayer "worked" because:

His message was delivered on the sly, through the hymn quotes and scriptural references:...the African-American narrative has come to fulfillment in Barack Obama's investiture as president.
And Warren's message was, what? We're all evangelical Protestants now? Bishop Gene Robinson had said he would specifically offer a prayer as non-specifically Christian as he could craft, and he did fairly well at the effort. But then we're back to the question: if that's what you have to do, what kind of prayer is it?

Just what is prayer for?

The one time I gave a prayer at a "public service," it was a Thanksgiving service in a Christian church, but an ecumenical one, as a rabbi and his congregation were invited to participate. The rabbi noted in a planning meeting that any reference to any name or title for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was a violation of the 2nd Commandment, and made he and his congregation uncomfortable. The pastor "in charge" of the service refused to change his language or apologize for a specifically Christian service. But when I offered a prayer just before the rabbi's part in the service, I intentionally made my language as neutral as possible, and removed all references to the Creator of the Universe that might be a stumbling block for any of the rabbi's congregation. As he passed me on the way up as I was stepping down from the pulpit, he whispered: "Thank you."

I've always cherished that memory, but that was in a church, at a religious service. I knew what my prayer was for and, more or less, who was there participating in it. So I more than winced when Rev. Warren ended his prayer with a clear invitation to a unison prayer no one, clearly, was going to engage in with him. For one thing, which words to use? "Forgive us our trespasses," or "Forgive us our debts"? That alone represents a split within the Christian community, and I don't even know what the Orthodox preference is, or if they use a different translation altogether (see how tricksy this is?). Then, of course, there's the problem of all the non-believers, as well as the religious who are not Christian, and pretty soon you're wondering: "Rev. Warren, what were you thinking?"

And why was he asked to offer it in the first place? Dig a little deeper into the problem, and you see a split between the lip-service paid to Judaism in American politics, and it's actual presence in political ceremonies since 1985. As the country's foreign policy becomes more determinedly supportive of Israel (which is synonymous with Judaism only among its more rabid American defenders who accuse any critics of Israel of Antisemitism), the presence of rabbis on the Inaugural dais has disappeared. Curious, no? Politics? Or simply pandering to a voting bloc?

And what, pray tell, is the difference? And what does it say about "religious leaders" that they participate in this practice?

Well, I suppose it says a lot of things, and one can look upon it in either/or fashion: either it's wrong, and you don't do it, or it's okay because you're at least trying to do something good and don't want your religious practice seen as a mystery cult or an exclusive province of initiated believers. But less and less do my sympathies run in the direction of invocations where none is needed, and even "benedictions" where the ceremony is a secular one.

Tonight on Hardball Chris Matthews questioned the National Prayer Service held this morning. He pointed out that he was a "religious person," but he wondered about the purpose of a service where nobody really says what they believe, where nobody really worships in the manner they find most compatible with their spirituality, and which therefore isn't really a worship service at all. What's the point, he wondered.

Yeah. Something like that.

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