This is something of a catch-up post about last Tuesday, when a couple friends and a couple roommates and I gathered around CNN with plates of french toast and tangible excitement. The whole ceremony was moving, and it's tempting to go through play-by-play. But as much as I would like to catalog every tear (the first batch was at Dianne Feinstein's reminder that our transfers of power are non-violent) or analyze President Obama's inaugural speech, here are a few thoughts about the prayers given by Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery.
I'm ambivalent about the role of prayer in a national ceremony like the inauguration. On the one hand, it isn't inclusive to non-religious citizens. It's has a degree of awkwardness that is also in the revised version of the pledge of allegiance (the "under God" bit was added in the 1950s). But then, on the other hand, traditionally the U.S. has been very religious-- not in the Christian nation sense (despite the two persons praying being Christian ministers, which is also awkward), but rather in the sustaining cultural narrative that U.S. history (and even destiny) is marked be providence. I'm not saying that this is a rational perspective or even a healthy one (thinking of the horrors resulting from manifest destiny), but considering the references to God that Obama made in his speech one might say that in this current context prayer "fits."
However much it makes sense in the eyes of tradition, my friend was still discouraging Rick Warren from mentioning Jesus as he approached the podium (as in "Don't say Jesus! Don't say Jesus!"). I agreed, even though I knew that as an evangelical it was important for him to invoke JC. The sticky piece is this: even though I encounter the compassion of the God I believe in through the person of Jesus, saying that name loudly and in public isn't going to communicate that compassion. If I think that sharing Jesus is important to following his path, then it makes more sense for me to do so with my actions. And, although it was pretty generic and mostly blessings for the President, Rick Warren's invocation included some calls to action for all the people:
When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us.And
May all people of good will today join together to work for a more just, a more healthy and a more prosperous nation and a peaceful planet. And may we never forget that one day all nations and all people will stand accountable before you.And while some might have found it gimmicky, I really appreciated his acknowledgment of the various names of Jesus: Isa (in Islam) and Yeshua (in Judaism). And while Jesús had the potential to sound hokey, it was an acknowledgment that Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in the U.S. and that many Latino Christians know Jesus by that name.
There isn't enough space here to express how energized I was about Joseph Lowery's benediction. It was, literally, a "good word" for us, and so eloquently worded that I want to follow the fantastic Monica Roberts of Transgriot in posting the entire text. Instead, you can read it there (along with her other posts), and I'll offer some minimal thoughts.
First, while asking Warren to give the invocation felt like a political move, the choice of Lowery, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, to give the benediction of the first African-American and biracial president of the U.S. resonated with the rest of the event. Opening with the last verse of "Lift Every Voice and Sing"-- a song that for many African-Americans has connections to their struggle for liberation-- and ending with the slogans from the Civil Rights Movement wove this momentous occasion into the fabric of a larger story of our nation's journey towards justice and equity. Indeed, returning back to the theme of action, Lowery's prayer was more pointed to the plea of justice:
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.And
With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to 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.And I knew it was a good prayer when my same friend who was wary of the name of Jesus on Rick Warren's lips responded to Lowery's invitation to "all those who do justice and love mercy" to say "Amen" with one of her own.